Written by Bimo Bagaskara Indiputera and Inayah Keydiza
(Research and Analysis Division FPCI Chapter UI and FPCI Universitas Airlangga Board of 2023)
The world is caught in limbo regarding the fate of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary group with over 5,000 soldiers stationed across conflict-stricken countries in Africa like the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Mali, and Sudan as the impact of a potential move by Russia to nationalize the group looms large (Gbadamosi, 2023). Experts frequently highlight the intricate geopolitical implications of such a move as well as the urgent need to understand its consequences on conflict dynamics, political stability, human rights existence, and resource utilization (Aftandilian, 2022; Rampe, 2023; Fouché, 2023). The evolving situation demands global attention, as it could reshape the power dynamics in the region and trigger ripple effects on the international stage.
At the heart of this security uncertainty, lies the Wagner Group, a private military force founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin (Rampe, 2023). Despite its status as a private entity, the Wagner Group maintains a strong connection with the Russian government, effectively serving as a tool of the Kremlin’s ambitions. Since 2017, it has been operating in several African countries, providing military support, security assistance, diplomatic influence, even going as far as engaging in propaganda efforts. In return, some African nations have granted Russia access to their potential natural resources, solidifying the group’s significance in advancing Russia’s economic and political interests (Felbab-Brown, 2023).
However, a significant shift occurred on 23 June 2023, when Prigozhin initiated a rebellion against the Russian military leadership. The group’s loyal role as Russia’s henchmen is questioned. This rebellion involved seizing a military installation in Rostov-on-Don and staging a march toward Moscow (Taddonio, 2023). The ongoing Wagner Group operation in Africa has been cast into doubt, as African leaders now question the sustainability of their military cooperation with Russia; many of these nations had relied heavily on the protection provided by the Wagner Group. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated that Wagner’s operations in Africa will continue but may undergo a restructuring in terms of leadership.
These turn of events also raise intriguing questions about the extent of Russia’s underlying influence in Africa. As these multifaceted conflicts continue to flow, we can discover how they play a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of conflicts, diplomacy, and power dynamics on both local and global scales.
Impact of Wagner Group’s Nationalization in African Conflicts
The potential nationalization of the Wagner Group’s operations has sparked speculation about its effects particularly on conflicts in Libya and Sudan (Aftandilian, 2022; Gbadamosi, 2023). These countries, already grappling with their complex internal dynamics, could see potentially significant shifts should Wagner become fully integrated into Russia’s official military command; to be nationalized. Nationalization of this private mercenary entity essentially means that the group, which previously operated with relative autonomy, would now operate as a formal part of the Russian military, potentially leading to changes in its role and actions in these conflict zones. Furthermore, the potential nationalization of Wagner’s operations extends its ramifications to other conflict zones, particularly in Libya and Sudan.
In Libya, where Wagner strongly supports Field Marshal Haftar, the potential nationalization of their operations raises its own complex concerns. It could significantly impact Haftar’s position, altering power dynamics and peace negotiations (Rampe, 2023) and influencing resource distribution (Uniacke, 2022) in the nation. The shift from a private entity to part of the Russian military could reshape Wagner’s role in Libya’s post-conflict reconstruction, adding uncertainties to an already fragile situation. Sudan, which is experiencing ongoing conflicts, has been a significant area for Wagner Group’s activities, especially in resource-rich areas like gold mining and a naval base in Port Sudan. Nationalization could alter the dynamics in Sudan with a specific effect on activities in gold mining (Doxsee, 2023) and influencing the Russian naval base’s geopolitical implications. However, the full extent of these changes and their consequences, whether on political stability or resource-driven disputes, remains uncertain and need to be closely monitored amid the evolving Wagner Group situation (Rampe, 2023).
Amidst this uncertainty, it is important to remember that the effects of Wagner’s nationalization in these two areas of conflict can differ significantly. Although both are located on the African continent, their geography as well as existing relationships with local authorities, create a unique context. Therefore, the impact on political stability or potential resource conflicts should be closely observed, given that each region has their own dynamics and challenges that will shape the future development of these conflicts. At the end of the day, the move towards nationalization presents a multifaceted challenge. It might enhance military coordination but exacerbate authoritarian tendencies and human rights abuses. The outcome remains uncertain but will surely shape the trajectories of these conflicts (Fouché, 2023).
International Community Reactions and Measures
Patterns of Cooperation Between Wagner Group and Sudan
In the context of these unfolding events, it’s essential to note that one of the African countries, Sudan, had been a recipient of support from the Wagner Group until recently. This support dated back to the era of President Omar Al-Bashir, during which Moscow engaged in negotiations with Al-Bashir, discussing economic and security agreements to strengthen their partnership. One of the central agreements that emerged from these negotiations was a concession for gold mining granted to M-Invest, a Russian company associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group. Additionally, they agreed to construct a naval military base in the Red Sea, specifically in Port Sudan (Doxsee, 2023). However, in 2019, the Al-Bashir regime was toppled by the military, resulting in a significant power vacuum within Sudan’s government. This vacuum transformed into a battleground between two internal military factions: the Sudanese Armed Forces, under the leadership of General Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti.
Following the fall of the Al-Bashir regime, Sudan and Russia continued their cooperation. After Al-Bashir’s departure, Prigozhin attempted to establish cooperation with General Al-Burhan, but their relationship soured following the Khartoum massacre in 2019 (Ramadi, 2023). More recently, a significant development has captured the international community’s attention. A notable alliance has emerged between the Wagner Group and the RSF, with Wagner providing weapons and ammunition support to the RSF on the battlefield. This support has bolstered the RSF’s strength against the forces loyal to General Al-Burhan (Doxsee, 2023). The relationships and cooperation agreements between Russia, the Wagner Group, and Sudan have undergone significant changes, contributing to the complex landscape of international relations in the African context.