Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the emergence of the United States of America as the sole remaining superpower, Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin has aggressively sought to reassert Russian influence on the world stage. In pursuit of this foreign policy goal, Russia has taken overt action, such as invading Ukraine and propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and covert action through private military companies (PMCs) like Wagner Group. Wagner Group contractors can currently be found on four continents carrying out a wide variety of missions in support of Russian interests. That said, Africa with its vast natural resources and overall political instability has been an ideal location for the deployment of Wagner Group. Even though Russia has laws making the use or creation of PMCs legally dubious, the use of Wagner Group by Russia has been an effective means of achieving Russia’s foreign policy goals in Africa.
Wagner Group: De Facto Russian
While Wagner Group is largely recruited from Russian military and security forces, Wagner Group is not legally a Russian entity since the Russian Criminal Code bans the use or creation of PMCs in Russia. Nevertheless, Wagner Group is a de facto Russian force even if it is not Russian de jure; Wagner Group receives almost all of their training in Russia, usually on or adjacent to Russian military bases, and has extensive connections to the Russian government, through the close relationship between Wagner Group’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and Vladimir Putin himself. However, because Moscow can claim that it has no legal authority over Russian PMCs, Russia is able to further its goals while also being legally shielded when allegations emerge such as Wagner Group engaging in war crimes and human rights abuse while fighting a jihadist insurgency in Mali.
History of Wagner Group in Africa
While Russian mercenaries have provided security for Russian businessmen in Africa since the 1990s, the first widespread deployment to Africa of PMCs linked to Moscow was in 2017 when Wagner Group arrived in Libya to provide advising and support to the Russian-backed Libyan National Army in their fight against the UN-backed Government of National Accord in the Second Libyan Civil War. By 2019, up to 2,000 Wagner Group contractors were in Libya actively fighting on the front-lines against the GNA using heavy arms and vehicles that are typically reserved for Russian armed forces. Also in 2017, up to 500 Wagner Group contractors arrived in Sudan to provide training to Sudanese armed forces and likely provide protection to Russia-owned gold mines in order to strengthen then President Omar Al-Bashir’s control over the country. Wagner Group also arrived in the Central African Republic at the start of 2018 to train local forces on how to use Russian small arms alongside acting as bodyguards and advisors to the President of the CAR.
In contrast, Wagner Group advisors first arrived in Madagascar in spring of 2018 not to provide physical security, but to advise incumbent President Hery Rajaonarimampianina’s failed reelection campaign before switching to military training (allegedly with the assistance of Federal Security Service and GRU). In Mozambique, Wagner contractors arrived in September 2019 to fight Isalmist insurgents in the Cabo Delgado province. However, Wagner Group was forced to retreat from the province with heavy losses, due to difficulties fighting in the dense brush and poor relations with the Mozambique army, which led to Wagner Group being replaced with a South African PMC. Since 2017, Russian PMCs have additionally been spotted in Egypt, Chad, Nigeria, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Eswantini and several other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. While the current war in Ukraine has led to Wagner Group pulling many of its more experienced contractors out of Africa to be sent to Eastern Europe, a significant number of Wagner Group contractors are still providing security and advice to African governments.
Impact and Importance of Wagner Group vis-à-vis Russian Interests
Beyond simply propping up governments that are likely to be beneficial to Russian interests in the region, Wagner Group and their actions in Africa have done a great deal to increase Russia’s power abroad. Countries like CAR, Egypt, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan that have used Wagner Group have all assured Russia that it will be able to build bases inside their borders, therefore providing Russia with staging grounds for potential future conflicts. While Russia has yet to develop these bases, a potential naval base in Sudan on the Red Sea would not only extend Russia’s naval range but also allow Russia to establish chokeholds on the Suez Canal and Bab al-Mandab Strait. Additionally, the relative success of Wagner Group in carrying out its missions has shown Africans that they do not have to rely solely on the West as a source of outside help but instead can turn to Russia to provide arms and security both overtly and covertly, which enhances Russia’s image on the global stage.
Perhaps just as important as the soft and hard power that Russia has acquired in Africa is the economic benefit that comes from the use of PMCs. In return for Russia sending Wagner Group to help his ultimately failed reelection, the President of Madagascar (a country that is rich in gold, cobalt, nickel, and uranium reserves) promised Moscow and Russian companies lucrative access agreements to these nearly untapped resources. Parallel agreements have been made with CAR and Sudan, allowing Russia easy access to resources that could help it increase its wealth and economic power. Similarly, China has over the past decade been building relationships with African governments by investing in the economy and infrastructure of the continent as a way to improve China’s international influence and gain advantageous contracts for Africa’s natural resources. As these natural resources become increasingly more vital to industry and development, Russia’s lucrative access to these resources may be enough to return Russia to a superpower status.
While Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine and standoff with NATO has drawn much of the world’s attention, Russia is still very much active in Africa with Wagner Group. In February 2023, France was forced to remove 400 troops that had been in Burkina Faso since 2010 due in part to Wagner Group and Russia waging a disinformation campaign that presented France as collaborating with jihadist insurgents in order to steal Burkina Faso’s natural wealth. It is believed that the withdrawn French troops will be replaced with Wagner Group contractors, allowing Moscow to build a relationship with yet another African country around providing security for natural resources. While not every Wagner Group deployment has been successful – the PMC failed to reach its official goals in Mozambique and Madagascar – every country where Wagner Group has been deployed has seen closer relations with Moscow. Although the African Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism prohibits states from allowing mercenaries like Wagner Group and other PMCs into their territory, Russia’s behavior in Ukraine shows that international law is not a strong deterrent to Russia. Furthermore, invoking this convention would only bring up questions about the United States’ use of PMCs like Blackwater in the War on Terror. As long as Russia seeks to regain the world power it once wielded as the Soviet Union, PMCs like Wagner Group will be sent to developing countries around the world to ensure that Russia becomes capable of successfully challenging the United States and its partners.
Author Biography: Tyler Capps is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. Candidate at The George Washington University Law School. He has a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Florida.
Editor: Elizabeth Duncan, GW Law J.D. Candidate, 2024.