By Raphael Parens
(FPRI) — After bulldozing trucks and shooting down government aircraft, Wagner Group’s columns, which had been advancing northward from Rostov, stalled out miles from Moscow. Their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, had come to an agreement with the Russian government. Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka acted as an intermediary.
After capturing Russian military headquarters in Rostov and Voronezh, Wagner agreed to withdraw and its leader, Prigozhin, agreed to exit to Belarus in exchange for charges against him to be dropped. However, the group’s future is now in doubt, as is their leader. Wagner’s continuity or destruction will have far-ranging effects, from Ukraine to Africa.
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s decision to leave Ukraine and conduct military operations against the Russian state—operations that appear to have caused deaths in the Russian air force and destruction of public property—reflected a breakdown in the relationship between the group and the Russian Ministry of Defense. The two forces have been at odds since Wagner Group began operations in Ukraine, with Prigozhin castigating Gen. Valery Gerasimov and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for their battlefield losses and unwillingness to supply Wagner with adequate ammunition. These tensions boiled over when Wagner Group accused the Ministry of Defense of conducting missile attacks against one of its field camps. Prigozhin used this provocation to deadly effect, moving several convoys into Russia and threatening Moscow in less than a day.
Wagner’s survival and continuity now appear up for debate, in turn depending on Prigozhin’s livelihood. The Kremlin could proceed forward in a number of ways here, with all paths featuring requisite dangers. First, should Prigozhin be killed or lose control of his company via a hostile takeover, Wagner Group’s future could certainly be in doubt. Vladimir Putin’s regime has a long history of hostile takeovers of Russia’s biggest businesses, including most famously Yukos Oil Company from Mikhail Khodorkovsky, often through a series of tax fraud investigations and market manipulations. Yet, Prigozhin’s personal touch and business acumen have been essential to the group’s overseas successes, particularly in Africa, so a change in management may not be as easy as expected. Further, Wagner Group is a collection of businesses and shell companies with ownership structures across the Russian business landscape, which could make such a task prohibitively difficult. At the ground level, it’s unclear whether Wagner operatives will accept a hostile takeover, particularly if it affects their pay.
Instead, the Kremlin could maintain its current path, slowly pushing Wagner Group to align with the Russian Ministry of Defense during the war in Ukraine, while keeping the group nominally independent in Africa. This path, however, is also likely easier said than done. Wagner recruits may be disinterested in joining Ministry of Defense formations in Ukraine due to worse pay and worse food. Meanwhile, allowing Prigozhin to continue to operate his business after his aborted mutiny could make Putin look weak.
Last, Russia could unilaterally pull out support for the Wagner Group in Africa, cutting ties with the group on both continents. This approach may cause a significant diplomatic backlash against the Russian state from former partners, particularly as many of these countries are facing mounting insurgencies and have few outside options for support. Further, if the Wagner Group were to survive in any of these countries without the Russian state’s support, it would both validate Wagner’s model while weakening the Kremlin’s image.
In this last scenario, the Wagner Group’s future in Africa will necessarily vary by country. If the Russian state chooses to cut its support entirely, Wagner operations in the Central African Republic (CAR) will likely survive, whereas the Group’s future in Mali, Sudan, and Burkina Faso will likely be limited. In CAR, Wagner has built a diversified and vast network of economic activities, including diamond and gold mining, forestry, coffee, and alcohol production, which would allow the group to survive in-country without Kremlin support. Surely, Wagner would suffer without access to Russian military supplies and transport flights, but its operations in CAR are profitable enough that it could continue operating there. Further, the Touadera regime is so tied in with the group that they have few other options in terms of security assistance partners.
Wagner’s operations in Mali are different than CAR in terms of economic involvement and relationship with the government. In Mali, Wagner has largely failed to secure the suite of economic activities that it has found in CAR. Instead, Mali’s competitive mining industry, including both Canadian and local groups, has blocked the group’s preferred method of operations. Instead, Wagner is reliant on lump sum monthly payments of $10 million from the Malian government. Should the Russian state pull its support from Wagner Group, some in the Malian armed forces believe that the junta government will be forced to side with the Kremlin, despite Wagner Group’s contributions to the country’s counterterror campaign, particularly in an air support role. Still, Wagner’s role in the country’s current security infrastructure should not be ignored, particularly as the junta government in Mali has burned bridges with France and the United Nations, kicking out both Operation Barkhane and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Mali will already be facing a significant security vacuum in the areas formerly held by UN forces, who controlled much of the country’s northern regions. Mali has few, if any, remaining allies to turn to, which may lead it to move closer to Russia.
Meanwhile, in Burkina Faso and Sudan, Wagner Group has not established the same foothold as in CAR or Mali, and its operations are likely tied to the Russian state. Despite the scene being set for a Wagner operation in Burkina Faso, no such operations have occurred, likely reflecting Wagner Group’s own priorities and constraints in Ukraine. Meanwhile, despite some involvement in gold mining and weapons supply support for the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan, Wagner Group has not definitively committed to one side or the other, likely waiting on the sideline to determine a winner. In both cases, a Russian decommitment from Wagner Group will almost certainly block future operations, except perhaps Wagner Group’s continued gold mining in Sudan.
African leaders were likely taken aback by this level of infighting in Russia, and it should encourage some to reconsider their security relationships. While Wagner Group has offered African states a connection with the Russian state and a black box mercenary force willing to commit a litany of crimes in the name of state security, this dual-track approach may be fading to the wayside. Wagner Group’s current uncertain future is a warning sign to those considering employing the group—a mercenary group tied to a state, yet one which competes with elements of that state, is not a long-term, durable instrument. African leaders ought to consider the immediate effects if Wagner Group forces were withdrawn overnight—and whether their regimes could survive the next six months thereafter.
Similarly, Western states are also faced with a broad array of challenges when confronting Russian influence and jihadism in the Sahel. While strategic reengagement with Mali, Burkina Faso, CAR, and others seems like the prudent decision, Western leaders must also weigh the issues created by supporting illiberal regimes, particularly ones that have a history of crimes against minority, especially Muslim, populations. Thus, a military response to a request for aid from any new partner in the Sahel must necessarily be combined with an approach that addresses gaps in civil society, local infrastructure, and governance.
Should Wagner Group be disbanded, it will not be the end of state-sponsored mercenary operations in Africa. Mercenary-ism itself in Africa is nothing new, but Wagner Group’s economic exploitation example, particularly in CAR, will certainly be copied by other oligarchs from Russia, Turkey, China, the Middle East, or elsewhere. Thus, beyond countering the Wagner Group alone, the West will need to find durable strategies to combat the influence of a broad range of private military contractors in the Global South.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
About the author: Raphael Parens is a Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program and an international security researcher focused on Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. He specializes in small armed groups and NATO modernization processes.
Source: This article was published by FPRI