This piece is part of a series titled "Nonstate armed actors and illicit economies in 2022" from Brookings's Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors.
Russia is intensifying its competition with the United States in Africa. In its asymmetric race, Russia uses nominally private, but in fact state-linked actors such as the private security company the Wagner Group and the infamous St. Petersburg “troll farm” the Internet Research Agency (IRA). Both are a major threat to democracy and rule of law in Africa and beyond.
In its African strategy, the Kremlin is motivated foremost by a desire to thwart U.S. policy objectives, almost irrespective 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 African resources, targeting countries that have fragile governments but are often rich in important raw materials, such as oil, gold, diamonds, uranium, and manganese. Russian private security companies such as the Wagner Group purport to redress complex local military and terrorism conflicts with which African governments have struggled. They also offer to these governments the ability to conduct counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations unconstrained by human rights responsibilities, unlike the United States, allowing African governments to be as brutish in their military efforts as they like. In turn, Russia seeks payment in concessions for natural resources, substantial commercial contracts, or access to strategic locations, such as airbases or ports.
Moscow’s hybrid-warfare 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 focused in large part on Russian weapons sales.
More importantly, however, the expansion of Russia’s influence in Africa has centered on the use of private security companies to deliver counterinsurgency and counterterrorism training and advising to local governments struggling to counter militancy. The expansion of their presence across the continent is taking place despite the fact that since March 2018, Russia has outlawed mercenaryism under Article 359 of its criminal code. Beyond avoiding official Russian military casualties and thus public outcry against and supervision of deployments abroad, the private security contractors provide plausible deniability for the Kremlin. Moscow disavows any command and control over them to absolve itself of their problematic behavior, such as egregious human rights violations and abuse of civilians. They also provide a proxy tool for military confrontations with the U.S. without directly implicating Russian troops. In 2018, some 300 Wagner Group contractors, for example, clashed with U.S. special operations forces in Deir el-Zour, Syria. Beyond propping up governments aligned with Moscow, the Russian contractors are also a source of intelligence for the Kremlin.
Russia’s use of mercenary outfits to advance Moscow’s purposes has its roots in the 1990s when Russian private security companies, such as the Moran Security Group and the Slavonic Corps, began providing security services to Russian businessmen in Africa. However, the major turning point for Moscow’s systematic use of Kremlin-linked private security actors was 2014, when the West levied sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and destabilization of the Donbas. The Wagner Group — founded by a former special operations forces officer in the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU) — played a prominent role in the Ukraine operations, providing the Kremlin with a preview of its capacities and utility for maneuvers elsewhere in the world. Like the IRA, the Wagner Group is reportedly funded by 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 to Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Central African Republic, and Mali, focusing principally on protecting the ruling or emerging governing elites and critical infrastructures.
In 2017, for example, the Wagner Group deployed some 500 men to put down local uprisings against the government of Sudan’s dictator Omar al-Bashir. As payment, Prigozhin received exclusive rights to gold mining in Sudan, channeled through his M-Invest company. 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 been propping up the weak government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, whose writ extends little beyond the capital, against various rebel groups since 2018. Its arrival in CAR coincided with a Prigozhin-linked company being awarded diamond and gold mining licenses. The Russian security company has been widely accused of perpetrating severe human rights violations and harassing peacekeepers, journalists, aid workers, and minorities. Wagner’s presence puts the CAR government at odds with the United Nations and the Western governments, which increasingly demand that the CAR ends its dealing with the Russian company or risk losing their assistance. 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 Moscow and Kremlin-linked Russian private security companies. With access to only one port in the Mediterranean, in the Syrian facility of Tartus, Russia’s military presence in the region cannot compete with NATO’s Standing Naval Force Mediterranean (STANAVFORMED) and the U.S. Navy’s Naples’-based Sixth Fleet. But inserting itself into the ongoing civil war, the Wagner Group deployed units into Libya in 2019 in support of warlord Khalifa Hifter during his attack on the capital Tripoli. The Wagner Group provided advise, assist, and training capacities and, resorting to indiscriminate means such as mining civilian areas, helped Hifter take control of some of Libya’s oil fields. Like other foreign mercenaries and militias groups active in the country, the Wagner Group has disregarded the U.N.-sponsored Berlin Conference’s demand that they depart. Russia has disavowed any responsibility for the Wagner Group’s actions in Libya and their deleterious effects on U.N. peace mediation efforts.
Since 2017, the al-Shabab insurgency in Mozambique began sweeping through the country’s northern province of Cabo Delgado. Unable to halt al-Shabab’s expansion, the government hired the Wagner Group for counterinsurgency operation in fall 2019, expanding its prior contract of functioning as the praetorian guard of the Mozambican president. However, given its inability to understand the local insurgency and the indigenous military forces with whom it had to collaborate, the Wagner Group’s operations failed spectacularly.
Among the Wagner Group’s latest worrisome Africa deployments is Mali, where Islamist militants remain potent and governance poor and unaccountable. A complex set of numerous jihadi terrorist groups and regional Tuareg and other self-autonomy movements operates in the country. Among them are dangerous al-Qaida 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 militarily engaged in Mali since 2013, supported by other European countries and the U.S. as well as African countries under the G5 Sahel Joint Task Force, but has not achieved any resolute defeat of the militants. Now tired of the governance and counterinsurgency quagmire, France is slated to halve its contingent there to 2,500 troops in 2022. A military junta that seized power in August 2020, already weak, is turning to the Russians. With access to uranium, diamond, and gold mines as likely payoffs, a 1,000-contractor-strong Wagner Group deployment was to train the Malian soldiers and protect the country’s government officials. Facing both Western pushback and domestic outcry, the Malian government in late December denied any Wagner Group presence. Such a presence would severely undermine the sustainability and effectiveness of Western counterinsurgency and counterterrorism support operations as well as likely contribute to 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 domain into disinformation tactics. In Africa, like elsewhere in the world, including the United States during the 2016 presidential election, disinformation propagandists like the IRA seek to ignite social conflict within societies and undermine support for democracy. The IRA sought to manipulate Madagascar’s 2018 presidential election, for example. Meanwhile, in Mali, the IRA accused French counterinsurgency operations of being a façade for exploiting local uranium mines.
To counter their problematic actions, Washington imposed sanctions against individuals and entities connected to the Wagner Group and IRA; the EU followed. However, as with sanctions on Russian government officials, these sanctions have not led to relevant changes in behavior.
Despite U.N. 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 company and allow it to perpetrate human rights and civil liberties violations, the Wagner Group — encouraged by the Kremlin and doing its bidding — is highly 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 may in time reduce its allure to African governments.