Recent reports have indicated the Russian private military firm Wagner Group has reinforced Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) with 300 personnel in Libya. The report also suggests the mercenary group has delivered artillery, tanks, drones, and ammunition to the LNA.

What is the Wagner Group?

Wagner Group is an unregistered Russian paramilitary company that is prohibited under Russian legislation, but still has access to military resources. The mercenary group has deep ties to the Kremlin via the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU) and the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR). At present, we know Wagner is engaged in several conflicts: Syria, Ukraine, Sudan, Central African Republic, Libya, and most recently, Venezuela. Wagner serves as an extension of Russian foreign policy, a state-sanctioned force operating without the limitations and oversight of a state agency.

Russia in Africa

Russia has become heavily involved on the African continent. This should serve as a warning to the West. What is Russia undertaking in Africa and is the Wagner Group the instrument to carry out its foreign policy goals?

According to an article published by Grey Dynamics, “Wagner operates in several African states. Similar to Barlow’s EO [Executive Outcomes], Prigozhin’s Wagner is just one of several companies under the umbrella. Where they differ is that Prigozhin receives directions from MOD [Russian Ministry of Defense], and Wagner receives operational support from MOD. This approach provides Moscow with plausible deniability, which enables them to pursue foreign policy ambitions with less risk and without the same restrictions. Russia’s return to Africa is likely to continue and expand due to Russia’s identity in which it considers itself a major power and intends to establish itself as a major power in a multipolar world, as an equal to the U.S. and China.”

Russia’s development of a substantial presence in Africa, beginning with securing support from countries like Libya and South Sudan, could serve to bolster Russia’s economic wellness and would deliver a diplomatic foothold on the continent—one that would overshadow that of the United States.

Plausible Deniability

The Russian regime will most likely use the Wagner Group as part of their new hybrid warfare strategy. This might sound like a modern tactic, but the West has been conducting this type of warfare for some time. The strategy of maintaining plausible deniability via the use of non-state actors is something the West pioneered. Now Russia has hopped on the trend. Although we consider organizations like the Wagner Group to be mercenaries, they’re effectively soldiers of the Russian Army. The Kremlin recognizes that emphasizing the mercenary title only helps reinforce their plausible deniability. If a nation like Russia seeks to strike at an enemy without overtly antagonizing them or inviting the ire of the United Nations, how better to do so than to utilize a non-state actor like Wagner? The Russian state then has the luxury of claiming it had nothing to do with the group, that they are a private company outside their control, etc.

According to Grey Dynamics, “Executive Outcomes was operating tens of other companies with various areas of interest, some of which involved mining and natural resources. Evidently, a business model with striking similarities to that of Wagner.”

Russia intends to undermine the U.S. and its allies in Africa by providing surreptitious military support in the form of the Wagner Group. They seek to achieve what the U.S. and, more broadly, the West have failed to do in the region. They’ll build on these countries’ infrastructure while exploiting their natural resources to Russia’s benefit. Wagner offers complete, plausible deniability while winning the fight on behalf of Russia. This strategy will help create deep ties with these African nations and strengthen bilateral relationships throughout the African continent.