John A. Lechner & Marat Gabidullin
In Africa, Wagner morphed from a state-backed entity into a state-like entity.
Utkin personally flew to CAR to oversee the defense. Upon arrival he told instructors, previously working under a separate entity, to sign a new contract with the PMC. Valery Zakharov, leader of CAR operations, decided to leave the country. The number of contractors in CAR jumped from a few hundred to roughly 2,000, and the mission shifted completely to counterinsurgency. As a result, most major towns returned to government control and armed groups were greatly weakened. The counteroffensive deepened Wagner’s ties to the CAR state, creating new economic opportunities for both.
Wagner was no longer a “deniable” force of the Russian state in CAR; it was the Russian state in CAR. This doesn’t equate to Wagner “controlling” the Central African Republic, however.
Instead, Wagner in CAR is a network of individuals that has subsumed state and corporate functions—diplomacy, military, business—and has grafted onto local powerful networks in the pursuit of mutually beneficial and profitable projects. With time, these networks become interdependent. Wagner has tipped the power balance in Bangui’s favor, but historical modes of governance—the relationship between armed groups and the state and between the center and periphery—have changed little in CAR.
If Wagner’s beginnings were a unique reflection of Putin’s Russia, its success abroad was only possible thanks to specific global circumstances.
Wagner chanced upon a global trend in the privatization of warfare, an existential crisis in U.N. peacekeeping, and failed Western interventions in Africa. Wagner is not an aberration within African politics but what the scholar Graham Harrison calls a “part of the repertoire of techniques of governance” African leaders use to manage constant instability.
Indeed, Africans have significant leverage in dealing with Wagner. Each conflict in which Wagner intervenes provides a unique set of obstacles and opportunities, which explains why operations differ radically in each country.
In contrast to CAR, in Mali, Wagner faces a more dangerous enemy, and local networks have proved keen to retain ownership over assets. Wagner’s “military” mission in Sudan never graduated from instruction to counterinsurgency. In Libya, the PMC began employing pilots flying MiG-29 and Su-24 jets in May 2020 to back Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli.
The scale and sophistication of the equipment Wagner sourced reflected both the Russian state’s keen interest in the oil-producing nation on NATO’s southern flank and the context of the conflict. Militias in the oil-rich country are well-funded, and Turkey’s intervention in the conflict saw a level of technology Wagner would not witness in an enemy until 2022.
Wagner does not have a permanent structure; it morphs, adapting rapidly depending on the situation and circumstances.
In Africa, Wagner morphed from a state-backed entity into a state-like entity. But in Ukraine, following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Prigozhin had to deal with the same rivals and institutions that had challenged him in the past.
When Prigozhin’s enemies cut off his access to Putin, delivering victory in Bakhmut became a question of political survival. Putin’s approval of subordinating Wagner units in Ukraine to the MoD was no less existential. The resulting mutiny was a violent attempt to gain Putin’s ear and oust Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian military. Prigozhin got the meeting with Putin; Shoigu and Gerasimov remain.
The surprise beneficiary was Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who allegedly mediated the conflict and agreed to host Wagner’s new headquarters. The move may change Wagner’s structure, but the more important network remains intact.
In Russia, the MoD terminated contracts for food supply with Prigozhin’s Concord Holding. But an actual shift in suppliers will take time. “Given the convoluted mechanism of state procurement, the Concord scheme was likely quite intricate, involving external beneficiaries other than Prigozhin,” Eledinov told FP. Even if changes appear on paper, they may not reflect actual financial flows.
In Ukraine, the MoD may try to create a new PMC under the leadership of a former high-ranking member of Wagner like Andrei Troshev. The combat effectiveness of such a formation will be significantly lower and serve more to maintain morale. Troshev would still be within the Wagner network. In a critical situation on the front, Putin can deploy Prigozhin’s men from Belarus without explanation.
There are certainly some Wagner fighters who went home or signed up with MoD-affiliated volunteer battalions after the mutiny. It is also unclear how the recruitment of thousands of convicts will affect the composition of Wagner after Ukraine. But more important are the commanders, men such as Utkin and Aleksandr “Ratibor” Kuznetsov. They represent the military talent of the PMC and remain with Prigozhin.
In Syria, Wagner’s main task is to provide security for the base camp at Hayyan, essentially a fortified Russian military outpost. Given the experience of Wagner commanders, any attempts by the MoD to transform or replace Wagner units with a different formation will decrease combat effectiveness. Iranian forces, for the most part, also lack the technical expertise to pick up the slack. Like in 2016, an Islamic State resurgence would result in Wagner’s redeployment.
Wagner will likewise work to retain its assets in eastern Libya as a key logistics hub. Wagner units and units of the Libyan National Army, particularly in the south, have integrated over time. There is little appetite or capacity from the MoD to intervene.
In Africa, the Russian state needs Wagner more than Wagner needs the state.
Wagner’s assets have taken a considerable hit amid civil war in Sudan. Wagner was seen as particularly close to the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces through mining interests, and the organization provided some logistics supplies to the RSF through local trade networks at the beginning of the conflict. But Wagner has economic links with the Sudanese Army as well and it’s likely the organization will make an effort to stay on the civil war’s sidelines, revisiting its position when the outcome is clearer.
The MoD’s presence in Africa is limited to individual representatives—part of the standard staffing of any embassy—who neither control nor determine what Prigozhin does. In Africa, the Russian state needs Wagner more than Wagner needs the state, which renders Lavrov’s statement—that Wagner’s operations in Mali and CAR will continue—expected. Prigozhin’s appearance at the Russia-Africa summit was similarly unsurprising.
Wagner does not have a permanent structure; it morphs, adapting rapidly depending on the situation and circumstances. For African operations, Belarus can provide equipment and state backing. In return, Minsk will get a cut of some projects in Africa and shore up its military with training. And Wagner will continue to pursue its projects, framing its efforts as furthering Russia’s, and now Belarus’s, national interests.
John A. Lechner, an analyst concentrating on the politics of Russia, Turkey, and African nations.
Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner Group commander in Syria.