How the Russian Wagner Group is growing in Africa

Mercenaries are experiencing a resurgence in Africa, hired to fight in some of the continent’s most intractable conflicts. Perhaps the ...

Mercenaries are experiencing a resurgence in Africa, hired to fight in some of the continent’s most intractable conflicts. Perhaps the most famous group is the Wagner Group, a nebulous network that combines military might with commercial and strategic interests, now at the forefront of Russia’s growing ambitions in Africa.

Wagner’s fighters were active in the Mali wars, Central African Republic, mozambique and Libya. They ally themselves with beleaguered leaders and militia commanders who can pay for their services in cash, or with lucrative mining concessions for valuable minerals like gold, diamonds, and uranium. Wagnerian troops faced frequent accusations torture, killings of civilians and other abuses.

But Wagner is more than just a guns-for-gold scheme. Operating through a sprawling network of front companies, it has become synonymous with a wide range of Kremlin-backed operations in more than a dozen African countries. Wagner meddles in politics, supports autocrats and orchestrates digital propaganda campaigns. He gives food to the poor and produces action movies located in Africa. He has even organized a beauty contest.

The Kremlin denies any connection with Wagner. But American and European officials, as well as most experts, say that it is an unofficial tool of Russian power – a cheap and deniable way for President Vladimir V. Putin to expand his reach, bolster his war chest against Western sanctions, and expand his influence on a continent where sympathy for Russia remains relatively high.

“It’s a power play on Russia’s part,” said Pauline Bax, deputy director for Africa at the International Crisis Group. “Through Wagner, he wants to see how far he can expand his influence in Africa. I think the results surprised a lot of people.

Here’s a look at how Wagner spread across Africa and why his operations are increasingly important to Mr. Putin.

Wagner appeared during Mr Putin’s first assault on Ukraine in 2014, when his mercenaries fought alongside pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region. Its commander was Dmitry Utkin, a retired Russian special forces commander who says he was fascinated by Nazi history and culture.

The band’s name and Mr. Utkin’s military call sign are taken from composer Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite. Some of the group’s fighters share this ideology: ancient Norse symbols favored by white extremists have been photographed on Wagner material in Africa and the Middle East.

Wagner expanded to Syria in 2015, tasked with backing President Bashar al-Assad and seizing oil and gas fields, US officials said. In 2016, Mr. Putin presented Mr. Utkin with military honors at a banquet in the Kremlin. A year later, the United States imposed sanctions against Mr Utkin for his activities with Wagner.

The group turned their sights to Africa in 2017 under the apparent leadership of Yevgeny V. Prigozhina Russian tycoon known as “Putin’s boss”.

Like Mr Putin, Mr Prigozhin hails from St Petersburg, where he once ran a hot dog stand before starting a catering business that thrived on lucrative Kremlin contracts. United States charged him in 2018 on charges of funding a Russian troll factory accused of interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

In Africa, Wagner began advising tottering dictators, running disinformation campaigns on social media and deploying teams of fake election observers, according to Western officials, experts and United Nations investigators. Companies linked to Mr. Prigozhin operated gold and diamond mines.

Mr. Prigozhin denies any connection with Wagner, and has even questioned the existence of the group. “Wagner’s legend is just a legend,” he said in a written response to questions.

He may be technically right: No longer a single company, Wagner has become the brand name of an unofficial Russian network spanning the entire continent, experts say.

Since 2016, the United States. imposed at least seven rounds of sanctions on Mr. Prigozhin, his companies and associates, single out his yacht and three private jets. Facebook and Twitter have deleted hundreds of fake accounts run by his associates. Russian investigative news organizations have documented his close ties to Mr. Putin and the Russian Defense Ministry.

This profile makes Mr. Prigozhin quite different from other Russian oligarchs who made their fortunes from Russian state privatizations in the 1990s, experts say.

“He’s not an independent businessman per se,” said Samuel Ramani of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based nonprofit and author of a forthcoming book on Russia in Africa. “His business interests are very closely tied to what Wagner does, and he gets market share by being a middleman in deals between African leaders and the Kremlin.”

One of Wagner’s first forays into the continent was a disaster.

In 2019, it deployed around 160 fighters to the gas-rich, Muslim-majority Cabo Delgado region of northern Mozambique. But within weeks rebels affiliated with the local Islamic State were killed at least seven Wagnerian soldiers, U.S. officials said. A few months later, the Russians withdraw.

Wagner appeared to learn from those mistakes in the Central African Republic, where he arrived in 2018 to protect embattled president Faustin-Archange Touadéra. After training local security forces, he helped the army repel a major Islamist offensive in early 2021.

But these modest gains came at a high cost: UN investigators discovered that Wagner’s forces had killed civilians, looted homes and shot worshipers in a mosque. Critics noted that the operation focused on areas where Mr. Prigozhin’s companies mined diamonds.

In Libya, Wagner fighters supported a failed assault on the capital, Tripoli, in 2019 by Khalifa Hifter, a power-hungry commander. Thousands of Wagner fighters remain stationed at four bases across Libya, most in close proximity the country’s oil fieldssay Western officials and analysts.

In Sudan, Wagner obtains gold mining concessions and tries, without success, to save the country’s autocratic leader, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who overthrown in April 2019.

Today, Wagner’s main Sudanese partner is General Mohamed Hamdan, a powerful paramilitary commander who flew to Moscow on the eve of the war in Ukraine for meetings with senior Russian officials.

Perhaps Wagner’s most controversial operation is in Mali, where Wagner’s forces arrived in December 2021 amid what the US State Department called “a barrage of targeted disinformation to conceal his arrival and activities.” Its fighters quickly joined the fight against Islamist insurgents.

But by mid-April, Wagner had been involved in more than a dozen incidents in which nearly 500 people died, according to UN researchers and reports.

In addition to providing mercenaries, Russia has tried to shape the politics of at least a dozen African countries with social media and political influence campaigns.

Last year, the US Treasury Department identified what he called “a front company for Prigozhin’s influence operations in Africa” ​​which he said had sponsored bogus surveillance missions in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and in Mozambique.

In 2019, two Russians employed by Mr Prigozhin met a son of the former Libyan dictator, Muammar el-Gaddafi, only to be thrown in prison. A company related to Prigozhin later made a film about the ordeal of the Russians, portraying their captors as violent sadists. The inmates were released in December 2020.

“The Russians don’t give up theirs!” Mr. Prigozhin’s company, Concord, said in a statement.

Since October 2019, Facebook has close more than 300 fake Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to Mr. Prigozhin which she said targeted a dozen African countries.

Wagner also fights through popular culture. In the Central African Republic, Mr. Prigozhin’s companies sponsored a beauty pageantfinanced a radio station and last year released a film, “Tourist”, which glorified the actions of Wagnerian mercenaries in this country.

In December, another film funded by Prigozhin aired on Russian television, this time about Wagner’s bloody misadventures in Mozambique. Wagner maintains a low profile presence there: After its fighters withdrew in 2020, they left behind a small cyber warfare cell employed by the Mozambican government, a Western Africa security official said, citing intelligence reports Europeans.

Mr Putin spelled out his ambitions for Russia in Africa at an African leaders summit in Sochi in 2019, when he described the continent as a place of “significant opportunities” for the Kremlin.

The expansion is part of Putin’s broader desire to reestablish Russia as a great power, analysts say, pitting him in part against China, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and other countries that have struggled to position themselves in Africa as Western influence wanes. .

Some African leaders are drawn to Moscow by arms: Russia has become Africa’s biggest arms supplier. But Mr. Putin also taps into deep historical and political undercurrents.

Many African countries have been reluctant to join in western condemnation of Russia’s assault on Ukraine – some out of lingering Cold War sympathies, but many others out of frustration with what they see as Western disdain for Africa.

In West Africa, Russia is tapping into a growing wave of anti-French sentiment in countries like Mali, where the arrival of Wagner agents has led to the departure of French soldiers and diplomats this year. A military coup in Burkina Faso has been greeted by protesters waving Russian flags. And in Cameroon, officials signed a defense agreement with Russia in April which some saw as a possible precursor to a Wagner deployment.

A second Russia-Africa summit is planned for november. This time, the proposed venue is Mr. Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, which also happens to be Mr. Prigozhin’s base of operations.

Elian Peltier contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.

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Newsrust - US Top News: How the Russian Wagner Group is growing in Africa
How the Russian Wagner Group is growing in Africa
Newsrust - US Top News
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