After the Mutiny: Russia’s Wagner Group in North Africa and Why It (Still) Matters
By Andrea Cellino, Middle East Institute, sqwitzerland, 29 June 2023
Europe and the United States need an urgent strategy to address Russian policies in the Mediterranean and Africa.
While much of recent media attention has rightly focused on the mutiny by the Wagner Group in Russia, questions linger about the future of the Russian private military company’s engagement in the African continent. On 26 June, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed that Wagner operations in Africa “will continue”. In a rare, though indirect, admission that the mercenary outfit is part and parcel of the Russian security machine, Lavrov added that they were doing “a good job” in countries with strong relations with Moscow.
Given that Wagner’s role in the Ukraine conflict will most likely be reduced as a result of recent developments, there are good reasons why policymakers in Europe and the United States should be concerned about the group’s influence on the security of key countries in North Africa and the Sahel region. European countries in particular have an interest in taking seriously the Wagner presence there since the security of North Africa has a direct impact on theirs. There is a risk that Wagner's activities contribute to creating failed states across the Mediterranean southern rim (and beyond), potentially generating serious security challenges such as conflicts, illegal trafficking, and other criminal activities. More worryingly, Western neglect of Wagner’s role in North Africa, in parallel to multiple other challenges. may open opportunities for Russia’s aggressive anti-Western actions in Europe’s backyard.
Wagner as a Tool of Russian Statecraft
The Russian regime has relied on Wagner for many years, and in countries where it did not want to commit official resources or troops but sought to maintain a presence, exert influence, or disrupt Western policies. While the origin of the group is almost certainly related to the first Russian intervention in the Ukrainian Donbas in 2014, the template of Wagner’s modus operandi in the Middle East and North Africa was established in Syria. As of October 2015, the Russian government used Wagner mercenaries to support Bashar al-Assad’s army, rather than risk directly committing the Russian military.
In Africa, Wagner could rely upon a historic presence established by criminal gangs and organizations in post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s, focused on established criminal activities such as trafficking and arms smuggling to Africa. Under Putin’s regime, Russian criminal organizations had to increasingly align themselves with Moscow’s political goals and strategies. In fact, Russian organized crime has been influenced by domestic political developments – from its proliferation after the collapse of the Soviet Union to increasing integration with the official business sector.
The Wagner Group exemplifies a broader trend of convergence of private and state foreign policy interests. Not surprisingly, its alleged head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, emerged from the Russian criminal underworld in the 1990s. Although generally described as an oligarch due to his climbing the echelons of Russian power with his catering company Concord, Prigozhin may be a member of a Russian intelligence branch. Recognized as the founder of Wagner, he controls a series of companies and through them, highly profitable businesses related to Wagner, or to the closely affiliated Europolis (or Evro Polis), a company frequently used as a front for Wagner in Syria and in Africa.
Some observers believe that military activities were led in the past by Dmitri Utkin. Utkin is a veteran army and special services officer, was many times decorated by the Russian state, and was a known Nazi sympathizer (hence the name “Wagner”, inspired by the German Romantic composer Richard Wagner).
In its operations across the African continent, Wagner has focused on either autocratic regimes or on countries with weak governance. Such involvement has been aligned with Russian political goals, as well as business interests in the mining sector such as gold and diamonds, as well as in arms smuggling. The most successful cases of Wagner’s involvement are in Sudan and the Central African Republic, where Russian security personnel appeared in 2017-18 and now have a large footprint.
With a presence ranging between 1,000 and 2,500 personnel, Wagner has been able to provide security, train and control national security forces, and fight (or alternatively support) rebel forces in these countries. In exchange, it obtained substantial political influence and, more importantly, access to mining resources through rights of exploitation granted by local governments to Wagner-controlled companies.
Active at different levels of involvement in about half a dozen countries across the African continent, Wagner has been expanding its range of activities, depending on the specific demands. In addition to its involvement in security services and mining, the group has successfully provided leaders in Africa with influence and disinformation campaigns, political strategy, and advice, as well as interfering with election processes. In most of these cases, Wagner’s operations have been conducted against Western interests and influence. This has been the case most notably in Mali, where Wagner was instrumental in the ousting of the French-EU mission to support the government against jihadist rebels. In this case, Wagner also benefited from direct Russian military assistance.
Libya: A Wagner’s Stronghold
In North Africa, Wagner has established its stronghold in Libya, where Russia started supporting eastern-based field marshal Khalifa Haftar as early as 2015. Wagner’s fighters appeared in Libya in April 2019 when they joined Haftar’s forces in their unsuccessful attack on the UN-backed government in Tripoli. Following that defeat, the group began to diversify its activities, still keeping its support for the authorities in the east but enlarging to more multi-faceted operations: military hardware maintenance, political advisory services, as well as social media disinformation and influence operations.
They have established themselves in military bases in the east and south but also installed near oil fields and other infrastructure projects. Mining facilities and gold have also been targeted, although to a lesser extent, due to Libya’s limited resources with respect to other African countries.
Between 1,500 and 3,000 Wagner “musicians” (Музыканты), as they are called, are estimated to have been present in Libya depending on specific circumstances and needs. Most of them originate from Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries. According to Russian sources, these mercenaries are offered an initial salary equivalent to between 1,500 and 1,700 euros per month, which can double for officers and specialists possessing key military or security skills, including pilots of airplanes or drones, tank or anti-aircraft operators, and snipers.
While the role of Wagner in Libya remains primarily military, unconfirmed Italian intelligence reports indicated that Wagner may have been involved in human trafficking with the specific purpose of disrupting the security of NATO ally Italy. Such allegations do not seem reliable, as human trafficking is an important source of revenue for Libyan armed criminal groups, who can hardly be imagined wanting to leave room for Wagner to make gains at their expense. Besides, human trafficking characterizes not only eastern and southern Libya but also Tripolitania, where Wagner is not very much present.
A recent concerning factor related to Wagner’s presence in Libya is the country’s proximity to Sudan, ravaged in recent weeks by violent conflict between different factions within the military. The mercenary group’s presence and extensive activities in Sudan have a strong connection with Libya. Although both Sudanese warring factions have benefited from Russia’s support, one of them, the Rapid Support Force (RSF) – originally stemmed from a militia group in Southern Libya and still maintaining rear bases there – is actively supported by Wagner.
Similarly, Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces are known to provide material support to the RSF. As a further complicating factor, Haftar and one of its regional supporters, Egypt, are finding themselves supporting opposing factions in the Sudan conflict, with Cairo leaning more towards the RSF opponents, the Sudanese Armed Forces. Therefore, risks of spillovers from the Sudan conflict into neighboring Libya are extremely high.
Opportunities for Russia?
The services Wagner offers to autocratic leaders and warlords across Africa have naturally found fertile ground in anti-colonial environments, something which is perfectly in line with the Russian de facto policy of supporting authoritarian conservatism. In Mali and the Central African Republic, Wagner has been able to ensure the weakening and then the demise of the role of France in its former colonies, as well as reducing the role of international actors such as the United Nations.
Countering Wagner’s presence in Libya should be a priority for Western policy makers but by no means their sole concern. The statement by the Russian foreign minister reported above is only a confirmation that Wagner operates in coordination and in support of Moscow’s official policies across the African continent. Therefore, if we combine the Wagner Group’s presence across the continent with Russia’s official economic, military, or political ties with North African countries in particular, the picture of a larger Russian strategy becomes clear.
In addition to Libya, both Algeria and Egypt are relevant, for different reasons, for their links with Moscow. Although Algeria and Egypt have both strong ties to Europe and the latter is a main recipient of secret US military support in the region, they maintain solid relations with Moscow. Based on its past friendship with the Soviet Union, Algeria still relies mainly on Russian weapons and military imports. During a recent visit to Moscow, Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune reiterated in extremely warm terms the two countries’ close and friendly relations.
Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has never made a secret of his sympathy for Vladimir Putin and was recently suspected in the United States of planning to provide military support to Russia. In addition, Egypt’s overall arms imports from Russia have increased by 44 percent between 2017 and 2022, making it Moscow’s third largest recipient, behind India and China.
To this picture should be added Tunisia’s fragile situation, as an increasingly authoritarian leader has difficulties addressing the multiple challenges related to a financial and economic crisis, increased migration from Sub-Saharan Africa, and European demands related to both. A Tunisian default, resulting from the ever more anti-Western stances of its president and his refusal to accept the IMF’s conditions for a vitally needed loan, would certainly contribute to the region’s instability and play into Russia’s hands.
In sum, all the above points to significant opportunities for Russian diplomacy, considering its continued war of aggression against Ukraine and efforts to thwart Western support for Kyiv. And while the United States seems to have in part understood the challenge – at least judging from its growing diplomatic and security attention to the North African region –European leaders appear much more concerned about halting swelling migration flows from the south or securing contracts for new oil and gas routes and supplies. This is happening chiefly through deals with the region’s leaders, often at the expense of economic reform, respect for the rule of law and human rights, and better governance – the contrary of the kind of reforms that would help dry up the fertile ground where Wagner has been able to thrive.
- Coordinated sanctions by both the US and European countries will weaken Wagner’s capacity to fund its operations. With time, the combined effect of Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia, and direct sanctions on Wagner and its leaders, are going to have an impact.
- The Sudan conflict needs urgent and increased diplomatic efforts by both the EU and the US, with the goal of achieving a ceasefire and re-establish the country’s political process.
- An additional element that Western countries must consider tackling is the fact that funding for Wagner comes in part from Haftar’s coffers. Financial oversight needs to be strengthened in Libya. A neutral country such as Switzerland may play a key role in this.
- As Wagner thrives in the gray zone – offering its services of military security, troops training, information/disinformation – the EU and the US need to limit this lawless soil by stabilizing Libya, strengthening the country’s governance, especially in the security sector, on the basis of respect for the rule of law. This should also signal a novel approach by Western countries, whose divisions and stumbles in Libya had often helped create the ground for such gray zones.
- Supporting the new UN process toward elections in Libya should be accompanied by efforts to isolate all potential national and international spoilers from the design of any UN-led process. This must take into account the potential Wagner role in disinformation and manipulation of the electoral process.
- Strong coordination and targeted cooperation between the United States and European allies would be crucial. In fact, while facing its most vital challenge in Europe since the end of the Cold War, NATO cannot ignore the security threats lurking in its immediate Southern neighbourhood.
- Furthermore, a stronger and wide-ranging European strategy (closely coordinated with Washington on specific issues) to address the challenges of North Africa, from the political, economic, and social points of view will be critical. Value-based support to improve welfare and governance across Europe’s Mediterranean neighborhood can be provided by Switzerland, which is widely seen as an impartial and trusted actor.
- Finally, European countries, including Switzerland, should step up investments in sustainable economic progress, helping to tackle the impact of climate change, upholding a culture of rule of law and human rights (including by supporting free media and independent civil society), and consider migration as an opportunity for a gradually depopulating European continent.