Russia is intensifying its competition with the United States in Africa. In its asymmetric race, Russia uses actors that are theoretically private, but in fact linked to the state, such as the private security company Wagner Group and the infamous St. Petersburg “troll farm”, the Internet Research Agency (IRA). Both pose a major threat to democracy and the rule of law in Africa and beyond.
In its African strategy, the Kremlin is motivated above all by the desire to thwart American political objectives, almost regardless of their substance. Considering Africa “one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities”, Russian President Vladimir Putin also seeks to create African dependencies on Moscow’s military assets and access to African resources, targeting countries with fragile governments but often rich in important raw materials, such as oil, gold, diamonds, uranium and manganese. Russian private security companies such as the Wagner Group claim to resolve the complex local military and terrorist conflicts that African governments have struggled with. They also provide these governments with the ability to conduct counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations without being constrained by human rights responsibilities, unlike the United States, allowing African governments to be as brutal in their military endeavors as they wish. In turn, Russia seeks to be paid in the form of concessions for natural resources, substantial commercial contracts or access to strategic locations, such as air bases or ports.
Moscow’s Hybrid War Strategy in Africa
Since 2006, Putin has sought to rebuild Russia’s presence and role in Africa, significantly weakened after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Between 2015 and 2019, Moscow signed 19 military collaboration agreements with African governments . The collaboration has largely focused on Russian arms sales.
More importantly, however, the expansion of Russian influence in Africa has focused on the use of private security companies to provide counterinsurgency and counterterrorism training and advice to local governments struggling to counter activism. The expansion of their presence across the continent is taking place despite the fact that since March 2018, Russia has banned mercenary activity under Article 359 of its criminal code. In addition to avoiding official Russian military casualties and thus public outcry and overseeing overseas deployments, private security firms provide plausible denial to the Kremlin. Moscow disavows all command and control over them to absolve itself of their problematic behavior, such as gross human rights violations and abuses against civilians. They also provide an indirect tool for military confrontations with the United States without directly involving Russian troops. In 2018, some 300 Wagner Group contractors, for example, clashed with US special operations forces in Deir el-Zour, Syria. Beyond supporting Moscow-aligned governments, Russian contractors are also a source of intelligence for the Kremlin.
Russia’s use of mercenary gear to advance Moscow’s goals has its roots in the 1990s when Russian private security companies, like the Moran Security Group and the Slavonic Corps, began providing security services to Russian businessmen in Africa. However, the main turning point for Moscow’s systematic use of Kremlin-related private security actors was 2014, when Western sanctions levied on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Donbass. The Wagner Group – founded by a former special operations forces officer at the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU) – played a leading role in operations in Ukraine, providing the Kremlin with insight into its capabilities and usefulness for maneuvers elsewhere in the world. Like the IRA, the Wagner Group is said to have funded Kremlin-linked oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The Wagner Group in Africa
In recent years, Wagner Group contractors have been deployed across the Middle East and Africa, including Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Central African Republic and Mali , focusing primarily on protecting ruling or emerging ruling elites and critical actors. infrastructure.
In 2017, for example, the Wagner Group deployed some 500 troops to quell local uprisings against the government of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir. As payment, Prigozhin received exclusive rights to mine gold in Sudan, channeled through his company M-Invest. Before his overthrow in April 2019, Bashir offered a naval base on the Red Sea to Moscow.
In the Central African Republic (CAR), the Wagner group has since 2018 supported the weak government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, whose mandate extends little beyond the capital, against various rebel groups. His arrival in the CAR coincided with a Prigozhin-related company obtaining diamond and gold mining licenses. The Russian security firm has been widely accused of carrying out serious human rights abuses and harassing peacekeepers, journalists, aid workers and minorities. Wagner’s presence puts the Central African government at odds with the United Nations and Western governments, which are increasingly demanding that the CAR end its relations with Russian society or risk losing their aid. In December, the European Union suspended its military training mission in the country.
Libya’s geostrategic location on the Mediterranean coast and its oil and other natural resources have also attracted Russian private security companies linked to Moscow and the Kremlin. With access to only one port in the Mediterranean, in the Syrian settlement of Tartous, Russia’s military presence in the region cannot compete with NATO’s Standing Naval Force in the Mediterranean (STANAVFORMED) and the Sixth Fleet of the United States Navy based in Naples. But inserting itself into the ongoing civil war, the Wagner Group deployed units to Libya in 2019 to support warlord Khalifa Hifter during his attack on the capital Tripoli. The Wagner Group provided advisory, assistance and training capabilities and, using indiscriminate means such as exploiting civilian areas, helped Hifter gain control of some of Libya’s oil fields. Like other foreign mercenaries and militias active in the country, the Wagner Group ignored the UN-sponsored Berlin Conference’s request to leave. Russia has denied any responsibility for the Wagner Group’s actions in Libya and their deleterious effects on UN peace mediation efforts.
Since 2017, the al-Shabab insurgency in Mozambique has begun to sweep through the northern province of Cabo Delgado. Unable to stop al-Shabab’s expansion, the government contracted the Wagner Group for a counterinsurgency operation in the fall of 2019, expanding its previous contract to operate as the Mozambican president’s praetorian guard. However, given its inability to understand the local insurgency and the native military forces with which it was to collaborate, the Wagner Group’s operations failed spectacularly.
Among the Wagner Group’s latest worrying deployments in Africa is Mali, where Islamist militants remain strong and governance poor and irresponsible. A complex set of numerous jihadist terrorist groups and regional Tuareg movements and other autonomy movements operate in the country. Among them are dangerous Al-Qaeda Sahel affiliates such as Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) as well as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS). France has been engaged militarily in Mali since 2013, supported by other European countries and the United States as well as African countries as part of the G5 Sahel Joint Task Force, but has achieved no resolute defeats from the militants. Now tired of the quagmire of governance and counterinsurgency, France is set to halve its contingent to 2,500 troops in 2022. An already weakened military junta that took power in August 2020 is turning to the Russians. With access to uranium, diamond and gold mines as likely gains, a deployment of 1,000 Wagner Group contractors was to train Malian soldiers and protect the country’s government officials. Faced with both Western reaction and domestic outcry, the Malian government denied any presence of the Wagner group at the end of December. Such a presence would seriously compromise the sustainability and effectiveness of Western counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism support operations and would likely contribute to a further deterioration of human rights in Mali.
Russia’s low-cost hybrid warfare in Africa and competition with the United States and its allies goes beyond the military into disinformation tactics. In Africa, as elsewhere in the world, including in the United States during the 2016 presidential election, propagandists of disinformation like the IRA seek to spark social conflict within societies and undermine support for the democracy. The IRA sought to manipulate the 2018 presidential election in Madagascar, for example. Meanwhile, in Mali, the IRA has accused French counter-insurgency operations of being a front to exploit local uranium mines.
To counter their problematic actions, Washington imposed sanctions on individuals and entities linked to the Wagner Group and the IRA; the EU followed. However, as with the sanctions imposed on Russian government officials, these sanctions have not resulted in relevant behavioral changes.
Despite UN and Western criticism of the Wagner Group’s conduct in Africa and threats of Western financial consequences for African governments that hire the Russian security firm and allow it to carry out human rights abuses rights and civil liberties, the Wagner group – encouraged by the Kremlin and doing its bidding – is very likely to stay in Africa. Sanctions are unlikely to change that. But the Wagner Group’s own failures and the counterproductive effects of its actions could ultimately reduce its appeal to African governments.