Abstract: Over the past several years, the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company (PMC), has become an increasingly important instrument in Russia’s foreign policy toolkit, especially in Africa where Moscow has sought to expand its influence and challenge the West. To do so, Wagner has cultivated exploitative relationships with multiple African governments—trading military and security services for mining concessions and political access. Yet, the group has little interest in genuine capacity building and instead seeks to capitalize and profit on insecurity. This article traces the Wagner Group’s engagement across Africa, illuminating its nefarious practices, including opaque and manipulative contracts, disinformation campaigns, election meddling, and severe human rights abuses. Wagner’s role in Africa poses a severe threat to the security and stability of African states as well as the strategic interests of the United States and allied nations. It is vital that the United States and partner states not only continue to monitor the Wagner Group’s activities across the continent, but pursue efforts to undermine its legitimacy with current and potential clients.
National security professionals are quite familiar with the multidimensional nature of today’s international security environment and modern conflict zones, which include a multiplicity of actors, both state and non-state alike. Perhaps most visible in recent years has been the prevalence of private military companies (PMCs), also regularly referred to as private military and security companies (PMSCs). PMCs have become frequent suppliers of a host of military and security-related services for a wide range of clients, including states, rebel groups, multinational corporations, and even international organizations like the United Nations.1 Indeed, the “market for force” has swelled since the end of the Cold War, and demand is only increasing.2
Yet, as the private security sector has matured, so too has the diversity of PMCs available for hire. Of particular relevance is the increased visibility and activity of the Russian PMC known as the Wagner Group, which has developed a notorious reputation for its activities in a host of theaters. Though far from the only Russian PMC active both in and outside of conflict zones, it has become a predominant feature of Russia’s modern foreign policy toolkit—especially for Moscow’s efforts to expand influence across the African continent. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Kremlin’s use of Wagner serves as part of its broader irregular warfare and gray zone strategy to challenge the West, particularly in states where neither Russia nor the United States has sought to maintain a sizable footprint.3
This article focuses on the evolution of the Wagner Group and its engagement in several African countries since at least 2015. Though regarded as a private firm, the Wagner Group exhibits features that all but conclusively point to its position as a semi-state security force, and one that Moscow has welcomed as the ‘tip of the spear’ in its repertoire of foreign policy tools for its Africa strategy. To date, it has used Wagner to challenge and undermine democracy, exploit fragile security environments, prop up and insulate illiberal regimes, ink deals to exploit clients’ resources for the benefit of the Russian state and oligarchs, and generally expand Russia’s opportunities to discredit the West on the continent.
The article first provides a brief overview of PMCs and discusses relevant academic findings on the implications of governments contracting PMCs. Second, it offers a succinct background on the history and rise of the Wagner Group, illustrating the complexity of its organizational structure and the diversity of its operations. The third section surveys Wagner’s engagement across the African continent with short vignettes describing its activities in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Mali. The final section considers how Wagner’s African strategy impacts U.S. interests on the continent.
A Snapshot on Private Military Companies
While mercenaries, or soldiers of fortune, have been around for centuries, private military companies are typically viewed as a post-Cold War phenomenon. The modern-day mercenary, PMCs are often distinguished by their corporate organizational structure and boardroom mentality.4 These military and security providers found no shortage of clients after the fall of the Soviet Union as the changing international system led patron states to make dramatic revisions in their foreign policy strategies. As a result, many recipient governments saw a significant decline in the level of military assistance they had received throughout the Cold War and subsequently struggled to combat threats, both internal and external. In short, “as state power decline[d], private force [rose].”5
Early examples of PMCs ushered in to fill the security vacuum left after the Cold War include firms like the Gurkha Security Guards (GSG), which was one of the first to arrive in Sierra Leone during its civil war; Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI), a U.S.-based PMC that trained the Croatian Army during the Croatian War of Independence;6 the South African PMC Executive Outcomes (EO), which gained notoriety for its direct military involvement in civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola; and the latter’s British counterpart, Sandline International, which took over several of EO’s missions when that group disbanded in the aftermath of South African legislation outlawing PMCs.7
Since the emergence of these early arrivers, the PMC market has grown in both scale and sophistication. Weak states have contracted PMCs to augment security deficiencies, even using PMCs to participate in kinetic frontline operations. For instance, Nigeria contracted at least three private military companies to train, support, and even directly participate in counterinsurgency operations against Boko Haram between 2014 and 2015.8 Meanwhile, though countries like the United States have typically contracted PMCs to serve exclusively in support or logistical roles, the notorious Nisour Square incident in 2007, where Blackwater employees killed over two dozen Iraqi civilians, highlights the complexities of the PMC landscape.9
While controversial groups like Blackwater and its successive iterations are well known, U.S. and Western-registered PMCs are not the only game in town when it comes to PMC options. Today, governments can solicit military and security services from PMCs from a multitude of countries, with Russian PMCs making a concerted effort to increase their market share. Moreover, African states have consistently been important clients for the PMC industry with recent data-gathering showing that the continent accounts for nearly half of all verified incidents of PMC activity between 1980 and 2016.10
Given the rise of the industry, there continues to be significant academic attention on the consequences of governments contracting PMCs. The vast majority of recent scholarship considers how the involvement of PMCs during times of armed conflict can impact conflict dynamics (e.g., severity and duration).11 Generally, the findings suggest that the PMCs can improve clients’ military capacity, though for how long and in what ways largely depends on the services provided. Some evidence even suggests that hiring PMCs can decrease the duration of a conflict, though it is important to consider how conflict termination is measured.12
Along these lines, several recent empirical investigations emphasize how hiring a PMC can unleash a series of principal-agent problems for clients. These problems can manifest in several forms, but the impacts of contracting a firm that is more interested in pursuing their own interests (adverse selection) or one that pursues actions that misalign with the goals of the client and subsequently make situations worse (moral hazard) are especially pertinent.13 In fact, researchers have shown that in certain instances, PMCs may have few incentives to ensure conflict ceases entirely, as a manageable level of conflict can ensure contract continuity.14 This, of course, can have reputational consequences and potentially impact a company’s ability to solidify future contracts, but it illustrates the complexity of the private military landscape.
One emerging and particularly relevant area of research to better understand how these firms will behave once the ink on a contract dries is to look at where PMCs are headquartered/registered. Unsurprisingly, preliminary findings suggest that PMCs that come from democratic states are associated with a lower probability of engaging in human rights abuses while the opposite holds for those registered in non-democracies with poor human rights records.15 For the Russian-based Wagner Group, this is an especially relevant consideration when examining its growing role in Africa. While all PMCs by nature are self-interested and profit-oriented, Wagner epitomizes these characteristics—caring little about cultivating genuine stability, respect for the rule of law, or democracy, and instead propping up clients in an exploitative fashion.
The Rise of the Wagner Group
It is worth briefly reviewing the Wagner Group’s origins, formation, and evolution to situate its growing role as a tool in Russia’s modern foreign policy toolkit. Despite Moscow’s constitutional ban on PMCs, Russia has a history of using these firms to do its bidding and, in recent years, has maintained a cadre of PMCs that function as part of its broader irregular warfare strategy.16 Yet, the Wagner Group clearly operates as Russia’s premier firm, illustrated most directly by the breadth of its engagement around the globe and its proximity to the Kremlin—leading some to refer to it as “Putin’s private army.”17 In many ways, the group’s status as an independent contractor gives it a degree of “unpredictability” and, most importantly, simultaneously offers Moscow the façade of “plausible deniability.”18
The idea of the Wagner Group is believed to have originated around 2010 in a Russian General Staff meeting.19 Though details of that event are sparse, some evidence suggests that present at the meeting was Eeben Barlow, founder of the South African PMC Executive Outcomes.20 a Wagner officially emerged on the scene circa 2014 from a tangled web of PMC predecessors. These included the Moran Security Group, a Russian firm specializing in maritime and shipping security, and the Slavonic Corps, which first deployed to fight in Syria.21
The Wagner Group was founded by Dmitry Utkin and bankrolled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, better known as “Putin’s cook” (or chef). Utkin is a retired veteran of Russia’s intelligence agency, the GRU, where he served from approximately 1988 to 2013.22 A staunch admirer of Hitler and Nazi Germany, it is believed that Utkin chose the name Wagner in honor of Hitler’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner.23 Prigozhin, meanwhile, is a Russian oligarch with past connections to organized crime, deep ties to Vladimir Putin, and a diverse portfolio of business interests—many of which are connected to the mining sector.24 Prigozhin was also identified as the funding source behind the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian troll farm implicated for election meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.25
The Wagner Group’s first recorded activities can be traced back to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 before popping up shortly thereafter in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.26 Like its predecessor, the Slavonic Corps, it has also been active in Syria, having operated there since at least October 2015.27 In Syria, the group made headlines when it attempted to assault the Conoco gas plant in the Deir ez-Zor province in early 2018, which ultimately led to direct confrontation with U.S. Special Operations forces.28
While generally classified as a PMC, several analysts rightly note that the Wagner Group might be better categorized as a quasi-state actor given its proximity to Russia’s political elite and the ways the Kremlin has used the firm as a direct foreign policy instrument.29 It is intentionally baked into a complex network of business entities and shell companies—part of Prigozhin’s commercial empire—and is intricately entangled with an equally complex web of government entities.30 Moreover, compared to most modern-day PMCs, the group is acutely different from its Western counterparts, which generally refrain from signing deals to partake in direct combat (or ‘tip of the spear’) operations. Instead, Wagner has frequently engaged in direct hostilities, most notably in Syria and Ukraine, but also in the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Mali.31 However, ‘tip of the spear’ operations are only part of its repertoire of services, which includes information operations, training, logistical support, weapons transfers, and so on. The diversity of services offered by the Wagner Group has led to its labeling as Russia’s “Swiss Army Knife.”32
Why (and Where) Is Wagner in Africa?
While the Wagner Group has operated in as many as 28 countries across the globe, including in Eastern Europe (i.e., Ukraine), the Middle East (i.e., Syria), and South America (i.e., Venezuela), it has become most visible on the African continent, having deployed to at least 18 African states since 2016.33 The Wagner Group’s engagement across Africa stands in stark contrast to Russia’s role on the continent in the immediate period after the Cold War. While the Soviet Union and the West often competed for influence across Africa throughout much of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to Russia’s rapid disengagement with African countries, including the closure of at least nine embassies.34 Some labeled this Russia’s “Embassy Identity Crisis”35 as it tried to reconcile its foreign policy strategy following the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Yet, as scholar Kimberly Marten notes, over the past decade Russia has come “roaring back” to the continent, aiming to revitalize relations with African nations and seeking alternative markets to offset Western sanctions in the aftermath of its 2014 invasion of Ukraine.36 Between 2015 and 2019, for instance, Russia signed at least 19 military collaboration agreements with African governments, most related to weapons sales.37 Putin also hosted the first-ever Russian-African summit in Sochi in 2019, and a second one remains scheduled for October/November 2022, despite the ongoing war in Ukraine.38
Rather than genuine investment from the Kremlin directly, however, Russia has used irregular means to carry out its foreign policy agenda in Africa “on the cheap,” looking to exploit relationships where the West is absent or retreating.39 The Wagner Group has been an essential vehicle to do just that.40 It has also simultaneously been a crucial instrument for Prigozhin to pursue his personal and economic ambitions alongside Russia’s geopolitical ones.41 As outlined in the sections that follow, the vast majority of Wagner’s contracts have included provisions for training military forces, providing security for political elites and Russian businesses, and engaging in disinformation campaigns and election meddling, often in exchange for access to natural resources.42 In several cases, Wagner’s role either started or later morphed into offensive military action.
In Libya, the Wagner Group’s engagement has closely aligned with the Kremlin’s support of General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) (later known as the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, or LAAF) and Moscow’s broader geopolitical ambitions of expanding influence and access in the southern Mediterranean, which could jeopardize NATO’s southern flank. Conflicting reports make it difficult to confirm its initial arrival in Libya, but some analysts suggest that Russian-linked PMCs showed up alongside Russian special forces as early as 2015.43 Most agree that by mid-2019, Wagner was a fully engaged combat participant in the LNA’s assault on Tripoli against the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).44
Along with its direct combat engagement with Haftar’s frontline offensive, Wagner opened bases, facilitated weapons transfers, and engaged in military training of LNA forces.45 The group also deployed snipers that were considered to be a significant force multiplier in urban combat.46 Throughout 2020, when LNA forces attempted to take Tripoli, Wagner was also implicated in recruiting Syrians to join the fighting.47 Additionally, the group was recently accused of using booby traps and land mines in violation of international law during the Tripoli offensive.48 Meanwhile, though details of Wagner’s contract with General Haftar are sparse, some reports indicate friction between Haftar and the Wagner Group as he failed to pay substantial portions of the contract.49
Part of Wagner’s Libyan strategy included occupying key oil fields to block the sale of oil that could help finance the GNA. While the group did not get a cut of Libyan oil sales via this occupation, it seems clear that Wagner is keenly aware of the potential future benefits in gaining a stake in the oil sector, possibly replicating a similar model in Syria.50 In that case, Evro Polis, a firm controlled and owned by Prigozhin, signed a deal with the Syrian government that granted the firm 25 percent of any “oil and gas field revenues liberated from Islamic State control.”51 More recently, there have been credible reports suggesting that the United Arab Emirates had provided support and financing to Wagner in Libya, including facilitating the transfer of Russian-made surface-to-air missiles that were instrumental in the Wagner Group’s early success in its Tripoli offensive.52 At the time of publication, analysts suspect Wagner maintains a substantial presence in Libya with estimates of several hundred to as many as 2,000 Wagner operatives remaining in-country. There is a growing sense that the group may meddle in Libya’s delayed presidential election, an election in which Haftar is a candidate.53 There is also evidence of Wagner forces with combat experience in Libya recently traveling to fight in the current conflict in Ukraine in addition to the redeployment of air defense systems and artillery that the group relied on in Libya.54
Credible reports of the Wagner Group’s arrival in Sudan started to emerge toward the end of 2017.55 The Russian government confirmed meeting with then-President Omar al-Bashir in November 2017 in Sochi, a meeting that culminated with a portfolio of signed agreements related to mining concessions, geological explorations, oil and gas cooperation, and even plans to establish a Russian naval base in Port Sudan.56 Of particular note was an agreement between the Sudanese Ministry of Minerals and M-Invest, a company owned and operated by Prigozhin, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.57 That agreement granted concessions to M-Invest (and its subsidiaries) to explore gold mining sites in Sudan—a tactic that has become a consistent contracting strategy for Wagner in other African states and one that illustrates the exploitative nature of the firm. Members of Wagner began arriving in Khartoum shortly thereafter.58
In exchange for resource concessions, Wagner provided al-Bashir a portfolio of services, including information operations, military and police training, and the transport of weapons.59 In early 2019, the Kremlin confirmed the presence of Russian contractors in Sudan, claiming they were there to train the country’s military and law enforcement officers.60 Evidence would later implicate Prigozhin and the Wagner Group in cultivating plans to discredit and suppress anti-government protestors, including plans for lethal violence against civilians.61 Despite these efforts, al-Bashir was deposed in a military coup in April 2019, leading to uncertainty about Russia’s future in Sudan along with the role of Wagner and Prigozhin’s business interests there.
Since the 2019 coup, it appears Wagner has remained in Sudan, though until recently it has flown under the radar, protecting Prigozhin’s corporate interests in the gold mining sector while continuing to spread disinformation.62 Sudan’s interim government has denied that Wagner is still operating in Sudan, despite accusations from a host of Western states including the United States that General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, one of the coup leaders and deputy head of the Sudan Transitional Military Council, has signed off on Wagner’s continued operations.63
Wagner’s persistence in Sudan is important for Russia now more than ever given the ongoing war in Ukraine. The Kremlin has continued its direct efforts to court General Dagalo who was in Moscow during Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and Dagalo has since signaled his willingness to support the establishment of a Russian naval base on the Red Sea. Wagner has been a key feature in efforts to support this project.64 In addition to Moscow’s geopolitical pursuits, the Wagner Group has also ensured the continuity of access to Sudanese gold. This has been critical for Russia as the Kremlin steadily increased its gold reserves from 2014 when it faced U.S. sanctions in the aftermath of its invasion of Crimea.65 In total, Russia has amassed upwards of $130 billion in gold, which has raised serious concerns that the Kremlin may be able to blunt some of the impact of ongoing sanctions.66
Central African Republic
Wagner officially arrived in the Central African Republic (CAR) in late 2017 on the heels of a U.N. exemption to an ongoing arms embargo.67 b Wagner’s activities in CAR reflect the similar “resource concessions for protection and training” strategy that has become its moniker.68 The group initially arrived under the guise of military advisors for President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, but its activities have been far from purely advisory. Some have likened Wagner’s engagement in CAR to a sort of “coup-proofing” and racketeering campaign, given it provides security to President Touadéra, facilitates weapons shipments, and engages in military training, all in exchange for diamond and gold mining rights and broader geological exploration.69
If the Wagner Group’s goals are to ensure Touadéra’s security, one can argue it has been fairly successful but at a serious cost to human rights. For instance, in the lead-up to and following the disputed December 2020 elections, Wagner engaged in violent counteroffensives against anti-Touadéra rebels who had launched a series of nationwide attacks in protests against his regime and an election that was seen as fraudulent and riddled with irregularities.70 Wagner’s success in carving out influence in CAR and its ability to insulate Touadéra have likely made for useful advertising, particularly for other regimes looking to exchange resources for security (e.g., Mali).71
Meanwhile, the profitability of Wagner’s access to mining sites in CAR has drawn scrutiny, with analysts arguing that rather than any serious economic benefits for the Russian economy, mining concessions function more like “payoffs to Prigozhin, helping him to finance and profit from Wagner in return for aiding the Kremlin’s foreign policy ambitions.”72 c Others have accurately argued that Wagner’s presence in CAR is not strictly resource-oriented, but rather is illustrative of Moscow’s broader geopolitical push to challenge France on the continent.73 Illustrative of the depth of Russian engagement in CAR, President Touadéra even installed a former GRU official, Valery Zakharov, to serve as his national security advisor.74
Wagner’s activities in CAR also raise serious concerns about human rights abuses.75 In July 2018, three Russian journalists were mysteriously gunned down while on assignment to investigate the Wagner Group’s activities in CAR.76 Though the official investigation by authorities in CAR concluded that the murder was the result of a robbery gone wrong, a plethora of evidence underscores the likely involvement of Wagner.77 In 2019, a team of CNN journalists was similarly monitored by a team of Russian operatives in an intimidation and defamation scheme.78 More recently, the United Nations’ working group on mercenaries reported that the Wagner Group has been both responsible for and an accomplice to various other human rights atrocities in CAR, including rape, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, looting, and torture.79 Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine also has important implications for CAR, as anti-Touadéra rebels are closely monitoring the potential withdrawal of Wagner contractors. This highlights an important dynamic as some of the rebels reportedly feel that they stand a chance in challenging the regime should Wagner draw down its force posture, and academic literature has shown how PMCs vacating client states can embolden rebel groups.80
Wagner’s arrival in Mozambique in September 2019 came on the heels of Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi’s visit to Moscow in August of that year. That trip led to several bilateral agreements between Russia and Mozambique related to mining and mineral resources, energy, and defense and security.81 Mozambique’s subsequent deal with the PMC revealed Wagner’s market strategy of severely underbidding other PMCs to increase its attractiveness from a strictly monetary cost standpoint.82 Yet, Wagner’s military footprint in Mozambique peaked at some 160 to 200 members deployed originally to serve as presidential security for the October 2019 election.83 Their mission soon expanded as they began to undertake counterinsurgency operations against the growing Islamist insurgent threat posed by Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah (ASWJ).84
The group’s stint in Mozambique was short-lived, attributed in large part to their under-preparedness, lack of aerial surveillance, and deteriorating relationship with local forces.85 They quickly faced casualties and withdrew before the end of 2019, replaced by the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), a South African PMC.86 Of all Wagner’s engagements, its contract in Mozambique stands out as a significant failure and illustrates how quickly the group will exit an environment that it sees as more costly than it is worth.
Mali is the site of Wagner’s most recent engagement in Africa. The group’s confirmed arrival in December 2021 came after a period of extremely volatile civil-military relations for the country, which experienced two coups in less than 10 months.87 Mali’s political turmoil and the deal its government brokered with Wagner can be understood as a consequence, in part, of the political elite’s inability to address increasing levels of Islamist violence and swelling anti-French sentiment across Mali and the Sahel more generally.88 An ill-equipped security sector and France’s strategic drawdown further help explain the ruling junta’s attraction to alternative security actors like the Wagner Group. In particular, the country has suffered most acutely in recent years from increasing levels of violence perpetrated by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (or JNIM), a coalition of four jihadi groups with allegiance to al-Qa`ida, and that violence has spilled over into neighboring states including Burkina Faso, but also Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire.89
Wagner’s entrance into Mali also provides a clear example of Russia’s efforts at geopolitical competition with the West. With France announcing its official withdrawal on February 17, 2022, alongside over a dozen European and Sahelian partner states, Wagner welcomed the chance to fill the void.90 d Colonel Assimi Goïta, the coup leader and current president of Mali’s transitional government, likely sees Wagner as a crucial alternative given the West’s broad condemnation of Mali’s coups.91 Since arriving, Wagner has engaged in a relentless pro-Russian propaganda campaign.92
At the time of publication, estimates from the United States and France put the number of Wagner mercenaries in Mali around 800 to 1,000.93 The group has embedded with the Malian Armed Forces, engaged jihadi forces, and has reportedly taken casualties.94 For its $10 million a month fee, Wagner is also expected to be involved in providing security for political elites and training the army; in return, it will gain access to geological exploration and mining rights, echoing contractual terms from the group’s other ventures.95 Bolstered by the perception of increased security from contracting Wagner, the junta, with support from the military-dominated interim parliament, has delayed elections originally scheduled for February 2022 until at least 2026.96
Yet, unsurprisingly given Wagner’s track record, and mirroring its activities in CAR, the group has been accused of various human rights violations since its arrival in Mali. In early March 2022, accusations emerged from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) that Wagner personnel were likely complicit in the massacre of upwards of 30 civilians in the town of Niono.97 Just weeks later, the Malian Armed Forces claimed that it killed some 203 militants between March 23 and April 1, 2022, in the town of Moura.98 Conflicting reports paint a very different picture, however, suggesting that the military along with Wagner mercenaries held the village under siege for four days and indiscriminately executed civilians, killing at least 300 people with some eyewitnesses estimating the total number to be closer to 600.99 Despite claims to the contrary from Mali’s ruling junta, the pace of militant violence and civilian fatalities since Wagner’s arrival has continued to increase and any meaningful efforts to distinguish between terrorists and civilians has vanished.100 According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, there were more Malian civilians killed in the first quarter of 2022 than in all of 2021.101
On April 22, 2022, the French military released documented evidence of Wagner forces staging evidence of mass killings in an effort to frame French forces.102 The evidence, obtained via satellite imagery and drone footage, depicted corpses in shallow mass graves near a former French military base, an installation that had been transferred to the Malian Armed Forces just days earlier.103 Such practices illustrate the depths to which the Wagner Group, and Russia more generally, is willing to stoop in an effort to undermine and exploit Bamako’s deteriorating relationship with Paris and consolidate popular support for their presence in Mali. There is also speculation that Wagner has its sights set on neighboring Burkina Faso, which has experienced its own civil-military crisis and increasingly dire security challenges.104 This certainly aligns with the Kremlin’s desire to exploit democratic recession and disrupt democracy on the continent.
Challenges for U.S. (and Allies’) Security Interests in Africa
The above survey of Wagner’s activities across several African states is illustrative of Moscow’s broader efforts to strategically challenge Western interests and exploit an international system marked by years of democratic decline and authoritarian entrenchment.105 As the United States continues to maintain a light force posture in Africa and France backpedals there, particularly in the Sahel, Russia has made a concerted effort to utilize irregular means via its “mercenary diplomacy” in order to carve out and expand its influence.106
While the fallout from Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine remains uncertain, it is clear that for the past several years, closer relations with Moscow have become an attractive prospect for several African governments. The absence of pressure from the Kremlin to meet some democratic threshold or standard to ensure continuity of support only bolstered that attractiveness for many of the aforementioned regimes that have challenged or come to power via unconstitutional means. And for the Wagner Group, these are exactly the types of client governments it has intentionally targeted and signed deals with.
Yet, for African governments, deepening relationships with the Kremlin is always a gamble, and Russia’s current war may directly impact Wagner-Africa dynamics. On one hand, it might lead to redeployment away from Africa given Putin’s existential need to demonstrate some degree of progress in Ukraine. As noted previously, some Wagner mercenaries have exited other theaters (e.g., Libya) to join the fight in Ukraine. A significant redeployment of Wagner mercenaries would be especially costly for several African states that have become increasingly reliant on the Wagner Group as a security partner. On the other hand, the war has only intensified Russia’s adversarial relationship with the West. This may make it even more pressing for Russia to dig in and maintain ties with current African partners, possibly courting new ones to compensate for its greater international isolation. For now at least, despite its early struggles in Ukraine, Russia appears focused on preserving its interests in Africa, though this could change quickly.107
These dynamics all matter for the United States and its allies as Russia’s predominant foreign policy goal in Africa is to “undermine the democratic process through elite capture.”108 As Joseph Siegel, the outgoing director of research at the African Center for Strategic Studies, succinctly put it, the “partnerships that Russia seeks in Africa are not state- but elite-based;” Russia has used Wagner to make inroads in cultivating such relationships.109 This poses a unique challenge for the United States and Western allies as Wagner has successfully propped up illiberal regimes via “arms for resource deals, opaque contracts, and disinformation campaigns”110 that delegitimize the West and make it that much more difficult for African states to see the United States as the preferred partner of choice.111
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15, 2022, General Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), argued, “Our African partners face choices to strengthen the U.S. and allied-led open, rules-based international order or succumb to raw power transactional pressure campaigns of global competitors. How African governments choose partners may determine the future of U.S. values-based influence in international political fora.”112 In several places on the continent, as this article has made clear, the United States is losing this battle to Wagner.
General Townsend went on to say, “We see a lot of Russian activity in Africa … namely Wagner Group … They don’t follow any rules, they do what they want, they commit gross violations of human rights … I think it’s bad for Africa’s security and prosperity in the future.”113 e
Despite Wagner’s assertiveness on the continent, it is also important to step back and note that Russia is still a relative latecomer in efforts to revitalize relationships with African partners.114 But the pace at which it has carved out influence via the Wagner Group is demonstrative of the importance of Africa for Moscow’s broader foreign policy objectives and illustrative of the havoc and instability it can create for a relatively small investment. Additionally, outside of the extractive economic opportunities for Prigozhin and Moscow and the ability to undermine support for democracy, both of which are quite pertinent to U.S. interests, Russia’s efforts to use Wagner for relationship-building with African partners are consequential in other areas like U.N. voting and durable security partnerships.115 It is likely that Africa will only continue to grow in importance for the Kremlin, given its ongoing war efforts in Ukraine. This only heightens the likelihood that it will continue to rely on quasi-state forces like the Wagner Group to do its bidding on the continent.
Wagner’s efforts have already paid dividends for the Kremlin as Africa has arguably become increasingly segmented.116 During the U.N. General Assembly’s March 2, 2022, vote to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine, for example, though a majority of African countries (28) voted in the affirmative, 16 abstained and nine did not vote.117 Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sudan, CAR, and Mali—countries that have established ties with Wagner—were among the abstentions.118 More recently, President Zelensky’s virtual speech to the African Union on June 20, saw only four of the 55 African heads of state attend.119
While autocratic leaders and military juntas may see value in pursuing contracts with Wagner, other African states need to recognize the alarming consequences of pursuing relationships with PMCs like Wagner and cultivating relationships with Russia more generally. Though frustrations with the West have increased local support for enhanced relations with Russia, the Kremlin’s strategy via outsourcing through Wagner is one that reeks of exploitation. One could argue that the West’s track record on the continent is also poor, but, as noted, Wagner has no genuine interest in actually addressing issues of instability for clients. Ironically, and as researchers have shown, it will benefit from a manageable level of instability that ensures continuity of a contract while enabling its network of businesses to continue their extractive onslaught on African economies.120 Along these lines, some analysts have recommended that African states revisit the Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa, passed in 1977 by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and which entered into force in 1985.121 The convention essentially bans African states from entering into agreements with mercenaries and its reconsideration and application could help thwart the threats to sovereignty and stability that Wagner will surely continue to bring.122
The Wagner Group will almost certainly continue to spearhead Moscow’s efforts to win influence in Africa. The United States and allied nations must be prepared to counter Wagner’s sustained efforts to undermine the rules-based international order and capitalize on democratic recession and state fragility/insecurity on the continent. They can do so by highlighting Wagner’s failings in places like Mozambique, countering Russian disinformation in places like Mali, sanctioning countries that partner with the Wagner Group, sustaining multilateral sanctions against the Russian Federation, tracking and advertising Wagner’s human rights violations, declassifying and releasing intelligence where helpful as the French recently did in Mali,123 investing in security force capacity-building to decrease the apparent allure of PMCs like Wagner, considering legal options for holding Wagner forces accountable for atrocities, and taking a whole-of-government approach to provide support and resources to civil-society partners across the region.124
Several of these approaches are not without risks. For instance, sanctioning governments that contract with the Wagner Group runs the risk of pushing these states further into Russia’s orbit. Additionally, with the growing sanctions regime against Russia deepening the Kremlin’s isolation following its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Moscow may need to put even greater emphasis on alternative markets.125 At the same time, there are opportunities for a host of African states, particularly those with substantial oil and natural gas capacity, to benefit from Russia’s economic ostracization as many European states continue to seek alternative energy markets to offset future energy crises.126 The United States should work with African and European partners to facilitate efforts that are mutually beneficial while continuing to punish Russia economically. It should also emphasize, as President Zelensky did during his recent address to the African Union, that African governments run the risk of becoming “hostage” to Russia.127 Though speaking about the Kremlin’s blockade against Ukrainian grain exports that jeopardizes food security globally, the point should resonate for those governments that have partnered with the Wagner Group as they are increasingly likely to become hostage to Russia for security and military support.
The United States, for its part, has already taken several measures to counter Wagner. In 2017, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) added the Wagner Group to the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list.128 In December 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken applauded the European Union as it introduced new sanctions on the Wagner Group and several individuals connected to the firm.129 Meanwhile, in March 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department announced an escalation of sanctions against Prigozhin, his immediate family, and several Prigozhin-linked businesses.130 These efforts increase the roadblocks for Wagner and its efforts to court new clients, making it difficult for foreign governments and private corporations to do business with Prigozhin and Wagner-linked entities. With Moscow’s ongoing military challenges in Ukraine, the United States must capitalize on the opportunity to show that a partnership with Wagner is bad business. CTC
Dr. Christopher M. Faulkner is a Postdoctoral Fellow of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He earned his Ph.D. in Security Studies from the University of Central Florida. Twitter: @C_Faulkner_UCF
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Naval War College, U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.
© 2022 Christopher Faulkner
[a] Executive Outcomes (EO) was a South African private military company that was involved in several African civil wars in the early 1990s—most notably, Sierra Leone and Angola. EO was part of a tangled web of private companies including partner PMCs, geological/mining companies, and engineering firms. The Wagner Group is similarly designed as an intricate network of shell companies. For more on Executive Outcomes, see William Reno, “African Weak States and Commercial Alliances,” African Affairs 96:383 (1997).
[b] In the case of CAR, since 2017 the United Nations has granted exemptions to arms embargoes on a case-by-case basis. Russia received an exemption in December 2017 that allowed it to send small arms and light weapons to CAR. Along with this shipment, Russia also sent approximately 175 trainers. Among these trainers were Wagner forces. For more, see Paul Stronski, “Journalist Killed in Central African Republic Amid Growing Russian Presence,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 2, 2018.
[c] It is important to note that Prigozhin and the Russian Ministry of Defense have had their fair share of conflicts. For instance, Prigozhin sued the Russian Ministry of Defense for failing to pay outstanding invoices to Prigozhin—suits that he won. Thus, while it is likely that the Defense Ministry aids in negotiating Wagner’s contracts with client states, Prigozhin is believed to take substantial cuts for himself. For more, see Kimberly Marten, “The GRU, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Russia’s Wagner Group: Malign Russian Actors and Possible U.S. Responses,” Testimony before the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment United States House, July 7, 2020.
[d] In their joint declaration, French President Emmanuel Macron noted the withdrawal would take several months, and despite demands from Bamako that France completely exit the scene, it is unlikely that this spells the end of the West’s counterterrorism efforts across the Sahel. For more, see Marielle Harris, Catrina Doxsee, and Jared Thompson, “The End of Operation Barkhane and the Future of Counterterrorism in Mali,” Center for Strategic and International Security, March 2, 2022.
[e] These are not entirely new concerns. Former AFRICOM head General Waldhauser reiterated on multiple occasions via congressional testimony and written correspondence that both Beijing and Moscow are keen on continued expansion and influence across Africa. Nick Turse, “U.S. General Worry About Rising Russian and Chinese Influence in Africa, Documents Show,” Intercept, August 13, 2019; “Statement of General Thomas D. Waldhauser, United States Marine Corps Commander, United States Africa Command Before the Senate Committee on Armed Services,” February 7, 2019.
 Oldrich Bures and Eugenio Cusumano, “The Anti-Mercenary Norm and United Nations’ Use of Private Military and Security Companies: From Norm Entrepreneurship to Organized Hypocrisy,” International Peacekeeping 28:4 (2021).
 Deborah Avant, The Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
 Seth Jones, Catrina Doxsee, Brian Katz, Eric McQueen, and Joe Moye, “Russia’s Corporate Soldiers: The Global Expansion of Russia’s Private Military Companies,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 2021.
 Peter Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003); Sean McFate, Mercenaries and War: Understanding Private Armies Today (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2019).
 Herbert Howe, “Private Security Forces and African Stability: The Case of Executive Outcomes,” Journal of Modern African Studies 36:2 (1998).
 Ulrich Petersohn, “Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs), Military Effectiveness, and Conflict Severity in Weak States, 1990–2007,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 61:5 (2017); Ulrich Petersohn, “The Impact of Mercenaries and Private Military and Security Companies on Civil War Severity between 1946 and 2002,” International Interactions 40:2 (2014).
 Christopher Faulkner, Joshua Lambert, and Jonathan Powell, “Reassessing Private Military and Security Company (PMSC) ‘Competition’ in Civil War: Lessons from Sierra Leone,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 30:3 (2019); Seden Akcinaroglu and Elizabeth Radziszewski, “Private Military Companies, Opportunities, and Termination of Civil Wars in Africa,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 57:5 (2013).
 Mark Ramirez and Reed Wood, “Public Attitudes Toward Private Military Companies: Insights from Principal–agent Theory,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 63:6 (2019).
 Faulkner, Lambert, and Powell.
 Charlotte Penel and Ulrich Petersohn, “Commercial Military Actors and Civilian Victimization in Africa, Middle East, Latin America, and Asia, 1980–2011,” Journal of Global Security Studies 7:1 (2022); Akcinaroglu and Radziszewski.
 “Russian Private Military Companies (PMCs),” Congressional Research Service, September 16, 2020; Paul Stronski, “Implausible Deniability: Russia’s Private Military Companies,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2, 2020.
 For a detailed overview of the Wagner Group’s history, see Ibid., pp. 190-193.
 Kimberly Marten, “The GRU, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Russia’s Wagner Group: Malign Russian Actors and Possible U.S. Responses,” Testimony before the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment United States House, July 7, 2020.
 Robert Mueller, “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election,” U.S. Department of Justice, March 2019.
 Adam Taylor, “What We Know about the Shadowy Russian Mercenary Firm Behind an Attack on U.S. Troops in Syria,” Washington Post, February 23, 2018.
 Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “How a 4-Hour Battle Between Russian Mercenaries and U.S. Commandos Unfolded in Syria,” New York Times, March 24, 2018.
 For a useful illustration of the complexity of the Wagner Group and Prigozhin’s businesses, see Alexander Rabin, “Diplomacy and Dividends: Who Really Controls the Wagner Group,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, October 4, 2019.
 Keir Giles, “Russian Interests in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Letort Papers, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College (2013).
 Kimberly Marten, “Russia’s Back in Africa: Is the Cold War Returning?” Washington Quarterly 42:4 (2019).
 Danielle Paquette, “As the U.S. Looks Elsewhere, Russia Seeks a Closer Relationship with Africa,” Washington Post, October 25, 2019; Linda Givetash, “African Relations with Russia Uncertain Amid Ukrainian Conflict,” Voice of America, February 24, 2022.
 David Kirkpatrick, “Russian Snipers, Missiles and Warplanes Try to Tilt Libyan War,” New York Times, November 5, 2019; Janko Šćepanović, “Honest Broker or Status-Seeker: Russia’s Policy in Libya,” Problems of Post-Communism, 2021.
 “Lead Inspector General Quarterly report to the U.S. Congress on the East Africa Counterterrorism Operation and North and West Africa Counterterrorism Operation, July 1 2020 – September 30, 2020,” U.S. Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, November 23, 2020; Candace Rondeaux, “Libya is a Testing Ground for Russia-UAE Cooperation in the Middle East,” World Politics Review, November 5, 2021; Candace Rondeaux, Oliver Imhof, and Jack Margolin, “The Abu Dhabi Express,” New America, November 3, 2021.
 See, for instance, Greg Miller, Missy Ryan, Sudarsan Raghavan, and Souad Mekhennet, “At the Mercy of Foreign Powers,” Washington Post, February 25, 2021; Tim Eaton, “The Libyan Arab Armed Forces: A Network Analysis of Haftar’s Military Alliance,” Chatham House, June 2021; and Joseph Siegle, “The Future of Russia-Africa Relations,” Brookings, February 2, 2022.
 Ibid.; Anastasia Yakoreva, “‘Putin’s Cook’ Set Out to Mine Gold in Africa,” The Bell, June 5, 2018.
 R. Kim Cragin and Lachlan MacKenzie, “Russia’s Escalating Use of Private Military Companies in Africa,” Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, November 24, 2020; Grzegorz Kuczynski, “Russia in Africa: Weapons, Mercenaries, Spin Doctors,” Warsaw Institute, Special Report, October 22, 2019.
 Tim Lister, Sebastian Shukla, and Nima Elbagir, “Fake News and Public Executions: Documents Show a Russian Company’s Plan for Quelling Protests in Sudan,” CNN, April 25, 2019.
 For more information, see this very helpful Twitter thread. Daniel McDowell, “Short [thread] on negative security externalities of sanctions targeting Russia …,” Twitter, June 6, 2022.
 Reynolds, p. 5.
 Marten, “Russia’s Back in Africa.”
 “Final Report on the Murder of Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastogruev and Kirill Radchenko in the Central African Republic,” Dossier Center, August 1, 2019.
 Declan Walsh, “Russian Mercenaries are Driving War Crimes in Africa, U.N. Says,” New York Times, June 7, 2021. See also the March 24, 2021, letter by various rapporteurs of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) at the United Nations, available at https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=26305
 Nosmot Gbadamosi, “Will Russia’s Ukraine Invasion Impact the Central African Republic?” Foreign Policy, April 6, 2022; Christopher Faulkner, “Buying Peace? Civil War Peace Duration and Private Military & Security Companies,” Civil Wars 21:1 (2019).
 Tim Lister, “Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique Grows in Sophistication and Reach,” CTC Sentinel 13:10 (2020); Jasmine Opperman, “An Expanded Russian Interest in Northern Mozambique Could be a New Game Changer,” Daily Maverick, October 14, 2019.
 Borges Nhamirre, “Will Foreign Intervention End Terrorism in Cabo Delgado?” Institute for Security Studies, November 5, 2021; Nolan Quinn, “The Military-First Approach in Northern Mozambique is Bound to Fail,” Council on Foreign Relations, November 23, 2020.
 Tim Lister and Sebastian Shukla, “Russian Mercenaries Fight Shadowy Battle in Gas-Rich Mozambique,” CNN, November 29, 2019; Lister, “Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique Grows in Sophistication and Reach.”
 Daniel Sixto, “Russian Mercenaries: A String of Failures in Africa,” Geopolitical Monitor, August 24, 2020; Jared Thompson, Catrina Doxsee, and Joseph Bermudez, Jr., “Tracking the Arrival of Russia’s Wagner Group in Mali,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 2, 2022.
 Tim Lister and Sebastian Shukla, “Arrival of Russian Wagner Mercenaries in Mali Condemned by European Governments,” CNN, December 24, 2021; Christopher Faulkner, “Rising Instability in Mali Raises Fears About Role of Private Russian Military Group,” The Conversation – Africa, January 10, 2022.
 Judd Devermont, “Politics at the Heart of the Crisis in the Sahel,” Center for Strategic and International Security, December 6, 2019; Nathaniel Powell, “Why France Failed in Mali,” War on the Rocks, February 21, 2022.
 “Joint Declaration on the Fight Against the Terrorist Threat and the Support to Peace and Security in the Sahel and West Africa,” ÉLYSÉE, February 17, 2022.
 “Mali Parliament Approves Five-Year Democratic Transition Plan,” Reuters, February 21, 2022.
 Malian Armed Forces, “Mmunique N°026 de L’etat-Major General des Armees du 01 Avril 2022,” Twitter, April 1, 2022.
 Elian Peltier, “Western Officials Condemn Reports of ‘Massacre’ by Military in Central Mali,” New York Times, April 4, 2022; Edith Lederer, “UN Demands Mali Allow Peacekeepers into Town where 300 died,” Washington Post, April 7, 2022; Danielle Paquette, Joyce Sohyun Lee, and Jon Swaine, “Civilian Killings Soar as Russian Mercenaries Join Fight in West Africa,” Washington Post, May 23, 2022.
 Catrina Doxsee and Jared Thompson, “Massacres, Executions, and Falsified Graves: The Wagner Group’s Mounting Humanitarian Cost in Mali,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 11, 2022.
 “Statement of General Stephen J. Townsend, United States Army Commander, United States Africa Command Before the Senate Armed Forces Committee,” March 15, 2022.
 Marten, “Russia’s Back in Africa.”
 Joseph Siegle, “Ukraine War: Fresh Warning that Africa Needs to Be Vigilant Against Russia’s Destablising Influence,” The Conversation, March 9, 2022; Declan Walsh, “Putin’s Shadow Soldiers: How the Wagner Group Is Expanding in Africa,” New York Times, May 31, 2022.
 Cory Welt, Kristin Archick, Rebecca Nelson, and Dianne Rennack, “U.S. Sanctions on Russia,” Congressional Research Service, January 18, 2022; Mary Ilyushina and Sebastian Shukla, “Rights Groups File Landmark Legal Case Against Russian Wagner Mercenaries,” CNN, March 15, 2021; Thompson, Doxsee, and Bermudez, Jr.