Russia’s Wagner Group to maintain African operations amid post-mutiny power struggle

The Kremlin is poised to allow Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group to retain significant operations in Africa, including the Central African Republic (CAR), as Russia strives to preserve its influence on the resource-rich continent. Despite an attempted mutiny challenging President Vladimir Putin’s rule, Russia is eager to safeguard its gains in Africa, particularly against growing US pressure to dislodge Wagner. The deal grants Wagner control over its operations in CAR, where the group has assisted the government in fighting rebel insurgency since 2018. However, questions remain about the future leadership and possible replacements for Prigozhin within the Wagner Group. As Russia prepares to host its second Africa summit, the continent’s stability and balance of power may hang in the balance.

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Wagner Will Keep Part of Its African Business After Russian Mutiny

By Bloomberg News

The Kremlin is willing to let Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group keep some of its extensive operations in Africa, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions, as Russia scrambles to retain its influence in the resource-rich continent in the aftermath of his attempted mutiny.

The deal includes Wagner’s operations in the Central African Republic and has the support of President Vladimir Putin, one of the people said, asking not to be identified because the matter is sensitive.

The agreement emerged as the Kremlin disclosed Monday that Putin held nearly three hours of talks with Prigozhin and Wagner commanders on June 29, just five days after the unprecedented mutiny in Russia that threatened the president’s nearly quarter-century rule. By building an army of thousands of guns-for-hire, Wagner has for years given the Kremlin a way to pursue its foreign policy in Africa on a shoestring, making inroads at the expense of the US and former colonial power France, with the added bonus of deniability.  

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As the US tries to exploit the mutiny to dislodge the mercenary group from the continent, Russia is acting swiftly to safeguard those gains.  Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has scrambled to reassure African counterparts that Russia remains committed to a network of security partnerships — including the provision of military instructors in the Central African Republic — that were agreed as ties with former colonial power France soured. Later this month, Russia will reinforce its engagement by hosting its second Africa summit in St. Petersburg. 

But what Russia describes as military instructors, the US says are Wagner operatives in combat roles. The Defense Ministry — bogged down in Ukraine and hampered by western sanctions â€” isn’t immediately in a position to take over Wagner’s complex and often murky operations in CAR and may also need the private contractors to achieve its foreign policy objectives in Sudan and elsewhere. 

Beyond CAR, Putin was assessing his options but would likely end up leaving Wagner in charge of operations that pay for themselves while bringing activities more directly dependent on Moscow under its direct control, according to another person close to the Kremlin. 

“Wagner will stay in Africa, that’s for sure,” said Sergei Markov, a political consultant with close Kremlin ties. “But whom it will report to, Prigozhin or another oligarch, has yet to be decided.”

Confusion in CAR

CAR is one of three former French colonies that have strengthened security ties with Russia following disputes that led to the expulsion of French and international forces fighting jihadists in the Sahel region.

But it is Wagner forces that have helped the CAR government fight off a rebel insurgency since 2018. The US and others have accused them of  involvement in massacres again Muslims.

In return, Wagner-linked companies have been granted gold and timber concessions and run one of the country’s leading beer-makers.

As many as 600 Wagner contractors have left CAR since the short-lived mutiny in Russia ended on June 25, Sky News reported in recent days, after refusing to switch to Russian Defense Ministry contracts.  Alexander Ivanov, the official representative of Russia’s military trainers in CAR, issued a statement Saturday saying they were there to stay. 

CAR is confident that Russia will keep up its support, Hassan Bouba, the former rebel leader and influential Livestock Minister, said in a phone interview. 

Moscow’s two key interlocutors in CAR are local Wagner commander Vitali Perfilev and Dmitri Sytyi, who runs the Russian House cultural center. Both remain on the ground and hold daily meetings with the CAR army chief, said Bouba. 

“They are the leaders in Bangui. For us, nothing has changed,” he told Bloomberg. “The last word resides with President Putin to say if the Central African Republic continues with Wagner or there will be new forces that will come and replace them.” 

Prigozhin’s main asset to African leaders was his access to Putin, which makes him less useful than he was, said a person in a Russian state company with knowledge of Africa operations who requested anonymity to talk about the issue.

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Hard to Replace

Nevertheless, his personal connections with those African leaders, and his men’s loyalty, mean he also won’t be easy to replace, said Marat Gabidullin, a former senior Wagner commander and Sergei Khrabrykh, an ex-Russian Defense Ministry official. Both now live in France. 

The mutiny, prompted by a row over the handling of Russia’s war in Ukraine, came as Wagner was busy expanding its African footprint. It has held talks with military rulers in Burkina Faso and sent a small contingent to the Democratic Republic of Congo to offer training and assistance to forces battling rebels, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Wagner’s spreading influence on the continent was drawing US scrutiny â€” and sanctions â€” even before Prigozhin’s revolt. And the US has used the turmoil to step up calls on African leaders to expel the mercenaries. 

“We continue to urge governments in Africa and elsewhere to cease any cooperation with Wagner and not pursue any further,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

French ruling party lawmaker Benjamin Haddad said the events in Russia should serve as a “warning” to leaders in Africa.

Any “nationalisation” of Wagner would give the west an opportunity to  “re-brand the Wagner Group’s war crimes and predatory economic activity as Russian state policy toward Africa,” said Alia Brahimi, an expert at the Atlantic Council who has advised several governments on Middle East and North Africa policy.

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Sudan Test

The next big question could be the future of Wagner operations in Sudan, where Prigozhin had been assisting rebels battling the army even while Moscow maintains close ties to the military leadership in Khartoum.

The Kremlin has been able to pursue this dual policy by covertly deploying the mercenaries, an approach it has also used in oil-rich Libya

The US in May accused Wagner of delivering surface-to-air missiles to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, which since April have been waging a campaign to overthrow the military junta that seized power in 2021. 

The weapons deliveries were confirmed by two people in Moscow and a western diplomat with knowledge of the issue. The assistance includes portable missiles from Wagner’s stockpile in Libya, said Gabidullin. Arms have also been coming from Wagner forces in CAR, according to western diplomats and rebel forces in the country.

“The Russian secret services are betting on both sides in Sudan,” said Gleb Irisov, a former Russian air force officer. “This way they benefit whoever comes out on top.”

Russia has more at stake in Sudan than it does elsewhere, however.

It’s sought for years to establish its first naval base in Africa on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. That would give Moscow permanent access to the Suez Canal, Indian Ocean, and Arabian Peninsula, according to Viktor Bondarev, a former Russian air force chief, areas currently policed by the US and its allies. The US has warned Sudan against proceeding with the plan.

Sudan is also a critical part of the logistical corridor that connects Wagner’s operations from Syria to Libya and deeper into Africa, allowing it to ferry equipment and fighters to countries including CAR and Mali. 

“Africa remains a high priority on the Russian foreign policy agenda and so far no sign of disruption is going on there. It could take time to untangle Wagner Group and replace it with something else,” said Lou Osborn, an analyst at All Eyes on Wagner, a consortium that tracks the group’s activities using open-source investigation. “It may not even happen.” 

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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