Russian mercenaries are Putin’s ‘coercive tool’ in Africa

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FILE – Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves food to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, center, during a dinner at Prigozhin’s restaurant outside Moscow, Russia, on Friday 11 November 2011. Russia has engaged in under-the-radar military operations in at least half a dozen countries in Africa over the past five years using a shadowy mercenary force, Wagner analysts say is loyal to the President Vladimir Putin. The United States identifies Prigozhin as Wagner’s financier. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, pool, file)

PA

When abuses have been reported in recent weeks in Mali – fake graves intended to discredit French forces; a massacre of some 300 people, mostly civilians – all evidence pointed to the shadowy mercenaries of the Russian Wagner Group.

Even before these feared professional soldiers joined the assault on Ukraine, Russia had deployed them in quiet military operations in at least half a dozen African countries. Their goal: to further President Vladimir Putin’s global ambitions and undermine democracy.

The Wagner Group poses as a private military contractor and the Kremlin denies any connection with it or even, at times, its existence.

But Wagner’s commitment to Russian interests has become evident in Ukraine, where his fighters, seen wearing the group’s creepy white skull emblem, are among the Russian forces currently attacking eastern Ukraine.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Wagner acquired substantial footholds for Russia in the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali. According to experts, Wagner’s role in these countries goes far beyond the coverage of simply providing a security service.

“They basically run the Central African Republic” and are a growing force in Mali, Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of US armed forces in Africa, said during a Senate hearing last month.

The United States identifies Wagner’s backer as Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to the Russian president and sometimes called “Putin’s chef” for his glitzy restaurants favored by the Russian leader. He has been accused by the US government of trying to influence the 2016 US presidential election, and the Wagner group is under US and EU sanctions.

Russia’s game plan for Africa, where it has wielded influence as far north as Libya and as far south as Mozambique, is simple in some ways, analysts say. It seeks alliances with regimes or juntas shunned by the West or faced with insurgencies and internal challenges to their power.

African leaders gain recognition from the Kremlin and military power from Wagner. They pay for it by giving Russia priority access to their oil, gas, gold, diamonds and precious minerals.

Russia is also gaining positions on a strategically important continent.

But there is another objective of Russia’s “hybrid warfare” in Africa, said Joseph Siegle, research director at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

Siegle said Russia was also waging an ideological battle, using Wagner as a “coercive tool” to undermine Western ideas of democracy and steer countries towards Moscow. Putin wants to challenge the international democratic order “because Russia can’t compete very well in that order.” “said Siegle.

“If democracy is presented as the ultimate governance model, then that is binding on Russia,” Siegle said.

On the contrary, Wagner promotes Russian interests with soldiers and guns, but also with propaganda and disinformation, as Prigozhin has already done for Putin.

In the Central African Republic, Wagner fighters drive around the capital Bangui in unmarked military vehicles and guard the country’s gold and diamond mines. They have helped push back armed rebel groups and keep President Faustin-Archange Touadera in power, but their reach goes much further. Russian national Valery Zakharov is Touadera’s national security adviser but also a ‘key figure’ in Wagner’s command structure, according to European Union documents accusing the mercenary group of serious human rights abuses. male.

A statue erected last year in Bangui depicts Russian soldiers standing side by side to protect a woman and her children. Russia is portrayed as the country’s savior and pro-Russian marches have been held in support of the war in Ukraine and criticism of former security partner France – although several protesters said they were being paid.

“A Central African adage says that when someone helps you, you must reciprocate. That’s why we mobilized together to support Russia,” said Didacien Kossimatchi, a Touadera political party official. “Russia has absolved us of the unacceptable domination of the West.”

Kossimatchi said Russia was “acting in self-defense” in Ukraine.

Such support from African countries is a strategic success for Russia. When the United Nations passed a resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine, 17 of the 35 countries that abstained in the vote – nearly half – were African. Several other African nations did not register a vote.

“Africa is rapidly becoming crucial to Putin’s efforts to dilute the influence of the United States and its international alliances,” said a March report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a nonprofit created by the former British Prime Minister.

Russia’s strategy in Africa has minimal economic and political cost. Analysts estimate that Wagner operates with only a few hundred to 2,000 mercenaries in a country. Many are former Russian military intelligence, Siegle said, but because it’s a private force, the Kremlin can deny responsibility for Wagner’s actions.

The real price is paid by ordinary people.

The people of the Central African Republic are no safer, said Pauline Bax, deputy director of the Africa program at the think tank International Crisis Group. “In fact, there is more violence and intimidation,” she said.

France, the United States and human rights groups have accused the Wagner mercenaries of extrajudicial executions of civilians in the Central African Republic. A UN panel of experts said private military groups and “particularly the Wagner Group” violently harassed people and committed rape and sexual violence. These are just the latest accusations of serious abuse by the group.

The Central African Republic in 2021 admitted serious human rights violations by the Russians, which forced Russian Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko to leave his post.

The Wagner Group has responded with a charm offensive by creating films intended to appeal to audiences, sponsoring beauty contests and distributing educational materials that promote Russia’s engagement in Africa. Russian is now taught in universities.

Russia has transposed its Central African plan to Mali and elsewhere in Africa. In Mali, there has been an “uprooting of democracy,” said Aanu Adeoye, an analyst on Russian-African affairs at the London-based Chatham House think tank.

After coups in 2020 and last year, France is withdrawing troops from its former colony that had helped fight Islamist extremists since 2013. Wagner moved in, striking a security deal with the new military junta Mali, which then expelled the French ambassador and banned French television. stations. Tensions with the West have intensified. Violence too.

Last month, the Malian army and foreign soldiers believed by witnesses to be Russian killed around 300 men in the rural town of Moura. Some of those killed were suspected extremists, but most were civilians, Human Rights Watch said, calling it a “deliberate killing of people in custody.”

This week, when French forces ceded control of the Gossi military base, suspected Wagner agents hastily buried several bodies nearby and a Russian social media campaign blamed France for the graves. The French military, however, had used aerial surveillance after their withdrawal to show the creation of the sandy tombs.

Both atrocities bear the mark of Wagnerian mercenaries and the mark of Russian foreign policy under Putin, several analysts say.

“They don’t care about minor things like democracy and human rights,” said Adeoye of Chatham House.

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Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa. AP writer Jean Fernand Koena in Bangui, Central African Republic, contributed.