Russia’s Mercenaries Don’t Want to Control Africa. They Want to Loot It
U.S. policymakers should focus less on what the mercs are doing on the continent than what the United States could do.
At first glance, Russian influence efforts in Africa appear to be paying off handsomely. More than two dozen African countries, many with Russian official and private military company presences, dodged or abstained from a United Nations vote to condemn the invasion of Ukraine; Eritrea, which hosts Russian military installations, voted against the resolution outright. Meanwhile, the Central African Republic, which has seen pro-Russia demonstrations (and a social-media post in which fighters wave a Russian flag and offer to help the invading forces), has joined Moscow in recognizing the breakaway territories as independent.
As the conflict in Ukraine progresses, some are wondering about Russia’s activities in Africa, particularly by the mercenary Wagner Group, known for its flashy entrances into conflicts and Russia’s tight-lipped claims that it does not exist. Some in the international community have concluded that Wagner is the vanguard for a Russian scramble for Africa.
This is not the case. Turning Russia into a boogeyman for Africa’s woes and treating African nations that partner with them as co-conspirators undermines the sovereignty of African countries and deprives African civilians of the international support they need during security crises. Russia’s harmful but geopolitically modest ambitions for the continent should be understood on their own terms instead of framed as a great power competition. Most importantly, efforts to counter Wagner need to acknowledge why they were there in the first place.
Since Wagner’s 2017 entrance into the Central African Republic, or CAR, the group has been involved in several high-profile conflicts across the continent, from the Libyan civil war to the fight against ISIS in Mozambique to Mali’s counterterrorism efforts. Wagner promises no-strings-attached security assistance in exchange for payments or natural resource concessions. It’s an enticing deal for African leaders, particularly those who feel efforts by the international community are insufficient to their security needs.
Wagner’s activities are opportunistic. Wagner entered CAR and Libya because they were longstanding unresolved civil conflicts, and they were in Mozambique and are entering Mali because of unsuccessful counterterrorism efforts. Wagner saw opportunities to make money from conflict and Russia sees opportunities to wrongfoot competitors like France and give the appearance of restoring the Soviet Union’s footprint in the developing world without the associated investment. Rather than being part of an orchestrated campaign to establish Russian influence in strategic locations, where Wagner will go next is simply a question of whose need for mercenaries is most dire, and what nations the international community has failed.
For all the supposed success Wagner has had in CAR and elsewhere, Russia’s reliance on shadowy mercenaries shows how weak they are on the continent. Covert and limited engagement means that Russia can wash its hands of Wagner when it suffers reversals. The group’s mission in Mozambique was a disaster, largely ending after an ambush that killed several mercenaries and social media posts from the victorious ISIS fighters showing off the loot from the battle. Wagner undoubtedly suffers casualties in other conflicts, although they do not publicize those losses.
Wagner’s ties to the Russian government led many to believe that engagement with Wagner inevitably leads to deepened formal relations with Russia. CAR is supposedly the prime example, where Wagner trains and leads elements of the national military and Russians serve as national security advisor and head the customs department. CAR’s president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, has met with Putin multiple times, and the Russian state secured an exemption to the UN arms embargo to arm the Central African military. Russian is now taught as a mandatory language in schools. Wagner has even produced two films in CAR, one supposedly depicting the group’s successes against armed groups and the other depicting the counterterrorism campaign in Mozambique.
But even in CAR, things are not rosy for Wagner. The group led a bloody counter-offensive against rebel groups that produced civilian casualties and drew unwanted scrutiny. The EU and U.S. sanctioned the group, and the EU pulled its own military assistance program out of the country. To top things off, the Central African government may no longer be paying Wagner. Want of revenue has led Wagner to run extortion rackets in areas where they are present, including kidnapping businessmen, robbery, and setting up checkpoints to collect taxes on goods like coffee. They’ve also run afoul of the Chadian government after pursuing armed groups across the northern border.
To be sure, Wagner’s activities are extraordinarily bad for Africans, and unlikely to give them the security environment they need to recover from conflict. Wagner is indifferent to the political context behind conflict, meaning that even when they win on the ground, they cannot address the grievances and dynamics that led to rebellion in the first place. When they ultimately end up leaving conflict zones, there’s little reason to believe the people they “liberated” will be much better off. Frequent accusations of war crimes and atrocities by Wagner also lead to blowback on the leaders that hired them. CAR’s UN arms embargo, for instance, has been continually renewed despite the protestations of the government.
The U.S. and Europe need to realize that Russian policy in Africa is a Potemkin village. Russia lacks the economic clout and trade relations needed for influence in Africa to the extent of countries like China, France, or even the UAE and Turkey. Moscow uses Wagner to maintain the appearance of participating in power politics. Russian foreign policy interests in Africa are dwarfed by the overriding priority to grow and maintain influence in the former Soviet Republics. If the EU and U.S. want to curb the presence of Russian mercenaries in Africa, they ought to address the security vacuums that create space for mercenaries to thrive, rather than treating Russia’s return to Africa as more than it is.
Marcel Plichta is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of St Andrews and a former analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He has written on African affairs and security issues for World Politics Review, Defense One, and the Modern War Institute at West Point. All views are his own.