Wagner in AfricaRussia’s Other Empire in the MakingBloodier than Ukraine
Brian Latham reports on the intelligence leak that reveals Putin’s plan to create a ‘confederation’ of friendly states across the Sahel through his proxy Prigozhin
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Russia plans to create a ‘confederation’ of sympathetic states across the Sahel and West Africa, according to intelligence leaks from the U.S. It’s also targeted countries further south, notably Madagascar and Mozambique, while it pours misinformation and disinformation into the presses of, mainly, West African newspapers.
The intelligence leaks reveal that Russia’s autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin, works through his ally, Yevgeny Prigozhin (and Prigozhin’s Wagner Group), to gain control and influence in Africa.
Best known for its bloodthirsty mercenary activity, Wagner also engages in cyberwarfare and election rigging in Africa, the leaks show. Wagner can deploy about 50,000 men, the intelligence estimates, though it’s unclear how losses in Ukraine affect that number.
Outside of Ukraine and Russia, Prigozhin has men in Sudan, Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Burkina Faso. They’ve been accused of human rights abuses ranging from rape to massacre in Mali and the CAR, and while Wagner fighters were forced to flee Mozambique by a small team of former Zimbabwe special forces, they retain a small cyberwarfare unit in the capital, Maputo, the leaks show.
It’s unclear if Wagner has forces in Burkina Faso yet, though the group is negotiating a contract with the Burkinabe government in Ouagadougou. The landlocked nation is waging war against a confusing blend of Jihadists and narco warriors. An April 20 massacre of 60 people in the northern village of Karma confuses the issue further because the killers wore the government’s military uniforms.
With the entire east-to-west axis of the Sahel now at war, Russia, using Wagner as a tool, has a perfect excuse to offer fighters and resources against both jihadists and drug traders from coast to coast. It’s a 1.2 million square mile region rich in resources ranging from oil to gold, and it splits the Arab-dominated north from the black south.
Still, there is some resistance. The leaks show that Prigozhin offered missile launchers to Sudan’s rebel Rapid Support Forces when fighting began last week. RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, more usually known as Hemedti, turned the offer down for fear of upsetting the Americans. And in the CAR, the massacre of nine Chinese citizens at a mine saw people accuse Wagner, adding to growing resentment at the presence of Russians among the people, if not the government that invited them.
Wagner mines gold in the CAR, Sudan, and Mali, and will likely be negotiating gold contracts in Burkina Faso where the yellow metal is the country’s biggest export earner. The gold goes to Prigozhin’s coffers via three smuggling routes, passing through Togo in the west, Khartoum or Rwanda in the east and on to Dubai where it’s sold for dollars to fund Wagner and its war in Ukraine. It’s reported to mine uranium in the Sudan and Mali.
U.S. Secretary for State Antony Blinken said this week that Wagner was a threat to negotiating peace in Sudan, telling a press conference that the mercenary group ‘’simply brings more death and destruction’’ wherever it operates.
Blinken’s problem is that African states, even those that aren’t dictatorships or autocratic, find it hard to deny Russian blandishments. That’s because Russia supported Africa’s liberation movements during the Cold War — which wasn’t cold in Africa. It’s even more difficult if your nation is already engulfed by war. Russian propaganda, fed through African newspapers, has already seen French forces expelled from Burkina Faso and Mali, both former colonies.
Typically the propaganda isn’t subtle. Prigozhin told the Sudanese, on Telegraph, that Wagner wants peace, but the ‘’UN wants blood.’’ He was offering to mediate in the crisis, but so have several other bodies and African nations.
It’s a grim picture as a new Cold War emerges pitting an aggressive, confident Russia against a tentative, prevaricating western alliance – leaving Africa, once again, bleeding in the middle. Africa has to deal with the fact that Russia has too much to lose by backing off. Whether the west will find its conscience remains to be seen.