The Russians are trying to expand their influence in Africa. For example take the case of Mozambique: While Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claims that Russia is only trying to forge economic and security ties with the country of Mozambique, the truth tells a different story. Russia is sending proxy troops into the country — and they haven’t been faring well. 

Peskov in October stated: “As far as Mozambique is concerned, there are no Russian soldiers there.” But recently five members of the Wagner Group were killed in an ambush in the country’s natural gas-rich Cabo Delgado Province’s Muidumbe district on October 27. In addition to the five soldiers killed, two vehicles were burned by Muslim insurgents in the ambush. 

South African media reports say that four of the dead Russians were decapitated and the fifth died in the hospital. 20 of the local soldiers of the FADM, the Mozambique Defense Armed Forces, were also killed in the ambush. 

Muslim insurgents have been growing in sophistication and power and have been targeting the Cabo Delgado district for the past two years. The Mozambican government has turned to the Wagner Group to protect its natural gas reserves there. 

But the Russian mercs from the Wagner Group have been ineffective so far in curtailing the violence. Jasmine Opperman, a terrorism expert from South Africa, said in an interview, “the Russians have been caught unaware of this level of sophistication and weapons available to the insurgents.”

The Wagner Group is a private military company owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with very close ties to President Vladimir Putin. He’s known as “Putin’s chef” as he owns a vast catering firm as well. With Putin’s aim to expand Russia’s influence in Africa, Wagner Group proxy forces are operating in Sudan, Central African Republic as well as Mozambique. They also have a large presence in Libya and Syria. 

Recently the New York Times reported that a meeting in Moscow between Putin, Prigozhin and Madagascar’s then-president Hery Rajaonarimampianina ended with an agreement for proxy military support. Russian operatives were sent to the country to influence the local elections. The security for their operatives was reportedly provided by mercs from Wagner.

The Russians followed a similar playbook design in Mozambique. Two months before the country’s presidential elections, Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi flew to Russia, met Putin at the end of August, and signed a number of energy and security agreements. 

A think tank called Afric then published a poll that predicted a clear win for Nyusi, despite the publishing of polls being expressly disallowed by Mozambican law. As a result Afric’s Facebook page was suspended — the page was directly linked to Prigozhin. Undeterred, four separate Prigozhin-linked Facebook accounts were created on the same day in late September and posted the exact same poll data. The poll lauded the government’s success in fighting the Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado and criticized the main opposition party, Renamo.

Wagner Group is essentially an official arm of Russian state policy: they have never been employed anywhere without Kremlin’s approval. And while not officially recognized as such, they are in fact proxy forces for Putin’s government. “I make no distinction between Russian soldiers and the Wagner Group — the way they cooperate,” Opperman told Voice of America in an interview.

With several African protection firms — with a wealth of experience in this area of the continent — available for hire, the Mozambican government nevertheless opted to go with Wagner, due to their obvious political clout and the fact they are much cheaper than the other firms. While a firm from Africa with 50-60 qualified soldiers with vast experience in the area would cost the government between $15,000-$25,000 a month for each mercenary, the Wagner Group sent in 200 mercs for between $1800-$4700 a month each. 

But the old caveat, “You get what you pay for” is an apt description of what has transpired thus far in the region. 

Reports that Wagner’s mercs are struggling in the region are easy to believe. They have no experience in the region; don’t understand the local culture or customs; and don’t have the trust of the Mozambican soldiers. All three needed for a successful UW operation. And besides all this Wagner doesn’t have enough personnel trained in this type of warfare.

Opperman, calling the situation a “perfect storm” also said this of Wagner’s efforts in the region. “The Russians don’t understand the local culture, don’t trust the soldiers and have to fight in horrible conditions against an enemy that is gaining more and more momentum. They are in over their heads.”

According to unconfirmed reports the Russians have lost seven troops in the fighting thus far; but they keep a close lid on these matters as they secret the bodies home to an airport in Vladimir, outside of Moscow, where the families are paid a healthy bonus for their silence on these matters. 

There are also rumors that the Russians are now looking to hire some local mercs, who know the area, as consultants. 

But as long as the Putin government is looking to push its influence in the region, Wagner Group’s mercs are bound to be there.