As the war in Ukraine continues, there is increased scrutiny of the Russian government’s global activities. In Africa, the newest development uses Russian mercenaries, most prominently the Wagner group, to achieve Russian interests. Even if the mercenaries are not particularly effective at defeating rebel groups, their appeal to African leaders and ability to implant themselves into the host country’s political system makes them difficult for the international community to counter. 

Using mercenaries offers the Russian state several benefits. Firstly, it allows Moscow’s most controversial activity in Africa to remain deniable, even if Wagner’s connections to the Kremlin are common knowledge and Wagner’s deployments are preceded by a deal with the Russian government. It also allows Russia more access to gold, diamonds, and other precious resources, which are suitable for the economy and a small way to mitigate the impact of Ukraine-related sanctions. Furthermore, because Wagner’s ability to operate depends on its link to the Kremlin and the Russian state’s willingness to overlook the constitutional ban on mercenaries, there is almost no risk that Wagner will operate against Moscow’s interests. Lastly, When Wagner mercenaries die, which is not infrequent, Russia owes the public no explanation.

Wagner Group holding a sledgehammer
The largest Wagner Group telegram channel posted this image (left) of their contractors posing with a sledgehammer in Kherson Oblast [Source: Twitter/@GuinieZoo_Intel]
Wagner initially fought for Russian interests in Eastern Ukraine and Syria but quickly secured contracts in Africa supporting then-President Omar Al-Bashir in Sudan and Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. However, in the Central African Republic and now Mali, they developed their playbook of opportunistically exploiting ill-will towards France and the E.U. to secure lasting contracts and political influence.

The Wagner Playbook in Africa: The Central African Republic and Beyond

Wagner’s appeal to some African leaders is simple. They offer to train the military, act like a praetorian guard, and conduct counterinsurgency operations at a relatively low cost. The deal is incredibly enticing if a state or its people are unsatisfied with its current security assistance. Former French colonies, particularly those with an ongoing conflict and French military presence, are especially susceptible. The Central African Republic, for instance, relied on French, EU, and U.N. missions as their primary security partners from 2014 until 2018. Then, as it became clear that peacekeepers and French forces were unable or unwilling to stem the violence or defeat CAR’s many rebel groups, President Touadera reached out to Russia. Alongside a shipment of weapons, some 170 mercenaries arrived under several names, including Sewa Security Services and COSI.