Will Moscow divert Wagner mercenaries from Africa to fight in Ukraine?
For analysts, this has raised crucial questions about Russia's military capabilities and introduced the possibility of Moscow resorting to the use of private military contractors to fight in Ukrainian cities.
Given the extensive and specialised combat experience of their contractors and close ties to the Kremlin, one group is best placed for this mission: the infamous Wagner Group.
Originally established in 2014 to fight with pro-Russian separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, the mercenary group has long been considered an unofficial foreign policy arm of the Kremlin that operates clandestinely.
Despite Wagner’s widespread presence fighting on behalf of pro-regime forces in Syria dating back as far as 2015, the group’s activities gained prominence and notoriety in a cluster of African countries, where observers have looked to the Wagner Group to anticipate Russia’s geopolitical strategy.
"Although Moscow denies the Wagner Group's links to the Russian state, it is widely seen as a tool for Russia's geostrategic influence abroad"
Wagner's activities in Africa
Wagner's participation in the African context spans many countries across the continent and Russian fighters can often be found in countries facing instability and armed rebellion, including Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Mali.
Wagner's scope is focused on a wide range of security activities: guarding VIPs, training army and special forces units, providing security advice, guarding economic facilities and Russian investments, and actively participating in battles.
In addition, Russian private contractors are known to use social media to actively shape public opinion within African countries to favour Russia. In October 2019, Facebook announced that it had suspended three networks of Russian accounts that tried to interfere with the internal politics of eight African countries and promote Moscow and its allies.
The accounts, which had accumulated millions of followers, were linked to entities financed by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with close ties to the Kremlin and Putin, and widely believed to be the owner of the Wagner Group.
These types of cyber activities have also been employed against international rival powers. Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, senior researcher at the Centre for Military Studies, noted that accounts linked to Russia have actively promoted a negative image of France to destabilise cooperation between Paris and a group of African countries.
Facebook and Twitter have also announced that they have removed a network of fake accounts linked to Russia that was operated from Ghana and Nigeria and targeted the United States.
Potential famine and instability
If prolonged, African food security will be one of the victims of the war in Ukraine. The rise in fuel prices will hike up the cost of food transportation and increase the price of fertilisers, compounding concerns about the impact of the war on the ability of Ukraine and Russia, two of the largest exporters of wheat to Africa, to meet the continent’s needs.
In other words, the war between Russia and Ukraine has the potential to trigger a famine on the African continent.
According to Dr Muhammad Al-Subaitly, Head of the African Studies Unit at the King Faisal Center for Studies, the social repercussions could include the outbreak of “major popular protests in African cities and capitals, led by the middle classes whose social status is likely to deteriorate”.
Based on this, there is a remarkable paradox on the horizon. On one hand, these protests may threaten the stability of some fragile political regimes that have a close relationship with the Wagner Group.
On the other hand, these catastrophic conditions represent an ideal environment for the flourishing of armed rebel movements, which increases the need for Wagner’s fighters who are trained to deal with them.
If Russian-Ukrainian negotiations do not result in an agreement soon and the war rages on, concerned African governments may find themselves obliged to address this paradox.
Is the clock ticking to withdraw from Africa?
Following recent reports that Russia has resorted to employing mercenaries, there has been a lot of speculation as to whether Wagner forces will be withdrawn from some African countries and sent to Ukraine.
Despite these assessments, looking at the multidimensional role that Wagner currently plays in the context of the Russian strategy across the continent casts doubt on the possibility of a large-scale withdrawal of mercenary troops from African countries where it is active, and suggests this will only be done as a last resort when absolutely necessary.
Although Moscow denies the Wagner Group’s links to the Russian state, it is widely seen as a tool for Russia's geostrategic influence abroad.
"Wagner's participation in the African context spans many countries across the continent and Russian fighters can often be found in countries facing instability and armed rebellion"
According to Federica Saini Fasanotti, a non-resident senior fellow at the prestigious US Brookings Institution, Russian President Vladimir Putin "seeks to create African dependencies on Moscow's military assets and access African resources, targeting countries that have fragile governments but are often rich in important raw materials, such as oil, gold, diamonds, uranium”.
Libya provides a useful case study on this. Through the Wagner Group’s intervention alongside General Khalifa Haftar, Moscow was able to expand its influence towards the southern borders of Europe, access Libya’s oil and gas resources, and ensure that it plays a role in the post-war political settlement.
To avoid the need to use important Wagner assets, Moscow has begun recruiting fighters from other regions such as Chechnya, and the Kremlin has announced that it will allow Syrians and citizens of other countries in the Middle East to fight alongside the Russian army.
According to Rami Abdel Rahman, Director of the Syrian Centre for Human Rights, Russia has prepared lists of more than 40,000 fighters loyal to the Syrian regime to fight alongside the Russian army in Ukraine. Relying on foreign fighters and private contractors is key to the Kremlin’s aim to reduce Russian army casualties that could increase domestic tensions.
In this context, Western sanctions on the Russian economy will not push Moscow to withdraw its mercenaries from Africa, because these fighting groups depend on self-financing linked to their private financiers and to the economic contracts in the countries in which they are active.
Wagner in the Central African Republic protects the gold and diamond mines in the country in return for a percentage of the revenues, while in Sudan an agreement has been signed regarding rights to gold mining between the Sudanese government and “M-Invest”, a company connected to Prigozhin.
In the end, because there is no place for a vacuum in geopolitics, any Russian withdrawal from the areas in which it has established itself in Africa would lead to the entry of other competing powers in its place, which will make it difficult for Moscow's momentum to return.
In the event of any retreat, France, Turkey, and the United States, all of who have a strong presence across the continent, would be ready to advance to fill the void of Russian influence.
"In the end, because there is no place for a vacuum in geopolitics, any Russian withdrawal from the areas in which it has established itself in Africa would lead to the entry of other competing powers in its place"
Notably, there have already been indications that both Russia and Ukraine were willing to recruit fighters from African countries.
While an unverifiable video of Central African Republic soldiers volunteering to fight alongside Russia circulated on social media, Ukrainian activity was broader and more public, as Kyiv's embassies in Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Algeria, and elsewhere posted announcements asking for "volunteers" to fight within the International Volunteer Corps announced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The chronic economic problems and instability of most African countries have prompted hundreds of volunteers, including former soldiers, to apply to the Ukrainian embassies in their country to travel to fight in exchange for more than $3,000 paid per month to the fighter, according to an embassy employee in Abuja, Nigeria.
“We know it is war, not child’s play, but being a soldier in Ukraine would be better than being here,” Nigerian philosophy graduate Ottah Abraham told the BBC.
But it seems that the ambitions of Abraham and his colleagues will be difficult to achieve, as Ukrainian embassies have stopped receiving applications as a result of objections by governments to the recruitment of their citizens to fight in Ukraine.
One of the most pressing questions that emerge from this phenomenon is whether these measures will be enough to deter young people, who suffer from a lack of prospects in their home country, from looking for opportunities on the Ukrainian battlefield. Only time will tell.
Abdolgader Mohamed Ali is an Eritrean journalist and researcher in African Affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @AbdolgaderAli