Paris (AFP)- Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in Africa have been supported in recent years by private military contractors, often described as belonging to the “Wagner Group”, an entity with no known legal status.
More recently, Western countries have condemned the alleged arrival of Russian mercenaries in Bamako, the capital of Mali, a claim denied by the junta that took power in 2020.
As relations with France deteriorate, military leaders may be looking for ways to make up for dwindling numbers of European troops fighting Mali’s years-old jihadist insurgency.
“Mercenaries (mercenaries) working in Africa are an established norm” thanks in part to decades of operations by South African contractors, said Jason Blazakis of the New York-based think tank Soufan Group.
“The Wagner people are walking through a long-open door to their ilk,” he added.
No information is publicly available on the group’s size or finances.
But around Africa, Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has since 2016 found evidence of Russian soldiers of fortune in Sudan, South Sudan, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Madagascar and Mozambique.
Botswana, Burundi, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria and Zimbabwe are also on the CSIS list.
In Africa, “there is a convergence of the interests of many states, including those of China,” Alexey Mukhin of the Moscow-based Political Information Center told AFP.
“Every state has the right to defend its commercial assets,” he added.
Wagner does not officially exist, with no business registration, tax return, or organizational chart to be found.
When the EU sought to sanction the group in 2020, it targeted Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin suspected of leading Wagner.
He imposed new sanctions in December last year when the arrival of mercenaries in Mali appeared certain, prompting accusations of “hysteria” from Moscow.
Western experts say military contractors are embedded into official Russian forces like intelligence agencies and the military, providing plausible denial to Moscow.
Their deployment in African countries is aimed at “enabling Russia to… regain that sphere of influence” that collapsed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, said CSIS researcher Catrina Doxsee.
The presence of mercenaries has grown even faster since a Russia-Africa summit in 2019.
Moscow has been active “especially in what has traditionally been France’s zone of influence” in former colonies like CAR and Mali, said Djallil Lounnas, a researcher at Morocco’s Al Akhawayn University.
While military contractors sometimes direct Russian arms sales, the revenue “really pales in comparison to the profits they are able to generate from mining concessions and access to natural resources,” Doxsee said.
This makes unstable countries rich in minerals or hydrocarbons privileged customers, as in Syria where the mercenaries first made themselves known to the general public.
No questions asked
Lounnas said another advantage for clients is the lack of friction over human rights and democracy that might come with Western partners.
“Russia has its interests. It does not ask questions,” he added.
Reports of violence and abuse on the ground suggest that the same latitude could extend to the mercenaries themselves.
In CAR, the United Nations is investigating an alleged massacre during a joint operation by government forces and Wagnerian fighters.
A military source told AFP that more than 50 people died, some during “summary executions”.
On Thursday, the European Union said it would not resume military training in the CAR – suspended since mid-December – unless the country’s soldiers stop working for Wagner.
Meanwhile, the results of mercenaries do not always live up to the hopes of the governments that hire them.
In Libya, Russian mercenaries suffered heavy losses during Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s year-long attempt to conquer the capital Tripoli, which ultimately failed.
And in Mozambique, the Russians fell back to the Islamic State group’s jihadists, ultimately losing to their South African rivals.
Although lacking in language skills and experience with the field, Wagner “was chosen because he was the cheapest,” Doxsee said.
“They didn’t have what it took to succeed,” she added, noting that “they had quite a few failures” across Africa.
Completely succeeding could actually harm the mercenary business model, which thrives on unrest, conflict, and crisis.
“If a country like the CAR hires them to train forces, to help them with their military endeavors, it’s in their interest to do that just well enough to continue to be employed,” Doxsee said.
“If they really did it well enough to resolve the conflict, they would no longer be needed.”
© 2022 AFP