Russia’s Wagner Group is having an increasingly difficult time in Africa. About a year ago, Moscow was crowing about beating the West and China in securing private military contracts, underbidding several western countries’ bids by touting their “Syrian Model” of success. As a result, they ended landing upwards of 20 private military contracts in Africa. But all of that euphoria is drying up.
They entered Mozambique full of confidence: In August of 2019, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi met with President Putin and came to an agreement for the Russians to support the Mozambican military. This agreement gave Russia numerous rich gas concessions in the country.
The Wagner Group deployed shortly after in October 2019 with 200 contractors. It landed at Mozambique’s Nacala Airport, to help the government’s ongoing struggle against ISIS in the northern region of the natural gas-rich region of Cabo Delgado.
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, the Central African Republic as well as Mozambique. They also have a large presence in Libya and Syria.
Wagner Group is essentially an 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 of Putin’s government. “I make no distinction between Russian soldiers and the Wagner Group — the way they cooperate,” Jasmine Opperman, a South African terrorism expert told the Voice of America in an interview.
As we wrote last fall in SOFREP, although there are 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 its obvious political clout and its much cheaper price tag than that of 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 and $25,000 a month for each mercenary, the Wagner Group sent in 200 mercs for between $1,800-$4,700 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.
The overconfident Russian contractors, supported by Hind gunships and ferried about with Mi-17 Hip helicopters, moved deep into the interior along the Mozambique-Tanzania border. Air and ground forces were supposed to operate in close cooperation with the Mozambican army (Forças Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique: FADM). However, ISIS didn’t hesitate. As reported by Southern Times following the arrival of the Russians, ISIS quickly reinforced its units in Mozambique by rushing in “volunteers” from other East African countries, especially from Somalia. This soon led to an intensified series of guerrilla onslaughts.
Opperman called the situation a “perfect storm” and said 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.” They are ill-accustomed to operating in a jungle environment and know (or care) little about local customs and traditions.
Thus, the Russians are falling into the same problem they had during the Soviet era: tensions between them and the host nations’ forces. Russian mercs have accused the Mozambican soldiers of having no discipline, while the host nation troops feel that they are being bullied by the Russians. And there is no “Robin Sage” for the Russians to learn how to earn the trust of a host nation’s force.
And now, after suffering a series of defeats and more than a dozen deaths Wagner has pulled its troops back to its main base at Nacala, about 250 miles to the south.
They are facing the same problem in the Central African Republic (CAR). There are hundreds of Wagner Group mercs operating in the CAR, embedded with a multitude of different forces, but they are losing all rapport with the locals due to their brutish treatment of them.
North Africa isn’t kinder on them either.
The Russians have an estimated 1,000 Wagner mercs in Libya. They suffered 35 killed in September, when the Turks hit them with a drone, as they had no means to defend themselves against air attacks — similarly to what happened to Wagner troops in Syria when they attacked a U.S. base. In January, Putin and Turkish President Erdogan came to an agreement and following that reports came out that Russian Wagner troops were withdrawn from the frontline in Tripoli.
Libya has been in constant civil war since the U.S.-led removal of longtime dictator Muammar al-Gadhafi in 2011. The United States, the U.N. and most of the international community recognize the Government of National Accord (GNA), based in the Libyan capital Tripoli, as the legitimate government. But the eastern half of the country is led by Khalifa Hafter, who is supported by Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Hafter and his troops have been trying to capture Tripoli.
Things aren’t going well for the Russians or Wagner in Africa. And when you’re showing a perceived weakness, especially in this world of private military contracts, others will attempt to use it to their advantage.
Enter Erik Prince.
Prince, the founder of the private security firm Blackwater, has in recent months been seeking to provide military services to Wagner in at least two African hotspots according to reports from The Intercept.
Prince reportedly met earlier this year with a Wagner Group official and offered to bolster Wagner’s operations in Libya and Mozambique. Prince’s lawyer denied that Prince met with anyone from Wagner
According to the same report, Prince is also seeking to provide a force to augment Wagner’s operations in Mozambique. Prince sent a proposal to the Russian firm offering to supply ground forces and aviation-based surveillance, something they are lacking at the present time. However, Wagner/Russia shot down his proposal.
The Russians don’t want to admit that they need help, nor accept it from an American with such close ties to the Trump White House — Prince is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Say what you will about Prince, but he has never shied away from making unsolicited pitches for his ideas. That’s how he eventually came to know President Trump. While in this case, the Russians/Wagner quickly shot down his proposal it doesn’t change the fact that others can see that the Russian “victory parade,” for getting merc contracts in Africa, was a bit premature.
They are having a rough go of it in the continent, and while they’ll continue to throw money and mercs into the fray, they’re swimming in uncharted waters and it shows.