After Prigozhin: The Future of the Wagner Model in Africa.

AuthorFaulkner, Christopher

On June 23, 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner's chief warlord, released a pivotal diatribe against Russia's military leadership. A scathing Prigozhin accused the Russian army of bombing a Wagner Group camp in eastern Ukraine that had resulted in many Wagner casualties. (1) While the circumstances of the event are unclear, it became a catalyst for action. (2) Coupled with a looming requirement for non-Ministry of Defense (MoD) personnel to sign contracts with the Russian military, Prigozhin demanded justice, and to everyone's surprise, he launched a mutiny targeting Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, Russia's Minister of Defense and Chief of Staff, respectively. (3) Wagner forces eventually aborted the mutiny, but not before taking over the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and halting less than 200 miles from Moscow. (4)

Just as shocking as the mutiny itself was the seemingly lack of consequences for the plotters. Immediately following Prigozhin's acquiescence, many assumed that he, along with Wagner, had signed their death warrants. Yet, for nearly two months, Wagner's operations abroad appeared unaffected, and Prigozhin continued to travel in and out of Russia without consequence. That all changed when his private jet crashed under suspicious circumstances on August 23, 2023, exactly two months after his aborted mutiny. (5) Several prominent members of the Wagner Group were also onboard, including Dmitri Utkin, the group's founder; and Valery Chekalov, Prigozhin's deputy, head of Wagner's operations in Syria, and key logistician for Wagner's operations in Africa. (6) While the Kremlin denied any involvement in Prigozhin's death, hollowing out Wagner's leadership core aligns with Moscow's broader efforts to reassert control over the mercenary firm's influence overseas. (7)

Many questions remain surrounding the fallout both from the Wagner mutiny and Prigozhin's death. Chief among them is what this all means for Wagner's overseas deployments, particularly in Africa. (8) Banished from the frontlines of Ukraine and exiled to Belarus, the organization's long-term durability remains very much in question and such speculation on the group's viability post-Prigozhin is ripe. (9)

On the surface, Wagner's African deployments appeared to have suffered little from Prigozhin's self-described meltdown. (10) Quite the contrary, and despite a chorus of initial reports that questioned Wagner's viability on the continent in the aftermath of the revolt, Wagner's operations looked to be running as business as usual. The group's move to Belarus seemed to give Wagner new life, reinforcing its durability. Wagner's core leadership used the Belarussian exile to their advantage, signaling their intent to recalibrate and expand their network, especially in Africa. Nowhere was this clearer than with Prigozhin's praise of Niger's coup leaders and his attempts to court the Sahel's newest military junta. (11)

All this is to say that in the weeks leading up to the infamous plane crash, Prigozhin and Wagner's commitment to Africa was abundantly clear. Prigozhin's first significant post-mutiny video depicted him in the Sahel where he vowed to make Russia greater across all continents and to make Africa even freer. (12) Such messaging seemed to illustrate Wagner's acceptance of its demotion and Prigozhin's willingness to reconstitute his focus on Africa. However, and as elucidated by investigative journalists, Prigozhin's efforts to shore up relationships with African clients, including meeting with African delegates such as Freddy Mapouka, chief of protocol for President Toudera of the Central African Republic, during the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in late July 2023, and his short-lived propaganda campaign were less about repairing relations with Moscow and more about ensuring the economic viability of his enterprise. (13) Yet, trips to Bangui and Bamako in mid-August, where Prigozhin boasted about surviving the rebellion unscathed, proved to be part of his "farewell tour." (14)

While Prigozhin sought to rekindle relationships and spark new ones, the Kremlin was reportedly operating a parallel campaign designed to undercut Wagner's partnerships with regimes in Africa and the Middle East. (15) From Syria to Libya to the Central African Republic (CAR) to Mali, the Russian MoD set in motion a concerted effort to draw clients away from Wagner's orbit and back to Moscow, promising more formal state-state engagement. (16) The jostling for influence and behind-the-scenes competition exemplify just how fractured and irreparable the Prigozhin-Kremlin relationship had become in the post-mutiny environment. At the same time, jockeying to maintain relationships with Wagner clients while ditching Wagner accentuates the importance of Africa to Russia and demonstrates why Moscow cannot abandon the Wagner infrastructure entirely.

This article provides an overall assessment of what Prigozhin's mutiny and subsequent death mean for Wagner's operations in Africa, using open-source information and interviews with analysts closely tracking the group. The article first provides background on Wagner's operations across its various African deployments. Second, the authors explore the post-mutiny and post-Prigozhin environments in Africa, focusing specifically on Wagner operations in the CAR and Mali. Here, the authors discuss how the Kremlin and Prigozhin appeared to be competing to shore up relations with African partners in the immediate period after the mutiny and how Prigozhin's death does not spell the end for Wagner operations in Africa. Third, the article considers Wagner's future on the continent. The authors assess that while Wagner's autonomy is over and its future uncertain, it is likely that Moscow will continue to use PMCs as a foreign policy tool in Africa given the success of the Wagner model in Africa. Fourth, the authors discuss the U.S. response to Wagner and emphasize the importance of remaining proactive in countering Wagner. The article concludes with an assessment of the way forward for Wagner, noting that regardless of Wagner's long-term future, Moscow is likely to retain the Wagner model in Africa.

Background on Wagner Operations in Africa

While the Wagner Group derived significant notoriety from its Ukrainian operations, the group made its mark as a Kremlin foreign policy tool and as a credible military and security outfit in Africa. (17) From its deployments alongside Russian special forces in Libya to its standalone operations in Mali, Wagner has yielded significant influence for the Kremlin in at least four African countries. (18) Far from Putin's gaze, the group's operations gradually became more autonomous. Wagner relied heavily, for instance, on Moscow for logistics and leveraged its connection to the Kremlin to attract buyers, but Prigozhin increasingly sought ways to use his vast corporate network to cut out the Russian state where possible. Prigozhin, for instance, contracted United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based firm Kratol Aviation to transport contractors and material across its African deployments in lieu of MoD aircraft, and used companies like Industrial Resources General Trading, ostensibly a Wagner shell company, to move resources such as gold to global markets. (19)

Commentators are eager to paint Wagner's motivations as part of a coherent strategy, but Wagner's contracts are as much a product of opportunism as planning. In Libya, Wagner's involvement began as a force multiplier for the Russian military. The group's initial operations aligned with the Russian military's efforts to oust the Western-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Libya's vast oil wealth undoubtedly served as a clear motivator for Wagner, but its operations were more aligned with Russia's foreign policy objectives in the region and directed by the Russian MoD. Wagner's operations shifted to running airfields that served to facilitate transportation of personnel and equipment to their operations in other African countries such as CAR and Mali. (20)

Like Libya, other major Wagner deployments started under the guise of Russian security assistance but grew into something more independent, particularly at the operational level. Wagner's initial deployment to CAR began through political j ockeying by Moscow at the United Nations to secure an exemption on CAR's arms embargo and provide trainers in late 2017. (21) Wagner's security role in CAR expanded dramatically alongside its economic interests in the country's timber, gold, and diamond industries. Wagner parlayed these activities into a broader effort aimed at embedding itself into the local economy. (22) In Mali, the Wagner Group entered alongside a deal for Russian Mi-141 attack helicopters, but the group appeared to quickly mount independent patrols while frequently killing civilians at alarming rates. (23) The firm successfully exploited anti-French sentiment and capitalized on a deteriorating security situation in the region to gain favor with the ruling junta. (24)

Wagner's aggressive campaign to court clients is only half the equation in understanding its expansion on the continent. African regimes facing security crises and with few viable alternatives saw Prigozhin as a counterbalance to Western and African institutions. As one analyst recently put it, Russia, and Wagner specifically, served as an effective "ally of last resort." (25) Moreover, Wagner offered democracy-skeptical leaders a chance to insulate themselves from both internal and external pressures, whether they be rebel and terrorist groups or calls for democratic reform. Even if Wagner never delivered on defeating rebels and terrorists, regime security and insulation were often sufficient enough attractions to get contracts signed.

How Wagner's Mutiny and Prigozhin's Death Impact Wagner Operations in Africa Overall

In the days following the Prigozhin-led mutiny, the Kremlin...

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