The Wagner Group rebellion, lasting from 23-24 June, has left many questions regarding the future of Wagner PMC and Yevgeny Prigozhin himself. However, the incident also raises concerns over the prospects of the group’s presence in Africa. This is especially pressing given the upcoming elections of multiple regional actors in 2023-2024.
Moscow has demonstrated efforts to intensify cooperation with its African partners, independently of Wagner, Despite this, there are significant indicators of Prigozhin’s interest in prioritising the group’s operations in the region.
2.0 Wagner’s Situation Post-Mutiny
Since the rebellion, Moscow has demonstratively distanced itself from Wagner. In his latest interview, Vladimir Putin said that the PMC does not exist (source). Meanwhile, Wagner, which relocated to Belarus, announced a pause in recruitment while Prigozhin closed its media network, including the notorious troll factory. (source)
Additionally, Roskomnadzor, the Russian Information Security Agency, blocked all the remaining sources linked to his figure (source). Moreover, the Russian Army now reportedly aims to recruit more prisoners (as Prigozhin used to). It also seeks to use Chechen battalions to compensate for the absence of Wager fighters in Ukraine (source).
Shortly after the rebellion, on 6 July, Jeune Afrique reported on 500-600 Wagner troops’ demobilisation and withdrawal from Birao, Sido, and Batangafo (source). In his conversation with Russia Today, the Russian Foreign Minister emphasised that there would be no change in Russian support for its African partners (source) (source).
He also stated several hundred “military instructors” from the Russian Armed Forces would be relocated to the Central African Republic following the governmental inquiries (source). In turn, CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra expressed a lack of preference regarding what actors Moscow chooses to provide to Bangui (source) (source).
3.0 Wagner Group’s & Russian State Rhetoric In Africa
Moscow’s current position towards the PMC is to distance itself from Wagner, be it through officials or Russian state TV coverage. For instance, the latter now demonises Prigozhin by comparing him with Adolf Hitler. Additionally, they hint at his connections with the Western intelligence services and accuse him of corruption (source).
This contrasts with the active praise of the group’s efforts over the last several months and the prior strategy of almost complete denial that the Kremlin had demonstrated until the group’s recognition. A similar dynamic could be observed during the coup in Niger too.
Whilst Lavrov called it unconstitutional, Prigozhin characterised the situation as the final stage of Niger’s anticolonial struggle (source) (source). Also, he stated that “the former colonisers do not wish to let go of Africa”. Instead, he claims they wished to “fill it up with terrorists and conduct enormous and ineffective security operations to maintain control” (source).
3.1 Recruitment For Security Operations
From early July, Wagner-associated informal channels have indicated that the group’s primary focus is to shift to its African partners after all. Shortly after the rebellion, the Wagner-associated media temporarily suspended recruitment at its regional centres.
However, on 5 July, the PMC published a renewed job description on Yandex Zen – a Yandex blog platform – as well as on multiple associated social media groups (source). The vacancies advertisement promises a monthly salary of 240,000 RUB (~slightly over 2000 GBP) plus benefits and “opportunities to travel worldwide.”
This package significantly exceeds the average salary in Russia (in 2022, it was ~65,000 RUB (~550 GBP a month). It also clearly indicates that the new employees will be working abroad (source). In case an applicant has any geographical preferences, the job description asks to point them out during the application process.
What is referred to as ‘far-destination’ recruitment requires signing a contract for 9-14 months, which suggests that the group intends to remain active in Africa for at least the next 12 months. (source)
3.2 Belarus As A Bridge Into Africa
On 30 July, however, Prigozhin made a statement announcing a pause in recruitment (source). A VK-based group promoting openings at the PMC on 14 July also announced that Wagner’s “African corps” were on their way to Belarus, where they would undergo “rotation and preparation” (source). The author claims that the mercenaries will have full access to its resources and infrastructure at its Belorussian bases.
One of them, which appears to be operating since 11 July, is located near Asipovichy and is reportedly capable of accommodating up to 8,000 fighters (source) (source) (source). President Aleksandr Lukashenko also announced that Wagner would also have access to the old military bases of the Belarus Armed Forces. (source)
On 18 July, Prigozhin registered a company in Belarus called Concord Management and Consulting, an analogue of his Russian company founded in 2003 (source) (source). Its legal address confirms the dislocation of the Wagner camp in the village of Tsel’ (Protasevich Council Area, Asipovichy district). (source)
3.3 Wagner In Africa
As for its extra-European operations, earlier in June, a Wagner commander with the nickname ‘Brest’ announced that the PMC would continue its operations in Syria, Libya, CAR, Mali, and “wherever [they] get sent [in the future]” (source). High-ranking Wagner figure Alexander Ivanov also stated that the organisation is staying in CAR for now. (source)
Prigozhin confirmed his intentions of re-locating his troops in Africa as he spoke at the Wagner base in Belarus. A video released on 19 July showed the mercenaries’ leader calling for their active preparation for work in Africa (source). It appears that Wagner intends to intensify its activity in Africa and disposes of the necessary technical equipment to do so.
3.4 Wagner’s Capabilities
Whilst the Russian Ministry of Defence reported that the PMC has completed handing over its arms to the Armed Forces, Wagner’s recruitment activity indicates that the group remains equipped. (source) (source)
According to the circulated job description, the group is currently recruiting various sorts of specialists. This includes fighters for assault units, fire support, as well as mechanics, drivers, and medical workers. (source)
Wagner also retains fire support equipment that the PMC is hiring to utilise. This equipment includes:
- Automatic grenade launchers such as AGS-17 Plamyas and AGS-30 Atlants
- Recoilless guns
- Anti-tank guided missiles
- Heavy machine guns, such as modified versions of KPV-14.5; DShK and Kord machine guns
4.0 Continuity Of Presence In Africa
Open sources also suggest that the Wagner group has remained in CAR and continues to maintain its security-provider image following the mutiny. On 13 July, the Wagner-connected Telegram channel Grey Zone posted pictures of the mercenaries allegedly receiving awards in Bombari. (source)
Additionally, according to the South China Morning Post, Wagner fighters assisted the Chinese Embassy in a rescue operation at a Chinese-operated mining site near Bambari (source). The SOMB Telegram channel has also reported that several hundred Wagner mercenaries have arrived in CAR ahead of the 30 July referendum. (source)
Social media activity associated with Wagner to suggests that the PMC aims to be perceived as a persistent security actor in Africa. This appears to be the case for all of its intended audiences including regional partners, competitors, and its fighters.
4.1 Political & Information Campaigns
The question of the potential for future campaigns by the Prigozhin-linked political technologists remains highly relevant, especially for countries linked to the Wagner operations. For instance, Libya, Madagascar and Mali are holding elections in 2023-2024. (source)
Previously, in 2018, Wagner-connected technologists – allegedly including figures like Maxim Shugaley – conducted a campaign in Madagascar by attempting to support eight candidates. (source)
The PMC is also majorly associated with disinformation campaigns in the Sahel, primarily in Mali, where the Wagner workers allegedly promoted anti-French sentiments and support for Russian intervention. (source)
4.1.1 Dismantlement of Patriot Holdings
With the liquidation of Patriot, Prigozhin’s media holding in Russia, it is unclear if Wagner can conduct similar information operations relying on its newly established Belarus entity. On 30 June, Roskomnadzor blocked the Patriot-linked media, including:
- RIA FAN
- Nevskiye Novosti
- Politics Today
- Economy Today. (source)
Later its employees confirmed that they lost their jobs as Prigozhin reportedly announced the dissolution of Patriot Holding, including the infamous troll factory (source) (source). However, Prigozhin’s economic interests, primarily those within the gold industry, are still present. (source)
Therefore, the real question is whether or not he will be allowed to relaunch his information and political campaigns to safeguard these assets and guarantee further access to local industries.
4.1.2 Russia’s Ability To Conduct Future Political and Informational Operations
The case of the July 2023 coup in Niger hints towards the continuous capabilities to promote pro-Russian sentiments among the population. Videos of protestors holding Russian flags and calling for Wagner’s presence resembled the footage from similar events in Mali and Burkina Faso of the past years. (source) (source)
Alternatively, to limit Prigozhin’s influence overall, the Kremlin may aim to replace Wagner in its regional disinformation campaign. The Center for Strategic Studies has counted eight pro-Russian disinformation campaigns conducted in Africa in 2014-2022, and not all of them appear to be linked to Prigozhin. (source)
Hence, Moscow may be able to rely on other more controllable channels. Reports from the Second Russia-Africa Summit do not indicate any established plans in this line of work. However, apart from all the traditional topics like nuclear energy, agriculture, and education cooperation, the forum’s agenda included combatting disinformation (source) (source).
The discussion, hosted by an RT journalist Oksana Boyko, raised questions about “opposing the Western media hegemony” by establishing direct means of communication between Russia and its African partners. (source)
Although some uncertainty remains concerning Wagner’s future, the organisation looks like it will continue having an influence within Africa. This is due to Wagner’s experience in the region and its separation from the Russian state being of high value to the Kremlin. Additionally, the ability for Wagner to contribute to Russia’s geopolitical position both in a soft power and hard power compounds this value.