When Wagner mercenary force founder Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a fiery plane crash in August, exactly two months after leading a rebellion that challenged President Vladimir Putin’s 24-year grip on power, it cast a thick cloud over the future of Russia’s footprint in Africa.
Ever since the West began isolating Russia following Moscow’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, Putin had attempted to rekindle Soviet-era ties with nations in the Global South, especially in Africa, using Prigozhin’s paramilitary company as one of his most important tools of influence.
A skilled businessman and charismatic leader who was said to enjoy fierce loyalty from his troops, Prigozhin picked up clients in several African states seeking regime protection as instability spread, moving money and weapons around the continent through an intricate web of shell companies he controlled.
In addition to increasing Moscow’s clout in Africa, Wagner’s presence has been lucrative. A report published this month by a U.S.-based pro-democracy group said its analysis “suggests that Wagner and Russia have earned more than $2.5 billion from blood gold [in Africa] since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.”
But Prigozhin’s demise after nine years at Wagner’s helm raised serious questions about whether Russia would be able to ensure a seamless transfer of control over the group’s African mercenary, disinformation, and business operations to the security services and to selected Putin allies.
Russian defense and intelligence officials have parachuted into Africa in recent months to reassure existing clients of continuity and woo potential new ones.
Earlier this month, an RFE/RL investigation found that a former Kremlin envoy to the EU whom European diplomats link to Russian intelligence has been dispatched to the Central African Republic (CAR) to oversee coordination between the Wagner mercenary group and local security forces.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported that Western intelligence indicates the fugitive former chief operating officer of payments-processing company Wirecard, Jan Marsalek, is now helping Russia with “the reconfiguration of [Prigozhin’s] business empire in Africa.”
Media outlets have reported that the Russian military is setting up a force called Africa Corps as a replacement for Wagner, and Telegram channels have posted recruitment ads, but the Defense Ministry has not confirmed such plans and it’s unclear how much progress the initiative has made.
On a far more public level, Putin met with the heads of 17 African states at a summit in St. Petersburg in July, a month after the rebellion. Growing instability and anti-Western sentiment, especially in the Sahel region, has been helping Moscow get a bigger foothold on the continent, even as its attention and resources are consumed by the war in Ukraine.
Joseph Siegle, research director at the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said that Russia has strengthened its position in the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), Sudan, and the countries of the Sahel, where a series of coups have brought juntas to power.
Russian defense officials earlier this month met with junta leaders in Niger to discuss security cooperation after the government ordered French troops to leave, becoming the third Sahel country to do so.
Mali and Burkina Faso had earlier kicked out French forces amid growing anti-colonial sentiment and frustration over the lack of progress against jihadist groups terrorizing the western Sahel.
Wagner’s checkered record isn’t helping its cause, Siegle said. Mali’s stability has deteriorated, with militant attacks on the increase since the junta ejected French and UN forces and brought in about 1,000 Wagner trainers. Meanwhile, Wagner has reportedly grabbed lucrative assets in the C.A.R.
The European Union and others in the international community have accused Wagner of gross human rights violations, including torture and killings, in countries including Mali, Libya, C.A.R, and Sudan.
“The pointy spear of Russian engagement in Africa continues, but I think there's a growing realization among leaders that this is breeding instability, that Russian deployments are a national security threat, not a solution,” Siegle said.
Burkina Faso and Niger have yet to sign on with Russia, nor has the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has also held meeting with Russian defense officials.
Putin’s decision in June to pull out of a grain deal that allowed the safe passage of ships carrying Ukrainian grain from the Black Sea to world markets hurt Russia’s image in Africa, Siegle said.
“It was just a very vivid demonstration of Putin’s blatant disregard for the real priorities in Africa -- a sobering realization that to Russia, Africa is just a pawn in its broader geostrategic interests,” he said.
Russia blocked Ukrainian grain exports following its full-scale invasion in 2022, driving up global prices and adversely affecting African countries that depend on those imports.
Experts say Russia’s growing interest in Africa is driven by a desire to expand its global influence amid a breakdown in relations with the West due to its invasion of Ukraine, and to secure military bases to project power.
Moscow is also seeking to expand arms sales, build and run nuclear power plants, and acquire the rights to natural resources throughout the continent. Russia is Africa’s largest supplier of arms, accounting for about 40 percent of annual sales to the continent, which gives it some political leverage.
Russian arms are cheap, and Moscow does not tie weapons sales to a nation’s human rights record, opening doors to more countries.
Wagner’s presence has focused international attention on Moscow’s growing role in Africa. But Amaka Anku, who oversees the continent at the risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group, said that Russia’s real influence is limited.
Wagner is deployed in a few impoverished countries ruled by juntas or authoritarian leaders that lack legitimacy and domestic support, she said, adding that aside from arms and grain sales, Russia does little trade with Africa and does not provide much investment or aid.
“Russia has very little to offer” African nations, Anku said.
But Russia does share a deep grievance with a number of African nations about what they see or portray as an unfair, Western-led world order. Both Russia and the African Union advocate for a “multipolar” world in which the United States would be less powerful than it is.
The United States' use of sanctions to punish countries for rights abuses and aggression, including cutting them off from the U.S. dollar, has alarmed many states in the Global South.
Moscow has played upon these and other grievances, like the continent’s brutal colonial legacy, to drive a wedge between Africa and the West, experts say. Moscow supported African independence movements during the Cold War and that legacy is still a powerful factor today.
“I think there's a gross underestimation of how impactful Russia has been with its disinformation campaign,” Siegle said.
Cameron Hudson, who served as the National Security Council’s director for African affairs under President George W. Bush, told a congressional hearing in July that Russia has been more effective than the United States in promoting its views, producing information in African languages -- not just English and French -- and using TikTok to reach the continent’s young audience.
“We are playing a different communications game than Russia is online, and we are losing because of it,” Hudson, who is now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the U.S. House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee in July.
Ukraine War And 'Consistency'
Russia’s war against Ukraine has generated another grievance between the West and the Global South, said Bruce Jones, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The West quickly mobilized tens of billions of dollars in military, financial, and humanitarian aid for Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
By comparison, he said, the U.S. response to the Tigray War in Ethiopia that has killed 500,000 people, mainly civilians, since 2020 has been “a drop in the bucket” -- and that is not lost on Africans.
Echoing that point, U.S. Representative Sydney Kamlager-Dove (Democrat-California) told Mike Hammer, U.S. President Joe Biden’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa, that Africans want to see “consistency” in the U.S. response to civilian deaths and human rights violations.
“African countries often feel our double standard,” she said at a November 30 House hearing on the Tigray War.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.) is one of those countries.
The government in Kinshasa has complained about what it says has been the lack of Western attention to renewed rebel attacks that have created a massive humanitarian crisis in the D.R.C.’s eastern provinces.
A few months before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Rwanda-backed M23 rebels seized control of large parts of North Kivu Province, triggering fighting that has forced more than 800,000 people to flee their homes.
The “Congolese felt that very little action was taken to support their sovereignty -- a point made more stark by comparison with the invasion of Ukraine,” Kristof Titeca, a professor at the University of Antwerp in the Netherlands, wrote in a March report following dozens of interviews with Congolese policymakers, foreign diplomats, civil society members, and journalists.
Some in the D.R.C. government are now calling for a pivot toward Russia, Titeca said.
“The geopolitical landscape is in flux, and the Congolese government’s exercise of the ‘Russia option’ is at least as much about the way it can be leveraged in relations with the West as it is of its actual Russia policy,” Titeca said.
The D.R.C. will hold presidential elections on December 20 with incumbent Felix Tshisekedi seeking reelection in a vote that could be contested.
“If there's controversy, Russia could very easily jump in and support Tshisekedi’s claims of winning” to enhance its standing with the incumbent, Siegle said.
Anku agreed that Russia is a card that African leaders can play to “push back against the West.”
“Talking to Russia has a lot of value in that context,” she said.
Africans think that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is breaking down the existing world order, opening an opportunity for African nations to help shape the new one in a way that is more favorable to the continent, Anku said.
Amid the rise in anti-Western sentiment, and mindful that African nations hold more than a quarter of the seats in the UN General Assembly, the Biden administration has significantly stepped up its engagement with Africa over the past 12 months.
In December 2022, the United States hosted the first U.S.-Africa Summit in eight years, with 49 heads of state and the president of the African Union attending. Afterwards, Biden dispatched 17 top officials to 26 nations on the continent, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
During those visits, the United States announced aid and investments in Africa running into the billions of dollars.
Biden has yet to fulfill a promise he made to African leaders at the summit to visit their continent this year. A U.S. president has not visited sub-Saharan Africa since 2015.
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