Can Russia Tame Wagner in Africa Without Destroying It?


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Hours after Yevgeny V. Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenary group ended their rebellion on Saturday, officials with the Russian Foreign Ministry phoned the president of the Central African Republic to assure him that the thousands of Wagner fighters deployed in his country would stay, and that Russia would keep looking for new ventures in Africa.

Thousands of miles away, and as the rebellion was still underway, Russian troops in Syria had surrounded several bases that host Wagner fighters, fearing that the contagion might spread beyond Russia.

Russia’s leadership had encountered some issues with “the head of the paramilitaries,” they told the Central African president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, but those issues had been resolved and the Kremlin, they assured him, was in control.

But others aren’t so sure. The Wagner group was the personal project of Mr. Prigozhin, who built it over nearly a decade into a sprawling enterprise, with tentacles reaching from Libya, across Africa and into the Middle East. The group has deployed troops in five African countries, and Mr. Prigozhin’s affiliates have been present in more than a dozen in total.

With Mr. Prigozhin in exile in Belarus and thousands of his mercenaries scattering into exile with him or being forced to join the Russian military, it isn’t clear how the whole structure will be maintained.

“They know people on the ground, they have the institutional knowledge and know-how,” John Lechner, an independent researcher currently writing a book on Wagner, said about the group’s executives in African countries.

“The Kremlin cannot replace these guys and expect things to work the way they did before.”

Furthermore, last week’s rebellion was touched off by the Russian Defense Ministry’s order for all Wagner members to sign a Russian military contract, effectively destroying the group’s autonomy. The same demand has been made of Russians and Syrians working with Wagner in Syria, but it is not yet clear whether the order will extend to Africa.

Details about Russia’s diplomatic efforts to reassure Central African Republic leaders after Mr. Prigozhin’s mutiny were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The Wagner group provides security to African presidents, props up dictators, violently suppresses rebel uprisings and is accused of torture, murder of civilians and other abuses. It also meddles in politics, organizes propaganda campaigns and, in one instance, even held a beauty pageant. In return it receives cash or lucrative mining concessions for precious minerals like gold, diamonds and uranium.

For years, until the Ukraine war, Mr. Prigozhin denied any link with Wagner and even its very existence, and only recently did President Vladimir V. Putin acknowledge Russia’s connection to the group. That deliberately murky relationship enabled the Wagner mercenaries to take advantage of Russian military assets like transport planes and heavy armor while posing as nonstate actors. In return, the group provided Moscow a means to project power, often with indiscriminate violence, while denying responsibility.

For now, however, Wagner’s clients seem prepared to take Moscow at its word, perhaps unwilling or in some cases, frightened, to contemplate governing without the group’s iron-fisted backing.

“Russia gave us Wagner, the rest isn’t our business,” said Fidèle Gouandjika, a special adviser to Mr. Touadéra in the Central African Republic. “If it’s not Wagner anymore and they send Beethoven or Mozart, it doesn’t matter, we’ll take them,” he added, a reference to the group’s taking its name from the German composer Richard Wagner.

The Central African Republic is considered by most analysts Wagner’s most accomplished business model and example of state capture. The dizzying range of its activities and revenue streams there amply illustrate the problems the Kremlin will encounter in trying to assert control.

Wagner makes liberal use of shell companies to conceal its activities, but through at least a half-dozen known entities in the Central African Republic, it runs a radio station and a brewery, and soon will be bottling water.

It provides bodyguards for Mr. Touadéra and trains the country’s army.

It also controls hundreds of miles of formerly bandit-infested roads connecting Bangui, the capital, to the port of Douala in neighboring Cameroon, where the trucks from Wagner-affiliated companies carrying timber and other merchandise but pay no taxes, according to a Western diplomat in Bangui.

“There are so many African subsidiaries,” said Julia Stanyard, a senior analyst at the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, about the entities that link back to Mr. Prigozhin. “We only know the tip of the iceberg.”

In countries where Wagner provides soldiers for hire, the Kremlin might be able to regain some control more easily, observers say, because the paramilitary group relies on funding and logistics provided by the Ministry of Defense.

In Mali, where about 1,500 mercenaries fight alongside the national army against armed groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, Wagner operatives have made liberal use of Russia’s military transport planes to deliver heavy weapons and rotate their troops, according to flight data.

In Syria, where Russia’s military intervened in 2015 on behalf of its authoritarian president, Bashar al-Assad, to help crush a yearslong rebellion, Wagner mercenaries operate alongside Russian soldiers.

As Wagner’s armored columns pushed toward Moscow on Saturday, Russian troops surrounded at least two bases in Syria with Wagner troops inside, according to local news outlets.

For hours, the Russian forces maintained their armed perimeter around the bases, one near Damascus and the other near the Syrian coast, fearing any movement by Wagner fighters. Telecommunications were also jammed.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister later met with Mr. al-Assad of Syria to discuss “coordination” between the two countries, “especially in the light of recent developments,” according to Syrian state media.

The Wagner mercenaries in Syria have been told they have until Friday to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense. In the Central African Republic, a pro-Wagner Telegram channel echoed with complaints from Wagner contractors about signing the deal, but there was no confirmation that the order had been given.

But it mattered little Central African officials, Mr. Gouandjika said.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said in a televised interview on Monday that Wagner forces would not pull out of Mali or the Central African Republic, he noted, adding that the Russian embassy in Bangui had followed up with a note telling Central African Republic officials not to worry.

“Russia has long claws, but we don’t feel them,” Mr. Gouandjika said. “They’re rubbing us up the right way.”


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