A week after the Wagner Group’s 24 June aborted insurrection against the Russian state questions remain about the future of the private military company (PMC) future and the consequences for the African states in which it operates. Over the past five years, the Wagner Group has become an established ‒ albeit controversial – security and political presence across the continent. The PMC’s combat forces, and military “instructors” are currently deployed in at least four African states – namely the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Libya, and Sudan. Meanwhile, the Internet Research Agency, which is widely considered the influence and disinformation campaign arm of the organisation, is also considered active across multiple states.
The PMC was formed around 2014 with the backing of the Russian state as a way to pursue geopolitical goals that are not aligned with Russia’s official foreign policy. This initially began as a combat presence supporting Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region, but rapidly spread to include deployments across Africa and the Middle East. The PMC enabled Russia to expand conduct political influence campaigns and provide security assistance to friendly governments, all while maintaining plausible deniability. Notably, the Russian government officially disavowed the Wagner Group for much of its existence. It was only the need to deploy the group in Russia’s flailing 2022 invasion of Ukraine which eventually forced the Russian state to acknowledge its close ties and saw Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin publicly own his role at the helm of the PMC.
The Wagner Group has been welcomed by the governments in the states in which it operates. It provides highly trained, competent, albeit ruthless, security forces, which bolster the local security environment without demanding political concessions. Notably, the Wagner Group often does not even demand full payment for its services but instead captures key businesses and industries in the host country to fund its operations.
This is best illustrated by the group’s presence in the CAR. Wagner Group forces have been deployed in the country since 2018 and have done an effective job in propping up the regime of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and combatting the well-armed anti-government militant groups in the country. In exchange, the PMC has essentially seized large portions of the country’s economy and its timber, golf, and diamond operations in the CAR are estimated to be worth in excess of US$3 billion. Recent investigative reports have outlined how Wagner’s operations in CAR have extended to eliminating Touadéra’s rivals and taking practical control of the country’s security apparatus. Arguably, the PMC has captured the state with Touadéra heading a puppet regime.
Such beneficial arrangements between host governments and the PMC have also fostered a culture of impunity surrounding Wagner’s forces across Africa. It has also been accused of war crimes and human rights violations in almost every area in which it is deployed.
Notably, the Wagner Group’s role extends beyond the battlefield and its disinformation arm – the Internet Research Agency – has been the vanguard of Russian political interference and disinformation operations globally. This wing of the PMC is alleged to have driven election meddling efforts in the United States and France. However, less publicly discussed is the fact that the Internet Research Agency is alleged to have conducted similar operations across Africa. According to the US Treasury Department, the Wagner Group has sought to influence elections in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Africa and Mozambique over the years. This is particularly significant given that several major elections are scheduled to take place over the next two years including in all five these countries, providing ample opportunity for the Internet Research Agency to stage influence campaigns.
As such, the current fallout between Prigozhin and Putin has left these Africa-based operations in a state of uncertainty. Undoubtedly, the operations – both security and political – will continue in a practical sense. The Wagner Group’s Africa presence is far too lucrative and influential to be easily discarded. What remains to be seen is whether the Russian government will move to seize control of these operations or whether the Wagner Group will emerge as a dangerous independent actor.
Although possible, the latter scenario is unlikely. Wagner’s expansion across Africa was made possible by Russia’s tacit support and the PMC will unlikely be able to maintain and grow its presence without it. Instead, Russia will likely seek to either force a change of leadership within the PMC over time – even given the current proposed scenario in which Prigozhin and the Wagner Group will decamp to Belarus ‒ or gradually replace the Wagner Group’s Africa operations with another state-backed PMC. This will be difficult, and if Prigozhin manages to remain in control of Wagner in the short term, the PMC’s lucrative African operations and recruitment pools will form the basis of his resistance to the Russian state.
Regardless, the time Russia could claim plausible deniability for its PMC’s actions is now over. The Wagner Group’s insurrection will likely hasten the ongoing push to bring all Russian PMCs under the purview of the country’s defence ministry, but this will take time and will entail internal intrigue and resistance. As such, the Wagner Group’s security and commercial operations are expected to continue unabated due to the practical and financial immediacy of these activities. However, the group’s disinformation arm will likely dramatically ease operations as client states will be reluctant to expose themselves to the group without Russia’s definite backing. As such, in order for Russia to exert similar influence in these elections it will need to utilise state resources or rapidly create a replacement for the Internet Research Agency.
The Wagner Group was created to exert Russian influence in politically unstable and insecure states across the world, but this has also left these countries vulnerable to contagion from Russian instability.