Ukraine Isn’t the Only Place Where America Must Counter Russia’s Mercenaries
By Colin P. Clarke, Raphael Parens, Christopher Faulkner, and Kendal Wolf
Russia’s infamous Wagner paramilitary company may be headed for defeat in Ukraine. The group has sustained enormous losses in the last five months, and its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is embroiled in a high-stakes feud with Russia’s top military brass, who have accused him of indirectly aiding Ukraine by “sowing rifts” among Russian forces.
Late last week, Prigozhin publicly castigated Russia’s senior military leadership for not supplying Wagner with enough ammunition and threatened to withdraw his forces from the city of Bakhmut.
According to the British Ministry of Defense, the Kremlin may be looking to replace the Wagner contingent in Ukraine with forces from another private military company—one that it can more tightly control.
But even if it is sidelined in Ukraine, Wagner is unlikely to fade into obscurity. The group has demonstrated global ambitions—and much closer to American shores than many realize. It has considered working in Haiti and sought to purchase weapons from Turkey, a NATO ally. But the region where Wagner has made the deepest inroads—and where it is likely to refocus its efforts in the event of a setback in Ukraine—is Africa.
The group is probably already playing a role behind the scenes in the crisis in Sudan, where it has forged links with paramilitary leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemedti) and his Rapid Support Forces, one of the two main factions in the brewing civil war.
Wagner has also entrenched itself in the Central African Republic and Mali, two former French colonies where it has largely filled the void left by departing French and international forces. And it has sent fighters to Libya and Mozambique, among other fragile states where governments and infrastructure need protecting.
Wagner’s growing presence in Africa poses a difficult challenge for the United States. Not only does the group bolster autocratic forces, stoke instability, and generally disregard human rights; it also acts as an agent of the Kremlin and helps reinforce its narrative.
Yet thanks in part to an aggressive Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign, Russia and its mercenary proxies remain popular in Africa (and much of the global South) even as most Western populations have turned against Moscow.
The challenges for the United States and its allies include countering Wagner in the countries where it operates, denying Russia access to new clients in the form of military juntas, and puncturing the narrative of authoritarian stability that has elevated Russia’s standing in Africa.
Washington has long struggled to respond effectively to Russian propaganda, but the Biden administration’s strategy of “pre-bunking” the Kremlin’s lies by declassifying intelligence has been a rare success.
The United States should continue to seek new and innovative ways to proactively counter Russian disinformation, denying Moscow the opportunity to win hearts and minds with its fire hose of falsehoods.
Wagner has enjoyed considerable success in Africa since its mercenaries first deployed to Libya and Sudan sometime between 2015 and 2017. (Experts disagree about the exact time and location of the group’s first African mission, in part because it initially kept a low profile.) Since then, Wagner has set up shop in more than a dozen African countries, destabilizing French and U.S. interests along the way.
If Prigozhin faces additional setbacks in Ukraine, he will likely pivot back to the kinds of missions in which Wagner enjoys a comparative advantage: conducting expeditionary operations and supplying muscle to fragile states in exchange for access to valuable resources.
THE AFRICA MODEL
Nowhere is that model more appealing than in Africa. The continent faces a new wave of jihadi and insurgent activity, stretching from the Sahel to parts of the Horn of Africa to Mozambique.
Wagner offers a Faustian bargain to those in need of security assistance: it will protect regimes and fight insurgents but demands its pound of flesh in return. Wagner kills civilians, operates exploitative business networks, exacerbates grievances between groups and among citizens, and ultimately leaves countries worse off than before its fighters arrived.
Africa is home to a variety of insurgencies and terrorist threats. The most dangerous are affiliates of al Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), but groups seeking national power or autonomy—such as various Tuareg organizations in the tri-border region of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger and the antigovernment Seleka coalition in the Central African Republic—have also sown chaos across much of the continent.
Many of these groups feed off popular grievances—whether ethnic, religious, political, or economic—and all of them thrive where governments are weak.
France’s decision to draw down several of its military operations in Francophone Africa, especially in the Central African Republic and Mali, has left a security vacuum that Wagner has ably exploited.
But the broader limits of Western security assistance in Africa have also benefited Wagner, which has built close relationships with governments and factions in Burkina Faso, Libya, and Sudan and is in discussions to provide training and equipment to Eritrea and information operations support to Zimbabwe, according to leaked U.S. intelligence documents reported on by The Washington Post.
The organization often protects coup leaders and fights insurgents in exchange for resource-extraction deals, acting as a conduit for Russian arms sales, military training, and investments, usually through shell companies.
But for all the mystery surrounding Wagner, its counterinsurgency operations in the Central African Republic and Mali have been far from clandestine.
Its soldiers have taken part in raids and ambushes, as well as other offensive combat operations. This has cut both ways: African governments and citizens alike have touted security improvements, especially in the Central African Republic, but Wagner’s approach of shooting first and asking questions later has also angered civilians. (In Mali, the group stands accused of participating in a massacre of more than 300 people in March 2022, among other atrocities.)
Yet the hunger of many African leaders for tangible security gains, a top priority for obvious reasons, has often led them to look the other way in the hope of gaining short-term payoffs from Wagner.
But short-term solutions rarely work out in the long run. And Wagner’s campaigns in Africa aren’t built for enduring success. Its fighters were routed in Mozambique, where jihadis belonging to the local ISIS affiliate killed at least seven Wagner soldiers and forced the group to withdraw after just a few months.
In Libya, Wagner fighters failed to turn the tide in Tripoli, where they were deployed to support the warlord Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army.
Even in the Central African Republic and Mali, Wagner fighters have contributed to the growth of jihadi groups by committing wanton violence against civilians and thereby helping al Qaeda affiliates such as Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin recruit.
- COLIN P. CLARKE is Director of Research at the Soufan Group and a Senior Research Fellow at the Soufan Center.
- RAPHAEL PARENS is a Eurasia Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
- CHRISTOPHER FAULKNER is an Assistant Professor at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own.
- KENDAL WOLF is Senior Program Officer for Monitoring and Evaluation at Strategic Capacity Group. The views expressed here are his own.