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Wagner Group is now Africa Corps. What this means for Russia’s operations on the continent

In August 2023, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin died after his private jet crashed about an hour after taking off in Moscow. He had been Russia’s pointsman in Africa since the Wagner Group began operating on the continent in 2017.

The group is known for deploying paramilitary forces, running disinformation campaigns and propping up influential political leaders. It has had a destabilising effect. Prigozhin’s death – and his aborted mutiny against Russian military commanders two months earlier – has led to a shift in Wagner Group’s activities.

What does this mean for Africa? Alessandro Arduino’s research includes mapping the evolution of mercenaries and private military companies across Africa. He provides some answers.

What is the current status of the Wagner Group?

Following Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death, the Russian ministries of foreign affairs and defence quickly reassured Middle Eastern and African states that it would be business as usual – meaning unofficial Russian boots on the ground would keep operating in these regions.

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Recent reports on the Wagner Group suggest a transformation is underway.

The group’s activities in Africa are now under the direct supervision of the Russian Ministry of Defence.

Wagner commands an estimated force of 5,000 operatives deployed throughout Africa, from Libya to Sudan. As part of the transformation, the defence ministry has renamed it the Africa Corps.

The choice of name could be an attempt to add a layer of obfuscation to cover what has been in plain sight for a long time. That Russian mercenaries in Africa serve one master – the Kremlin.

Nevertheless, the direct link to Russia’s Ministry of Defence will make it difficult for Russia to argue that a foreign government has requested the services of a Russian private military company without the Kremlin’s involvement. The head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs attempted to use this defence in Mali.

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The notion of transforming the group into the Africa Corps may have been inspired by World War II German field marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Nazi Germany wove myths around his strategic and tactical successes in North Africa.

But will the Wagner Group under new leadership uphold the distinctive modus operandi that propelled it to infamy during Prigozhin’s reign? This included the intertwining of boots on the ground with propaganda and disinformation. It also leveraged technologies and a sophisticated network of financing to enhance combat capabilities.

What will happen to Wagner’s modus operandi now?

In my recent book, Money for Mayhem: Mercenaries, Private Military Companies, Drones and the Future of War, I record Prigozhin’s adept weaving of disinformation and misinformation.

Numerous meticulously orchestrated campaigns flooded Africa’s online social platforms promoting the removal of French and Western influence across the Sahel.

Prigozhin oversaw the creation of the Internet Research Agency, which operated as the propaganda arm of the group. It supported Russian disinformation campaigns and was sanctioned in 2018 by the US government for meddling in American elections. Prigozhin admitted to founding the so-called troll farm:

I’ve never just been the financier of the Internet Research Agency. I invented it, I created it, I managed it for a long time.

From a financial perspective, Prigozhin’s approach involved establishing a convoluted network of lucrative natural resources mining operations. These spanned gold mines in the Central African Republic to diamond mines in Sudan.

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This strategy was complemented by significant cash infusions from the Russian state to support the Wagner Group’s direct involvement in hostilities. This extended from Syria to Ukraine and across north and west Africa.

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My research shows that Prigozhin networks are solid enough to last. But only as long as the golden rule of the mercenary remains intact: guns for hire are getting paid.

In Libya and Mali, Russia is unlikely to yield ground due to enduring geopolitical objectives. These include generating revenue from oil fields, securing access to ports for its navy and securing its position as a kingmaker in the region. However, the Central African Republic may see less attention from Moscow. The Wagner Group’s involvement here was primarily linked to Prigozhin’s personal interests in goldmine revenues.

The Russian Ministry of Defence will no doubt seek to create a unified and loyal force dedicated to military action. But with the enduring legacy of Soviet-style bureaucracy, marked by excessive paperwork and procrastination in today’s Russian officials, one might surmise that greater allegiance to Moscow will likely come at the cost of reduced flexibility.

History has shown that Africa serves as a lucrative arena for mercenaries due to various factors. These include:

  • the prevalence of low-intensity conflicts reduces the risks to mercenaries’ lives compared to full-scale wars like in Ukraine
  • the continent’s abundant natural resources are prone to exploitation
  • pervasive instability allows mercenaries to operate with relative impunity.

As it is, countries in Africa once considered allies of the West are looking for alternatives. Russia is increasingly looking like a viable candidate. In January 2024, Chad’s junta leader, Mahamat Idriss Deby, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to “develop bilateral ties”. Chad previously had taken a pro-western policy.

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A month earlier, Russia’s deputy defence minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who’s been tasked with overseeing Wagner’s activities in the Middle East and North Africa, visited Niger. The two countries agreed to strengthen military ties. Niger is currently led by the military after a coup in July 2023.

Where does it go from here?

There are several paths that the newly named Africa Corps could take.

  • It gets deployed by Moscow to fight in conflicts meeting Russia’s geopolitical ends.
  • It morphs into paramilitary units under the guise of Russian foreign military intelligence agencies.
  • It splinters into factions, acting as heavily armed personal guards for local warlords.

The propaganda machinery built by Prigozhin may falter during the transition. But this won’t signal the immediate disappearance of the Russian disinformation ecosystem.

Russian diplomatic efforts are already mobilising to preserve the status quo. This is clear from Moscows’s backing of the recent Alliance of Sahelian States encompassing Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. All three nations are led by military rulers who overthrew civilian governments a recently announced plans to exit from the 15-member Economic Community of West African States.

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By ALESSANDRO ARDUINO

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