The Wagner Group’s presence stretches from the ancient battlefields of Syria to the deserts of sub-Saharan Africa, projecting the Kremlin’s global influence through mercenaries accused of terrorist crimes. using brute force And take advantage of the mineral wealth that they seized.
But that was under Yevgeny Prigozhin, who in his latest video released earlier this week appears in military fatigues and an assault rifle from a dry, dusty, uncharted plain while boasting that Wagner is “making Russia greater on all continents.” Africa is freer.
On Wednesday, a private plane carrying Prigozhin and his senior aides arrived in the mercenary group It crashed northwest of MoscowAfter two months of driving it Armed rebellion Which constitutes a challenge to the authority of President Vladimir Putin. There is widespread speculation that Prigozhin, who is presumed dead, He was targeted for his uprisingAlthough the Kremlin denied its involvement.
This collapse raised questions about the future of the Wagner Group.
And in African countries where Wagner has provided security against groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State, officials and commentators expect Russia will likely maintain its presence and bring forces under new command.
Others, however, say Prigozhin has built deep personal relationships that Moscow might find difficult to replace quickly.
Africa is of vital importance to Russia Economically and politically.
This summer, Wagner helped secure a national referendum in the Central African Republic, which consolidated presidential power; It is a key partner for the Malian army in fighting armed rebels; And I contacted the Military Council in Niger, which wants its services after the coup.
Expanding ties and undermining Western influence in Africa is a top priority as the Kremlin searches for new allies amid its war in Ukraine, where Wagner’s forces also helped win a key battle. The 54 African nations are the largest voting bloc in the United Nations, and Moscow has actively garnered its support for its invasion.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said Friday that Wagner’s forces “are destabilizing, and we have encouraged countries in Africa to condemn their presence as well as their actions.”
The Republican Front in Central African Republic, which is allied with the ruling party, on Thursday reiterated its support for Russia and Wagner, saying they were “determined to fight alongside the African people in their struggle for self-determination”.
Wagner’s forces acted as bodyguards for President Faustin-Archange Touadera, protecting the capital Bangui from rebel threats and helping secure the constitutional referendum on July 30 that could extend his power indefinitely.
Central African activist and blogger Christian Aime Nduta said the country’s cooperation with Russia would not be affected by the new leadership with Wagner, which has been “entrenched” there for years.
But some in the Central African Republic condemn the mercenaries, and the United Nations peacekeeping mission there criticized them in 2021 for human rights abuses.
“The security of the state is its sovereignty. You cannot entrust the security of a state to a group of mercenaries,” said Jean-Serge Bokassa, former Minister of Public Security.
Natalia Dukhan, senior researcher at The Sentry, predicted that the Kremlin would try to bring Africa into its orbit.
“Wagner has been a successful tool for Russia to expand its influence efficiently and brutally,” she said. Amid all the turmoil between Putin and Prigozhin, Operation Wagner deepened in Central Africa, with increased direct involvement by the Russian government.
Lou Osborne of All Eyes on Wagner, a project focused on the group, said Wagner’s high-level clients have built relationships in Mali and CAR and understand the terrain.
“They have a good reputation, and they could sell it to another Russian competitor. It wouldn’t be surprising if a new organization took over,” Osborne said, noting that Russian military contractors in Ukraine, such as Redut and Convoy, have recently expressed interest in doing business in Africa.
Redut was created by the Russian Defense Ministry, which sought to bring the Wagner Group under its control. After the June mutiny, Putin said mercenaries could sign contracts with the ministry and continue to serve under one of the group’s top commanders, Andrei Troshev. It was not clear how many troops would be accepted, but media reports put the number at several thousand.
The Kremlin still faces challenges maintaining the strong presence in Africa that Prigozhin helped establish.
Putin’s former speechwriter, Abbas Galliamov, said that Prigozhin may have been allowed to continue his activities after the Russian authorities had to find people to take over his work.
“Time was needed to create new channels and new mechanisms to control those projects,” he said. “And it’s not a fact that they succeeded in that. It is possible that they failed and the Kremlin may lose some of those projects.”
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Prigozhin’s death “would certainly have a deeply destabilizing effect on the Wagner Group”.
“His personal traits of hyperactivity, exceptional daring, desire for results and extreme brutality permeated Wagner and are unlikely to be matched by any successor,” the statement read.
On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on Wagner’s future.
For Prigozhin, who set up Wagner in 2014, its missions were not just about boosting Russia’s global influence. His contractors in Syria, Libya, Sudan and elsewhere exploited those countries’ mineral and energy riches to enrich himself.
CAR MP and opposition leader Martin Zigelle said Wagner was active in gold mining, timber and other industries – without paying taxes.
“We can only conclude that it was looted,” he said.
Prigozhin struck a deal with Putin after the rebellion saw Wagner’s mercenaries go to Belarus in exchange for amnesty, and the mercenary chief has spoken repeatedly since then of expanding his activities in Africa. He was seen flirting with African officials at a recent summit in St. Petersburg.
He quickly welcomed last month’s military coup that ousted Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum. The SCAF reached out to Wagner, but the group’s response was vague and there was no visible presence of Russian mercenaries there—other than the crowds waving Russian and Wagner flags at the protests.
While US officials have not confirmed that Russia or Wagner had any role in the coup, there are fears that the Kremlin could exploit this to weaken Western positions in West Africa, where mercenaries are active in Mali and suspected of being in Burkina Faso.
Nigeriens say Prigozhin’s supposed death will not stop Russia from trying to expand its influence.
“Our belief is that Russia wants to have a base here and be popular. They obviously want to be here,” Baro Slimane, a tailor in Niamey, told The Associated Press. Since the coup, he said, he has sewed more than 150 Russian flags in one month. .
And we pray to God to strengthen the relationship with (Wagner) to continue the deal. “If the relationship is good and strong, it is possible for them to continue the deal even after his death,” Al-Khamees said.
And in neighboring Mali, the military junta that seized power in 2020 expelled French troops, diplomats and media outlets, and ordered the end of a decade-long United Nations peacekeeping mission.
Although not officially recognized by the Malian authorities, Wagner’s forces are known to operate in the rural north, where insurgent and extremist groups have eroded state power and tormented communities.
Human Rights Watch says that the Malian army, along with suspected Wagner mercenaries, have committed summary executions, looting, enforced disappearances, and other abuses.
“What we witnessed through Wagner is the massacre that our people were subjected to,” said Ali Nohoum Diallo, the former president of the National Assembly.
Yuba Khalifa, a resident of Timbuktu, said Wagner’s presence in Mali would not change after Prigozhin because “they will replace him with another leader.”
Although Prigozhin informed his forces in Belarus that their new mission would be in Africa, several thousand of them trained the Belarusian army near the Polish border, prompting Warsaw to reinforce its forces there. However, there were signs that the mercenaries were preparing to withdraw to Russia.
The Belarussian Hagun Group, a group that monitors Russian forces in Belarus, said on Thursday that satellite imagery showed more than a third of the tents at Camp Wagner had been dismantled, in a sign of a possible mass exodus. However, President Alexander Lukashenko insists that his country will host about 10,000 soldiers.
This raises strong objections from the Belarusian opposition, which calls for their withdrawal.
“Prigozhin’s death should put an end to Wagner’s presence in Belarus, which will reduce the threat to our country and its neighbors,” exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told the Associated Press.
Wissam Madnak in Niamey, Niger; Zane Irwin in Dakar, Senegal; Jean Fernand Koina in Bangui, Central African Republic; Edith m. Lederer at the United Nations; Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali; Jurass Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia contributed.