Pentagon watching closely Wagner’s Mideast posture as questions surround its future
By Jared Scuba, Al-Monitor, 01 July 2023
In an excerpt from this week's Security Briefing, Pentagon correspondent Jared Szuba looks at what's next for Wagner's forces in the Middle East and North Africa following the private military company's short-lived mutiny in Russia.
WASHINGTON — After years of denying any links to Wagner, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin claimed on Tuesday that the Kremlin has been bankrolling the shady paramilitary group to the tune of nearly $1 billion over the past year.
It was a stunning admission for Putin, borne of a need to assert a semblance of control now that Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s autonomy — once an asset for Russian irregular warfare — has turned into a catastrophic mistake.
Prigozhin has claimed the Kremlin had planned to take control of his forces by July 1, thus apparently prompting his aborted insurrection drive to Moscow.
There’s little doubt that’s in the cards now. Putin on Monday publicly offered Wagner fighters the option to join the army, go home or flee to Belarus. Experts and US officials with whom I’ve spoken suspect the proposal is genuine, at least for Wagner fighters in Europe, but that Prigozhin’s own days are numbered.
But the fate of his mercenaries and business assets across the Middle East and Africa remains even less clear. The group has congealed into a useful appendage of Russian foreign policy, and the Kremlin isn’t likely keen to surrender its footholds abroad unless necessary.
Al-Monitor contributor Anton Mardasov confirmed reports that the Kremlin has notified top officials in Syria, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali and elsewhere that it will assume control of Wagner’s forces.
Yet the mercenary group isn’t Prigozhin’s only valuable venture abroad, and experts say co-opting his transnational patronage networks will prove a delicate task for Moscow, one unlikely to unfold in the same way in each country.
In Syria this past weekend, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin met with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus to, according to The Wall Street Journal, insist they not allow Wagner personnel to leave the country without formal permission from Moscow.
US officials told Al-Monitor this week they have continued to see regular movements in the region by Wagner personnel, which depend on Russia's military Khmeimim airbase in Syria as a forward logistical hub. Thus far there’s been nothing to substantiate local reports that Russian military forces arrested Wagner mercenaries in eastern Syria amid the uprising back home.
Wagner’s mercenaries — who once spearheaded Assad’s drive through Syria’s central desert only to be blocked by US special forces before they could claim the country’s main oil fields — now form just a small contingent of the Kremlin’s overall presence in Syria, Russian analysts and well-placed sources there say.
Barring further upheaval at home, the Kremlin will likely be keen to maintain the balance, however, as Iranian forces have sought to exploit signs of Russian retrograde in the past.
“In Syria, the structure of the Wagner PMC is extremely complex and I am not sure that the military will begin to change it overnight,” Mardasov told me.
“Military intelligence has always controlled their operations, I think; one way or another, this control will remain,” Mardasov said.
In Libya, Wagner has somewhat greater autonomy, but its failure to seize the North African country’s oil fields during Khalifa Hifter’s 2019 offensive against Tripoli rendered its fighters perpetually dependent on outside cash from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and likely Moscow.
This has raised some concern in Washington that the Kremlin’s moves — if not properly executed — could loose thousands of battle-hardened Russian soldiers-for-hire on the African continent.
“Mercenaries fight for money,” the Pentagon’s top general Mark Milley reminded an audience at the National Press Club on Friday.
“Most likely, most of Wagner in Africa will come under the control of the Ministry of Defense, but this will take some time,” Kirill Semenov, an expert on Russian political and military affairs, told me.
Semenov said it can’t be ruled out that the Kremlin may create alternative private military companies to assume Wagner’s role.
“This is important, since it is unlikely that all PMC fighters will be satisfied with the salaries that the Ministry of Defense can offer directly,” he said.
“Recall that the Ministry of Defense already has experience in creating its own PMCs — for example, Redut,” Semenov recalled. “There is also the legally operating security company RSB Group.”
But whether hand-picked individuals will carry the same clout that enabled Prigozhin to negotiate geopolitically risky deals with African leaders on behalf of the Kremlin — such as the now likely-defunct plan for a Russian naval base at Port Sudan — remains unclear.
Further south in Africa, Prigozhin’s paramilitary and business networks are even more complex.
Control of gold and diamond mining in the Central African Republic has helped fund Wagner thanks to transfers via the UAE. A top confidant of Prigozhin’s — Vitali Priflayev — has served as national security adviser to CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera.
In neighboring Sudan, Wagner maintains a negligible presence since the country descended into violence in April, one US military official told me. That conflict, and the Kremlin’s moves against Prigozhin, are likely to have scuttled his reported designs on a diamond and gold shipment route via the Red Sea port for now.
Even if the Russian Defense Ministry can find ways to adequately fund Prigozhin’s fighters in Africa, the question remains whether another leader will be able to hold them together.
“Wagner PMC did what the official structures could not do: operations in a gray zone with a permanent, rather than short-term presence,” Mardasov pointed out. “Moscow doesn't have much experience in using PMCs on its own, so one way or another, they will have to synchronize their actions.”
Despite Washington’s priority of rolling back on Wagner’s spread as a key national security objective on the continent, Pentagon officials are downplaying the opportunity, dismissing the palace intrigue as an “internal matter.”
Yet Moscow’s troubles abroad appear to have already begun. Overnight on Friday, a drone strike reportedly hit Wagner’s main forward base at Al-Khadim airfield in eastern Libya, near the Egyptian border.
No side has claimed credit. But it isn’t the first such strike against the group’s logistical hub in Libya.
A classified Pentagon document published by The Washington Post in April revealed a previous “unattributed” drone strike destroyed a Russian transport plane at Al-Khadim. If that’s what occurred this time, it may have been an opportunistic attempt to cut off Wagner’s main transit node into Africa, or at least send a warning.
A spokesperson for US Africa Command denied any involvement in Friday’s incident in emailed comments to Al-Monitor, saying the last US military drone strike in Libya was carried out in 2019.
“We're going to continue to work with nations in Africa, those that are seeking our support, to address shared interests, shared challenges, like terrorism,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters on Thursday.
“And where they seek and ask for our help, we will be available to do that,” Ryder said. “I can't speak for why someone would want to hire a transnational criminal organization to provide their security. That's something individual countries would have to answer.”
The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of CEMAS Board.