Ukraine Isn’t the Only Place Where America Must Counter Russia’s Mercenaries
By Colin P. Clarke, Raphael Parens, Christopher Faulkner, and Kendal Wolf
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?
Potential avenues for countering Moscow’s influence in Africa are limited by the choice of available partners, many of which are illiberal regimes with a track record of human rights violations.
The United States and its partners must strike a balance between countering violent extremism and avoiding the optics of empowering autocrats. Moreover, efforts to fight terrorism must be clearly separated from efforts to counter Russia’s malign activities, so that the Kremlin cannot claim credit for the positive results of Western counterterrorism efforts in areas where Russian forces, including Wagner, are colocated.
The United States should start by publicly articulating its objectives in Africa. Although certain goals, such as the deterrence of terrorist attacks on American and European soil, should remain central to U.S. policy in Africa, Washington needs to show African states that it is serious about investing in nonmilitary solutions that can materially improve people’s lives.
This means increasing development and humanitarian aid that can strengthen governments and civil society and thereby diminish the appeal and legitimacy of militant groups.
Washington should also signal that its commitment to the region will outlast any individual presidential administration. Democracies, especially those racked by hyperpartisanship, can suffer paralysis in the realm of foreign policy.
They often switch strategies between administrations or in response to shifts in public opinion. By contrast, authoritarian regimes, whose leaders need worry about appeasing only a small subset of elites, are better at sticking to strategies, even in the face of public opposition.
The United States and its partners need to find ways around this stumbling block in order to forge productive long-term relationships with African partners.
Although the United States is now paying more attention to Africa—as evidenced by its efforts to strengthen fragile states, including Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, and Mozambique—these efforts may be too little, too late.
Russian mercenary forces have already embedded themselves in many of these countries and are rapidly working to expand their influence. Yet Wagner is not even mentioned by name in the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, published by the White House in August 2022, and Russian private military companies receive only a single mention.
HIT THEM WHERE IT HURTS
The United States must prevent Wagner from further destabilizing African states, since prevention is easier than rehabilitation. Doing so will require identifying and capitalizing on the group’s vulnerabilities.
Although Wagner has benefited from its position at the nexus of military and business, its economic relationships can also be weaknesses. Since it does not operate as a traditional military outfit, Wagner has a specialized logistics network that includes a variety of shell companies supporting its business and resource-extraction activities. These are soft points that can be targeted by Western sanctions.
Washington has already hit some Wagner subsidiaries, such as Lobaye Invest and Meroe Gold, with U.S. sanctions, but it should take action against others, including those involved in the group’s forestry operations in the Central African Republic.
Sanctioning each new Wagner shell company as it is discovered may seem like a game of Whac-a-Mole, but it is the only way to weaken Prigozhin’s criminal network.
Knocking out these predatory businesses may also help build goodwill in central and western Africa, where many entrepreneurs are concerned about Wagner affiliates pushing them out of business.
Beyond naming and sanctioning the companies themselves, U.S. and European authorities should work together to identify the end users of Wagner’s exports. Many of these exports—such as gold, diamonds, and timber—may be infiltrating American and European markets. Western governments must prioritize blocking such shipments, punishing actors that willfully work with Wagner, and deterring exports that benefit the group.
In addition to targeting Wagner’s business empire, Washington should deepen its relationships with African countries so they have less need of the Russian mercenary outfit.
The U.S. partnership with Niger offers a promising model, but Washington must refrain from recycling the same overly securitized approach that seeks to build military capabilities without tailoring them to the local environment.
Furthermore, the United States needs to train some of its military partners to a higher standard, working to ensure that their soldiers do not go on to abuse civilians or attempt to overthrow governments.
As the scholar Joseph Sany has argued, “For many Africans, Wagner is a choice not of preference but of desperation following years of failed international efforts to help end violent crises.”
The group is also the choice of expediency, since Russia offers troops, weapons, and training with no strings attached. Washington’s selling point is quality. Unfortunately, however, African leaders often prefer an inferior product with few limitations to a superior one that is heavily restricted.
In addition to strengthening its security partnerships with African countries, the United States must increase its support for civilian government institutions. Depriving jihadi groups of manpower requires long-term investments in addressing the issues that help them recruit: corruption, lack of accountability, and unequal delivery of basic services—especially along ethnic, religious, or regional lines.
Tackling the nonmilitary challenges that plague African governments will set the United States apart from its rivals in the region.
Doing so will not come at the expense of U.S. military objectives, and it will thwart Russia’s significantly easier and more limited goals, which include gaining access to resources, building connections with elites, and competing against Western countries for influence.
State building and long-term partnerships are not Russian priorities.
This is not a call for nation building to counter Russian influence in Africa. Rather, it is a call for an incremental, long-term effort to strengthen African institutions and address social, environmental, political, and economic challenges that destabilize countries and provide openings for actors such as Wagner to exploit.
In the absence of such an effort, Wagner’s failures in Ukraine may be a prelude to additional successes in Africa.
- 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.