The Future of Wagner’s Adventurism in Africa: Clues From Prigozhin

Wagner Group founder Prigozhin could seek refuge in Africa to protect his business interests and distance himself from Moscow.

On June 27, the US imposed sanctions on business entities from the UAE, Central African Republic, and Russia for their involvement in mining and selling diamonds and gold to finance Wagner Group operations. A Russian national based in Mali, engaged in weapons deals, mining, and other facilitation activities with Malian government officials on behalf of Wagner, was also sanctioned.

Despite sanctions, the Wagner Group’s extensive business interests in Africa, along with clues from founder Yevgeny Prigozhin’s comments, indicate that the group’s next moves may still focus on the African continent.

Collision Course

In April, two months before his aborted mutiny, Prigozhin took to Telegram to rail against Russia’s military leadership, a customary practice that put him on a collision course with the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Yet rather than leveling blame at his individual rivals for battlefield ineptitude in Ukraine, on this occasion, Prigozhin took issue with the posture of the broader Russian state in Africa, where numerous governments retain the services of his private military personnel, including in Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Libya.

Considering the uncertain future of Wagner’s operations in Africa, Prigozhin’s pre-mutiny remarks provide insights into his plans and the potential responses available to President Vladimir Putin.

Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin speaking in Bakhmut
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin speaking in Bakhmut in footage released on May 25, 2023. Photo: AFP

Wagner’s Independence

Many uncertainties remain regarding the implications of the failed mutiny on Wagner’s presence in Africa.

But from his Telegram statement, it’s clear Prigozhin sees Wagner’s Africa operations as largely self-sufficient and self-sustaining rather than dependent on the Russian state and its logistics that, crucially, would be a useful lever for Putin in any move against the group.

According to Prigozhin, this autonomy was not a deliberate choice but a result of alleged obstruction by his rivals within the Russian government.

Claiming to face significant challenges in coordinating with government bodies for Africa operations, he accuses the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs of “putting spokes in the wheel at every step” by denying access to state capabilities like logistics and equipment.

Despite these obstacles, Prigozhin suggests African operations are ongoing, defying the supposed efforts of an “anti-Russian lobby” that seeks to curtail Wagner’s activities in Africa, which he argues are “always only in the interests of the Russian Federation.”

Wagner’s Logistical Architecture

Prigozhin’s argument that Wagner operates independently in Africa seemingly aligns with available open-source evidence. Logistically, Wagner appears to rely largely on a network based in the UAE, including private aviation companies like Kratol Aviation.

Independent analysts and the UN have tracked Wagner-owned and operated Ilyushin Il-18 transport aircraft operating between Libya and CAR, indicating that Wagner’s logistical architecture revolves around its own assets and partnerships in the private sector.

If Prigozhin can maintain control over independent sources of capital through his sprawling business empire in gold, diamonds, timber, and more across the continent, along with other arrangements such as a suspected cut of Libya’s oil revenues, Wagner may be able to sustain itself even with reduced support from the Russian state.

However, this assumes that Wagner’s logistical and financial flows are enough to sustain the group independently and that the key hub of this network in the UAE is left intact. Indeed, much depends on whether Russia extends its seizure of Wagner’s assets to the UAE through coordination with the Emiratis, as well as on the impact of US sanctions.

Wagner in Libya

Prigozhin’s comments also point to an organizational drive to fill a perceived vacuum in Russian leadership in Africa. He laments that Moscow is doing “absolutely nothing” on the continent due to bureaucratic inertia and inaction, especially compared to the US and France.

The driving force for Prigozhin’s apparent desire for Russia to do more is liberating African countries from Western aggressors, evoking the Soviet Union’s Cold War support for African liberation movements.

To be sure, this reads like a bare-faced play on local grievances to expand Wagner’s well-documented approach of extracting wealth from African countries. But in singling out Libya as where greater engagement is needed, Prigozhin claims that Libyan actors — referring to commander Khalifa Haftar and the parallel government in the east — have personally complained to him over what they see as a decline in Russian engagement over the past two years.

Given the ongoing deployment of Wagner personnel in various military bases across central, southern, and eastern Libya to pressure NATO’s southern flank, as well as Moscow’s recent push to re-establish a diplomatic presence in the country, it is unclear where Prigozhin identifies the shortcomings in Russian policy toward Libya.

Nevertheless, in voicing frustrations, Prigozhin clearly sees himself as having unfinished business in Libya and the broader continent, which could capture his attention following the post-mutiny impasse in Eastern Europe.

Pivot to Africa

This may explain why several observers have suggested that the embattled warlord could seek refuge in Africa to protect his business interests and distance himself from Moscow.

To be sure, there is ample work to be done mending Wagner’s shredded reputation after a supposed enforcer of stability engaged in open mutiny, so an in-person charm offensive on Wagner’s African partners is not out of the question.

Yet given the desperate security outlooks for countries dependent on Wagner divisions like Mali and CAR, as well as their central role in propping up a key armed actor in Libya, it is unlikely that pressure on the group will come from the client themselves.

A private security guard from the Russian group Wagner stands next to a Central African Republic soldier during a rally
A private security guard from Wagner stands next to a Central African Republic soldier during a rally. Photo Barbara Debout/AFP

Putin’s Next Mistake?

One of the many unanswered questions, then, is how the Kremlin will address the Wagner Group in Africa and whether it will bring its fighters and operations into the fold.

Prigozhin’s remarks show that he considers Wagner’s African efforts as largely independent from direct Russian state support, suggesting the group has developed its own capabilities.

Putin may only have allowed this state of affairs to develop because it served the Kremlin’s geopolitical objectives as a cost-effective, plausibly deniable tool. However, in doing so, Putin could simultaneously have limited his options for asserting central command and control over the group. Any attempt to do so will run headlong into a multinational and self-sustaining portfolio of interests.

After empowering the mercenaries in Ukraine, giving the Wagner Group a long leash in Africa could be Putin’s next costly mistake to come home to roost. Otherwise, Prigozhin may get what he wished for if the weight of the Russian state is brought to bear over the group’s Africa activities — just not in the way he imagined.

Headshot Robert UniackeRobert Uniacke (@RobertUniacke) is a Middle East East and North Africa Consultant at the Navanti Group, an analytics firm advising US government and commercial clients.

His research and analysis on MENA politics and Russian influence in the region has been published in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Foreign Policy magazine, an Edinburgh University Press book project, and Navanti News.

He holds an MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University and a BA in History from Durham University.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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