CORE #3: Beyond the Mercenaries: Russia’s Wagner Group and the Shifting Sands of African Conflicts

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

The Wagner Group’s burgeoning presence in African conflicts has stirred strong reactions and prompted international measures as stakeholders grapple with potential global and regional ramifications. Countries like France are intensely monitoring the situation, wary of the Wagner Group’s capacity to reshape power dynamics and disrupt the existing diplomatic status quo (Gbadamosi, 2023; Rampe, 2023). The urgency is underscored by concerns over human rights abuses, prolonged conflicts, and resource exploitation tied to the group’s arbitrariness (Aftandilian, 2022). Moreover, the UK has recently announced its intention to declare the Wagner Group a terrorist organization, making it illegal to be a member or support the group, on the basis of its involvement in looting, torture, and “barbarous murders” across Ukraine, the Middle East, and Africa (Reuters, 2023). 
This move underscores international efforts to hold the Wagner Group accountable for its actions and potential violations of international law. Under the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries (ICRUFTM) and the Organization of African Unity Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa (OAU CEM), the use of mercenaries is prohibited in armed conflict and certain peaceful situations (United Nations Human Rights, n.d.). The African Union’s Convention also prohibits both mercenaries and mercenarism, characterizing it as a crime against peace and security in Africa (Organization of African Unity (OAU), 1977).  However, Wagner Group’s operations seem to face few meaningful legal constraints, as prosecutions of mercenaries by state authorities are rarely attempted or carried out due to the lack of clear legal status, limited jurisdiction of international courts, lack of political will, difficulty in gathering evidence, and inadequate national laws (Perovic, 2021; Weeks et al., 2023; Letrone & Cabus, 2023).
However, diplomatic initiatives and sanctions have already been set in motion. The United States has imposed sanctions on entities and individuals connected to the Wagner Group, particularly those involved in illicit gold trading that funds the group’s operations (Aftandilian, 2022; Ogao, 2023). These sanctions aim to disrupt the Wagner Group’s financial network and international structure, which it uses to fund its operations and exploit natural resources in African countries (U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2023). Alas, despite various global responses, Russia advocates a distinct approach, with Russian officials appearing willing to continue accommodating the group’s presence. This divergence in approach underlines the complexity of managing a conflict-ridden situation involving multiple actors (Gbadamosi, 2023).


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.


Benefit and Ease of Wagner’s Operation for African Countries

Wagner’s operations in African regions have introduced a unique touch to the regional dynamic. Initially, some parties saw this situation as a mutually beneficial arrangement, given the ongoing political and economic exchanges that continued to yield profits. African countries gained the protection they needed, while Russia advanced its interests in the business sector. However, a closer examination reveals that African nations may face a multitude of risks due to their high dependency on this partnership. The deal struck between them and Russia could potentially impact their sovereignty and their ability to independently shape their intended fate, apart from external actors’ role in the equation. Additionally, there is the looming concern that the Wagner Group’s presence could pose threats to local communities and lead to human rights violations (Siegle, 2023).
Whether acting alone or through the Wagner Group, Russia’s success in expanding its influence in the African nations has drawn it deeper into their domestic issues, further entrenching its control in the continent in pursuing its agendas. Meanwhile, the local governments may not fully grasp that their country’s wealth has been exploited by both their political elites and Russia. The trajectory of the relationship between these parties remains uncertain, particularly if the countries benefiting from Wagner Group assistance fail to navigate this situation wisely, potentially resulting in even higher dependency.
In conclusion, the future of the Wagner Group in Africa hangs in the balance, carrying significant implications for regional conflicts, international repercussions, and broader geopolitical dynamic shifts. While African nations have reaped the benefits of Wagner’s protection, they now stand at a critical juncture concerning their sovereignty and independence. The international community must approach these complexities with a coordinated strategy, as polarized reactions among nations could shape the course of African conflicts and realign the global balance of power into undesirable directions. The choices made by international actors today will undoubtedly have far-reaching consequences, further emphasizing the complexity of tomorrow’s geopolitical landscape.


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