Undermining Democracy and Exploiting Clients: The Wagner Group's Nefarious Activities in Africa.

AuthorFaulkner, Christopher

National security professionals are quite familiar with the multidimensional nature of today's international security environment and modern conflict zones, which include a multiplicity of actors, both state and non-state alike. Perhaps most visible in recent years has been the prevalence of private military companies (PMCs), also regularly referred to as private military and security companies (PMSCs). PMCs have become frequent suppliers of a host of military and security-related services for a wide range of clients, including states, rebel groups, multinational corporations, and even international organizations like the United Nations. (1) Indeed, the "market for force" has swelled since the end of the Cold War, and demand is only increasing. (2)

Yet, as the private security sector has matured, so too has the diversity of PMCs available for hire. Of particular relevance is the increased visibility and activity of the Russian PMC known as the Wagner Group, which has developed a notorious reputation for its activities in a host of theaters. Though far from the only Russian PMC active both in and outside of conflict zones, it has become a predominant feature of Russia's modern foreign policy toolkit--especially for Moscow's efforts to expand influence across the African continent. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Kremlin's use of Wagner serves as part of its broader irregular warfare and gray zone strategy to challenge the West, particularly in states where neither Russia nor the United States has sought to maintain a sizable footprint. (3)

This article focuses on the evolution of the Wagner Group and its engagement in several African countries since at least 2015. Though regarded as a private firm, the Wagner Group exhibits features that all but conclusively point to its position as a semi-state security force, and one that Moscow has welcomed as the 'tip of the spear' in its repertoire of foreign policy tools for its Africa strategy. To date, it has used Wagner to challenge and undermine democracy, exploit fragile security environments, prop up and insulate illiberal regimes, ink deals to exploit clients' resources for the benefit of the Russian state and oligarchs, and generally expand Russia's opportunities to discredit the West on the continent.

The article first provides a brief overview of PMCs and discusses relevant academic findings on the implications of governments contracting PMCs. Second, it offers a succinct background on the history and rise of the Wagner Group, illustrating the complexity of its organizational structure and the diversity of its operations. The third section surveys Wagner's engagement across the African continent with short vignettes describing its activities in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Mali. The final section considers how Wagner's African strategy impacts U.S. interests on the continent.

A Snapshot on Private Military Companies

While mercenaries, or soldiers of fortune, have been around for centuries, private military companies are typically viewed as a post-Cold War phenomenon. The modern-day mercenary, PMCs are often distinguished by their corporate organizational structure and boardroom mentality. (4) These military and security providers found no shortage of clients after the fall of the Soviet Union as the changing international system led patron states to make dramatic revisions in their foreign policy strategies. As a result, many recipient governments saw a significant decline in the level of military assistance they had received throughout the Cold War and subsequently struggled to combat threats, both internal and external. In short, "as state power decline[d], private force [rose]." (5)

Early examples of PMCs ushered in to fill the security vacuum left after the Cold War include firms like the Gurkha Security Guards (GSG), which was one of the first to arrive in Sierra Leone during its civil war; Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI), a U.S.-based PMC that trained the Croatian Army during the Croatian War of Independence; (6) the South African PMC Executive Outcomes (EO), which gained notoriety for its direct military involvement in civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola; and the latter's British counterpart, Sandline International, which took over several of EO's missions when that group disbanded in the aftermath of South African legislation outlawing PMCs. (7)

Since the emergence of these early arrivers, the PMC market has grown in both scale and sophistication. Weak states have contracted PMCs to augment security deficiencies, even using PMCs to participate in kinetic frontline operations. For instance, Nigeria contracted at least three private military companies to train, support, and even directly participate in counterinsurgency operations against Boko Haram between 2014 and 2015. (8) Meanwhile, though countries like the United States have typically contracted PMCs to serve exclusively in support or logistical roles, the notorious Nisour Square incident in 2007, where Blackwater employees killed over two dozen Iraqi civilians, highlights the complexities of the PMC landscape. (9)

While controversial groups like Blackwater and its successive iterations are well known, U.S. and Western-registered PMCs are not the only game in town when it comes to PMC options. Today, governments can solicit military and security services from PMCs from a multitude of countries, with Russian PMCs making a concerted effort to increase their market share. Moreover, African states have consistently been important clients for the PMC industry with recent data-gathering showing that the continent accounts for nearly half of all verified incidents of PMC activity between 1980 and 2016. (10)

Given the rise of the industry, there continues to be significant academic attention on the consequences of governments contracting PMCs. The vast majority of recent scholarship considers how the involvement of PMCs during times of armed conflict can impact conflict dynamics (e.g., severity and duration). (11) Generally, the findings suggest that the PMCs can improve clients' military capacity, though for how long and in what ways largely depends on the services provided. Some evidence even suggests that hiring PMCs can decrease the duration of a conflict, though it is important to consider how conflict termination is measured. (12)

Along these lines, several recent empirical investigations emphasize how hiring a PMC can unleash a series of principal-agent problems for clients. These problems can manifest in several forms, but the impacts of contracting a firm that is more interested in pursuing their own interests (adverse selection) or one that pursues actions that misalign with the goals of the client and subsequently make situations worse (moral hazard) are especially pertinent. (13) In fact, researchers have shown that in certain instances, PMCs may have few incentives to ensure conflict ceases entirely, as a manageable level of conflict can ensure contract continuity. (14) This, of course, can have reputational consequences and potentially impact a company's ability to solidify future contracts, but it illustrates the complexity of the private military landscape.

One emerging and particularly relevant area of research to better understand how these firms will behave once the ink on a contract dries is to look at where PMCs are headquartered/registered. Unsurprisingly, preliminary findings suggest that PMCs that come from democratic states are associated with a lower probability of engaging in human rights abuses while the opposite holds for those registered in non-democracies with poor human rights records. (15) For the Russian-based Wagner Group, this is an especially relevant consideration when examining its growing role in Africa. While all PMCs by nature are self-interested and profit-oriented, Wagner epitomizes these characteristics--caring little about cultivating genuine stability, respect for the rule of law, or democracy, and instead propping up clients in an exploitative fashion.

The Rise of the Wagner Group

It is worth briefly reviewing the Wagner Group's origins, formation, and evolution to situate its growing role as a tool in Russia's modern foreign policy toolkit. Despite Moscow's constitutional ban on PMCs, Russia has a history of using these firms to do its bidding and, in recent years, has maintained a cadre of PMCs that function as part of its broader irregular warfare strategy. (16) Yet, the Wagner Group clearly operates as Russia's premier firm, illustrated most directly by the breadth of its engagement around the globe and its proximity to the Kremlin--leading some to refer to it as "Putin's private army." (17) In many ways, the group's status as an independent contractor gives it a degree of "unpredictability" and, most importantly, simultaneously offers Moscow the facade of "plausible deniability." (18)

The idea of the Wagner Group is believed to have originated around 2010 in a Russian General Staff meeting. (19) Though details of that event are sparse, some evidence suggests that present at the meeting was Eeben Barlow, founder of the South African PMC Executive Outcomes. (20 a) Wagner officially emerged on the scene circa 2014 from a tangled web of PMC predecessors. These included the Moran Security Group, a Russian firm specializing in maritime and shipping security, and the Slavonic Corps, which first deployed to fight in Syria. (21)

The Wagner Group was founded by Dmitry Utkin and bankrolled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, better known as "Putin's cook" (or chef). Utkin is a retired veteran of Russia's intelligence agency, the GRU, where he served from approximately 1988 to 2013. (22) A staunch admirer of Hitler and Nazi Germany, it is believed that Utkin chose the name Wagner in honor of Hitler's favorite composer, Richard Wagner. (23) Prigozhin, meanwhile, is a...

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