The Wagner Group, a thousands-strong private military force, has in recent years become one of Russia’s most influential foreign policy tools. It has played a significant role on the battlefields of Syria and Ukraine and, recently, has worked to expand its footprint in Africa. The group has operated in several African countries since 2017, often providing its clients with direct military support and related security services alongside propaganda efforts.
What is the Wagner Group?
Founded by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group is a prominent Kremlin-linked private military company (PMC) [PDF]. It first emerged in 2014 during Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has since operated in Syria and at least a half dozen African countries. Rather than a single entity, Wagner is a complex network of businesses and mercenary groups whose operations have been closely tied to the Russian military and intelligence community. It is estimated to have some five thousand members stationed across Africa, a combination of former Russian soldiers, convicts, and foreign nationals.
Although PMCs are illegal under Russian law, the Kremlin uses Wagner to forward its foreign policy interests in Africa. “Russia’s main goal in Africa at this point is really to build up diplomatic support that it hopes to use in places like the United Nations,” says CFR’s Thomas Graham. “The Wagner Group got involved in Africa for its own reasons, [such as] private money making. But more recently, the Kremlin has found this a useful adjunct to what it’s trying to do diplomatically.” In January 2023, the U.S. government designated Wagner as a significant transnational criminal organization.
Where does it operate in Africa?
The Wagner Group has established operations in several African countries, where many of its operations focus on security issues. It has often provided security services and paramilitary assistance and launched disinformation campaigns for troubled regimes in exchange for resource concessions and diplomatic support. Wagner is most active in the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Mali, and Sudan, all of which have a tenuous relationship with the West due to colonial legacies and inherent political differences.
What does it do?
Wagner’s services vary based on the needs of its clients, which include rebel groups and regimes, and its funding ranges from direct payment to resource concessions.
Combat operations. Wagner troops have supported African governments in combat operations against rebel groups, and vice versa. Approximately one thousand Wagner troops entered CAR in 2018 to defend the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra against rebel attacks on the capital, Bangui. In return, Wagner subsidiaries received unrestricted logging rights and control of the lucrative Ndassima gold mine. Similarly, Wagner Group forces deployed to Mozambique in 2019 to help fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the northern Cabo Delgado province. However, the group failed to contain the insurgency and withdrew from the area after a few months.
Security and training support. Wagner acts as a security service for vulnerable regimes. The group served as a part of a personal protection detail for Touadéra and helped train CAR’s army to prepare for possible coup attempts. Wagner has operated in Sudan since 2017, training Sudanese troops, guarding mineral resources, and suppressing dissent against the government of President Omar al-Bashir, all in exchange for gold exports to Russia. In many cases, Wagner’s support is supplemented by official Russian military assistance, such as in Mali, where the armed forces received combat and surveillance aircraft from Moscow.
Disinformation campaigns. Prigozhin also owns the Internet Research Agency (IRA), an online “troll farm,” and the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (AFRIC), both of which are under U.S. sanctions and have worked alongside Wagner. The IRA previously outsourced work to individuals in Ghana and Nigeria that sought to inflame political divisions in the United States ahead of the 2016 presidential election, while AFRIC has sponsored “phony election monitoring” in several African nations, including Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Prigozhin has also been accused of co-opting Pan-Africanist movements to promulgate anti-French and anti-Western messages.
Why does it matter?
Wagner’s status as a PMC limits the financial costs of Russian intervention and gives the Kremlin plausible deniability, allowing it to hide personnel losses from the Russian public while simultaneously using Russian military infrastructure. In return, Prigozhin has emerged as a prominent figure in the war in Ukraine and among the Russian public.
In some cases, Wagner’s involvement in Africa has resulted in alleged human rights violations and exacerbated regional insecurity. In Libya, Wagner troops who fought alongside the Libyan National Army during its 2019 Tripoli campaign have been accused of committing extrajudicial killings and planting landmines in civilian areas. More recently, the group has been reportedly supplying Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces militia with missiles during its war against the Sudanese army. Wagner troops also operate in the same areas as the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR, threatening the United Nation’s ability to protect civilians.
Meanwhile, the group has continued to expand its foothold in the Sahel. Recently leaked U.S. intelligence has revealed that Wagner is working with Chadian rebels to oust the country’s transitional president, and some analysts predict that Burkina Faso could soon hire Wagner to help counter a growing jihadi insurgency after France withdrew its troops from the country earlier this year.
William Rampe is an editorial intern at CFR.
Correction: A previous version of this article featured a map highlighting countries where the Wagner Group has reportedly been active. It has been removed because some of the countries’ alleged ties to Wagner were not properly sourced. This error was corrected on May 23, 2023.