Brian Latham explores the relative success of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private military company – effectively a mining company with guns – and its clash with China in a new scramble for Africa

The shifting alliance of 21st-century robber barons operating out of Moscow is keeping Western spy agencies busy – and their analysts perplexed. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group is the biggest, but at any time there are between 15 and 30 other Russian Private Military Companies operating in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. 

Some are ‘’almost legitimate,’’ like the private army guarding Gazprom’s installations. Others emerge and then collapse because their sponsors run out of money. Still more fold and re-emerge with different names because their promoters live in terror of the sanctions America’s Office of Foreign Asset Control might impose on them. OFAC publishes lists of names – lists that are required reading for dictators, criminals, and now, private armies. 

Others are comically inept and manned by fantasist wannabe soldiers with no combat experience – and some don’t exist at all, products of rumour mills and speculation. Then some fail because they’ve fallen out with Putin or his generals. 

Of the diminishing number of Russian groups that still exist, Wagner is by far the largest with an estimated 50,000 men, though that may be falling fast as it endures humiliating losses in Ukraine. 

A Mining Company with Fighters

That Wagner has prevailed is down to several factors. Its owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has more money than his competitors. He also has a closer relationship with Putin and, until now, with Putin’s generals. 

The group also serves a useful propaganda role for Russia, feeding disinformation to the West’s right-wing crusaders, wannabe militias, and, more alarmingly, news agencies like Fox News. Recently fired Tucker Carlson often echoed Russia’s ambition, whether he realised it or not. 

Outside Ukraine, Wagner is spread thinly across the Sahel from Sudan to Burkina Faso, and as far south as the Central African Republic (CAR). The group has affiliates like the Sewa Security Service operating in the CAR, and connections with groups like the small DShRG Rusich fighters. And while Wagner’s combatants are easily identified, the group also has ‘’cyber-teams’’ pumping out dis-and-misinformation, rigging elections, and fostering pro-Russian, anti-western sentiment. 

Wagner eclipsed groups like the Tsar’s Wolves, the Anti-Terror Eagles, the Russian Imperial Movement, Byzantium, and, weirdly, Polite People, because it doesn’t fight for cash. Wagner is paid in resource rights, mainly gold. On paper –  and in reality – it’s a mining company that employs fighters to guard its mines. 

Many of the countries Wagner does business with have no money, and money they may have earned from exports of gold now goes to Wagner, which converts gold to dollars in Dubai to fund its war in Ukraine. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine is the reason Wagner and other PMCs are spread so thinly. Wagner could have as many as 50,000 men under its command, but it’s taking heavy casualties and struggling to recruit new fighters, most of whom get an inadequate two weeks of training. 

Neither Wagner nor any of Russia’s disparate PMCs have had much military success. Intelligence agencies in southern Africa point to three reasons. Firstly, many of their combatants are untrained or poorly trained and, secondly, training in Russia’s official military is notoriously bad. The third reason is that despite being hired to fight rebels in places like the Central African Republic, they do so reluctantly. Their real job is to guard Wagner’s gold mines. 

Wagner Crimes: How the UK can Take the Lead on Stopping Putin’s Mercenaries

Russia versus China in the New Scramble for Africa 

Meanwhile, Putin is less concerned with Prigozhin’s gold than he is with winning two new Cold War fronts – one the traditional struggle with the West, the other with China. Right across the Middle East and Africa, China is giving Putin a drubbing without firing a shot. Beijing uses loans and debt to control events, while Russia relies on ragtag mercenaries ill-equipped for the very real science and art of African wars. Now that Prigozhin has been drawn into fighting Russia’s war in Ukraine, he needs a lot more African gold to fund what Moscow can’t. 

Wagner’s presence has been reported in the Central African Republic, Syria, Libya, Sudan and South Sudan, Chad, Mozambique, the DRC, Mali, Belarus, Venezuela, Cuba, Nigeria, Madagascar, Botswana, Comoros, Rwanda, Angola, and Lesotho. Again, intelligence agencies say many of these reports are unlikely to be confirmed and some make no sense. In other words, it’s unlikely that Russian fighters are in all these countries. 

Wagner is nevertheless hoping for a contract with Burkina Faso’s embattled government which is battling what it calls ‘’narco-Jihadist terror groups.’’ Last week, in the northern Burkinabe village of Karma, 60 civilians were gunned down by men wearing official military uniforms. Meanwhile, to the east in the Central African Republic, Wagner fighters were accused of last month killing nine Chinese mineworkers by shooting them in the head, execution style. 

And that’s the crux of Putin’s problem. With Russia and China both trying to increase their power and influence in Africa, the massacre of Chinese workers in the CAR highlights Russia’s weakness. If it was carried out by Wagner or the Sewa Security group, Beijing will punish Russia economically. 


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