Russia Tightens Grip on Wagner Units in Africa, Year After Failed Mutiny

For years, Russia covertly propped up authoritarian leaders, exploited natural resources and fought extremists in a number of African countries.

Russia worked through the Wagner group, a shadowy web of political advisers, entrepreneurs and mercenaries. But it never revealed how closely it was controlling Wagner’s activities around the world, maintaining a distance as numerous accusations of human rights abuses were leveled against the group’s operatives on the ground.

Wagner was led by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a ruthless tycoon who was once a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. But after Mr. Prigozhin led a short-lived mutiny against Mr. Putin in June last year, Mr. Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash.

Since then, Russia has been carving up Wagner’s assets and redistributing them to branches of the Kremlin, according to interviews with a dozen diplomats and military and intelligence officials from Western countries, Russia and Ukraine. The Russian Ministry of Defense has taken control of Wagner’s mercenary arm in Africa and placed it under a bigger umbrella group, Africa Corps. Russia’s defense and foreign ministries did not respond to a request for comment.

Here is what to know about Africa Corps.

A few hundred instructors from Africa Corps first arrived in Burkina Faso, in West Africa, late last year, according to Western officials and the group’s channel on the Telegram messaging app, which diplomats, analysts and Russian news outlets have considered a credible source on the group.

Since April, about 100 instructors from the organization have been deployed in Niger to train its military, a task that until recently had been led by the United States and European countries. A week later, the United States announced that it would withdraw about one thousand military personnel from Niger.

Because Africa Corps is directly affiliated with Russia’s government, it “looks more legitimate to African governments,” said Sergey Eledinov, a security analyst and former representative of a Russian private military company working in Africa.

Russia has also provided weapons to the two countries, where military juntas are struggling to contain jihadist insurgents in the Sahel, a semiarid region that extends through both nations.

Mercenaries from Africa Corps have also been deployed in Libya, which Russia has long used as a logistical hub for military deployments in sub-Saharan Africa. Wagner’s mercenary activities there have been subsumed into Africa Corps, according to a European military official and a State Department official.

About half of Africa Corps’ recruits are Wagner veterans, it said on its Telegram channel. And the jobs are similar: Africa Corps needs bodyguards, ground troops, drone operators and “electronic warfare specialists,” according to advertisements from the group.

But Africa Corps acts as an umbrella for Russia’s paramilitary activities on the continent — not just those of Wagner, but also of other private military companies. The mercenaries deployed in Burkina Faso are from a new structure called Bear, for instance.

“There’s some sort of competition among these companies,” said Oleksandr V. Danylyuk, a former special adviser to the head of Ukraine’s foreign intelligence service.

Russia’s military intelligence agency, known as the G.R.U., oversees Africa Corps’ operations, according to the State Department.

“The goal is the same: Establish control in several African countries,” added Mr. Danylyuk, who co-wrote a recent report on Russia’s military activities beyond Ukraine.

The name Africa Corps is reminiscent of Afrika Korps, the expeditionary force deployed by the Nazis in Africa during World War II. The Wagner group also bore a Nazi reference: It was named after the German composer Richard Wagner, one of Hitler’s favorites.

Wagner hasn’t disappeared altogether: Some of its operatives remain in the Central African Republic and Mali. Their close ties with local military, political and economic circles have made them hard to dislodge or too useful for Russia to get rid of, Western diplomats and analysts say.

A new propaganda outlet, African Initiative, has also been created to promote the growing ties between Russia and African countries. It is supported by Russia’s intelligence services, according to the U.S. State Department.

In short, Russia wants geopolitical clout and access to natural resources. But African leaders have a lot of suitors: not just Russia, China, the United States and European countries, but also Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, among others.

Mercenaries and disinformation specialists from Wagner have played a key role in weakening Western interests on the continent and replacing European and U.S. troops, as well as United Nations peacekeepers, in several countries.

Those developments have alarmed U.S. officials.

“The Russian Federation is really trying to take over Central Africa, as well as the Sahel,” Gen. Michael E. Langley, head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, told Congress in March.

Russia has argued that it is championing a new multipolar world order that will help African countries bolster their sovereignty. But Russia is also seeking to grow its number of allies: Many African countries abstained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or even supported it, during votes at the United Nations.

Russia has signed military cooperation agreements with 43 African countries since 2015, according to the European Parliament. Russia was also the largest supplier of weapons to Africa between 2018 and 2022, accounting for 40 percent of the continent’s weapons imports.

Wagner operatives have exploited gold mines in the Central African Republic and Sudan. Russian mining companies export diamonds from Angola and Zimbabwe, and bauxite from Guinea, among others.

Russia has also increasingly been promoting a more classic state-to-state relationship.

The arrival of Africa Corps instructors in Burkina Faso late last year, for instance, followed a meeting between Mr. Putin and the country’s leader, Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, last summer. Russia has also reopened an embassy there.

Russia has also promised to help Burkina Faso and Mali develop their nuclear sectors and to take in more African students at a time when Europe is trying to keep migrants away.

“Our friend Lavrov is back!” a newspaper in Burkina Faso recently wrote as Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei V. Lavrov, visited — one of at least a dozen African countries he has traveled to since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Mr. Lavrov promised Burkina Faso more military supplies and instructors.

“Western influence in a number of African countries has been reduced,” Africa Corps wrote on its official Telegram channel last year. “A ‘window of opportunity’ has opened for the realization of our geopolitical interests.”

The West African leaders who have sought closer partnerships with Russia want personal protection, soldiers and weapons to fight rebels and Islamist insurgents affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Some civil society activists, civilians and local politicians in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso interviewed over the past year say that Russia is delivering.

“This partnership with Russia is going to help us end this war on terror,” said Boureima Ouédraogo, a pro-Russian civil society activist from Burkina Faso. “Our soldiers have no fear anymore.”

But just as African militaries have been unable to defeat the insurgents despite the American and European support, they have also had limited successes with their Russian partners, security experts say.

And abuses against civilians have soared in the years since these militaries have called in Russian instructors, with Wagner mercenaries accused of mass killings and torture in Mali and rape and other crimes in the Central African Republic.

Soumaila Lah, a Mali-based security analyst, said that those living in large cities favored Russia’s presence as necessary. “But in the remote areas where mercenaries operate, local populations are noticing the cases of torture, the arbitrary arrests and the assassinations,” Mr. Lah added.

“In those places, they don’t want them anymore.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

Related Posts

Republicans Share Their Wishlist for Trump

We posed a question to R.N.C. attendees in Milwaukee: If Donald Trump wins, what is the first thing you want him to do as president?

In Milwaukee, Black Voters Struggle to Find a Home With Either Party

Black voters make up roughly 5 percent of the electorate in Wisconsin. But in this swing state where the election is likely to be won by a…

How Donald Trump Picked J.D. Vance

How did J.D. Vance, once a harsh critic of Donald J. Trump, win Trump’s approval and become his choice for vice president? Jonathan Swan, a reporter covering…

Project 2025, Explained

A set of conservative policy proposals called Project 2025 has put into words what a second term for Donald J. Trump could look like. Trump has distanced…

Sailor Who Tried to Access Biden’s Medical Records Was Disciplined by Navy

A Navy sailor was disciplined for trying unsuccessfully to gain unauthorized access to President Biden’s restricted medical records earlier this year, a military official said on Tuesday….

Democrats, Swallowing Fears About Biden’s Candidacy, Remain Behind Him

Congressional Democrats indicated on Tuesday that they were unwilling — at least for now — to mount an effort to push aside President Biden despite grave concerns…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *