One of the groups that have risen to international prominence (or infamy) with the invasion of Ukraine is Wagner, a Kremlin-backed mercenary outfit that regularly employs former criminals. In Ukraine, they often fight when conventional Russian Army troops flee the battlefield, and they are noted for their brutality.
But it’s Wagner’s activities in Africa, especially the geopolitically important Sahel region, that require closer attention. Formed in 2014 by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a longtime loyalist of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Wagner was created to support Russia’s initial foray into Ukraine nine years ago. Since then, it has evolved into a shadowy network of mercenaries deployed throughout the globe. This includes a growing footprint in sub-Saharan Africa, where Wagner has deployed forces to Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, Mozambique and elsewhere.
Combining hard and soft power, Wagner’s forces are destabilizing poorly governed regions, like the Sahel, through wanton human rights abuses, rapacious resource extraction and covert disinformation efforts that meddle in the internal politics of the countries where they operate. In Sudan, Wagner operatives advised the strongman Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged by the International Criminal Court with multiple counts of genocide, on how to operate a social media campaign that would discredit civilian protesters. In a memo to Mr. Bashir, Wagner advisers advocated publicly executing protesters to send a message to others. Phony election monitors and Wagner-engineered social media campaigns have manipulated local populations and interfered in elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Wagner fighters may soon be on their way to Burkina Faso. In mid-December, Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, alleged that the government in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, had offered Wagner a lucrative mining contract in exchange for its services. The security-for-resources arrangement mimics Wagner’s blueprint in other parts of Africa, where it is said to have cut deals with authoritarian governments to gain mining concessions and access to valuable resources. Increasingly, these regimes appear to prefer the “no strings attached” arrangement with Moscow over security agreements with Western powers. As he has demonstrated in Syria and Libya, Mr. Putin has no qualms about propping up murderous tyrants and warlords, including Bashar al-Assad and Khalifa Haftar.
The private military contractors of Wagner have now become direct extensions of the Russian government’s foreign policy. By gaining access to valuable mining contracts, Mr. Putin seeks to evade biting Western sanctions, laundering gold, diamonds and other precious gemstones illicitly smuggled. Wagner has also forged agreements with governments in Africa to gain access to uranium, oil and manganese. In addition to Wagner, Prigozhin operates a network of shell companies designed to obfuscate his role, while serving as connective sinew between his myriad illicit ventures.
Strategically, through Wagner, Russia is filling the security void in Africa and the Middle East left by the drawdown of French and American troops. This includes an active attempt to eject French forces from the region and discredit Operation Barkhane, the French-led counterterrorism mission in the Sahel. In April 2022, the French military released footage of what it claims were Wagner operatives trying to stage evidence of a mass atrocity in order to frame French forces. This is in addition to Russia’s repeated attempts to whip up anti-French sentiment in Africa, where France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has accused Russia of “predatory” influence.
Revenue from training and weapons sales to African nations helps bring in desperately needed cash for Russia, even as its lackluster battlefield performance raises doubts about the quality of its security assistance. Western countries are drawing down their presence in the Sahel to pivot from counterterrorism to great power competition. But Moscow, correctly, sees little distinction between those two objectives.
The United States should view the Sahel as a critical region in this broader contest for access. Washington needs robust diplomacy, accompanied by a more aggressive posture toward Wagner. This includes formally listing Wagner as a foreign terrorist organization as it seems to meet the criteria laid out by the U.S. Department of State. It also extends to identifying, tracking and sanctioning Wagner forces, wherever they operate. The United States could also do more “pre-bunking,” or declassifying of intelligence, in the lead-up to Wagner operations to deny it plausible deniability and hold it accountable for any atrocities.
Last week, the Treasury Department announced that it had designated Wagner a transnational criminal organization under Executive Order 13581, which is intended to block the assets of criminal groups that pose serious threats to “the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States.” Yet that designation does not go nearly far enough. A “foreign terrorist” designation would provide the U.S. government with broader authorities to take action against Wagner operatives wherever they operate globally, beyond just their illicit money-making ventures.
Wagner’s actions, especially the reported targeting of civilians and other noncombatants, are destabilizing the Sahel, driving local populations into the arms of extremists and helping affiliates of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State recruit new members in droves. The region has become a magnet for small arms and light weapons trafficking, facilitated by porous borders and rampant corruption. As Afghanistan demonstrated before Sept. 11, 2001, ungoverned spaces anywhere are a threat to security everywhere.
To head off a similar scenario, it is imperative that the United States, France and other Western nations craft a comprehensive approach to Russia’s use of proxies, which forms part of Moscow’s broader conduct of hybrid or “gray zone” warfare around the world.
Colin P. Clarke (@ColinPClarke) is the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consulting firm.
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