More control, less deniability: what next for Russia in Africa after Wagner?

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More control, less deniability: what next for Russia in Africa after Wagner?
More control, less deniability: what next for Russia in Africa after Wagner?

Africa-Press – Eswatini. Moscow has stricter say over efforts to influence since Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death as western militaries exit the Sahel

On 3 May, as top US officials confirmed the presence of Russian security forces in the same airbase as American troops in Niger, a popular Telegram channel reportedly run by Moscow-based officials posted a message with an audio clip of the Soviet-era rock band Nautilus Pompilius’s 1985 cult song Goodbye America.

Two weeks later, last Thursday, US officials and Nigerien leaders agreed to a phased withdrawal of American forces from Niger that would take place as soon as feasible in the coming months.

The Telegram message served as status update on recent developments: an exodus of western militaries from the Sahel twinned with expanding Russian influence.

“Russia has effectively gained the upper hand in the geopolitical arms race in the Sahel and won committed, albeit fragile, allies in the region,” said Ikemesit Effiong, the head of research at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based consultancy firm that covers geopolitical risk.

West Africa, he said, was now divided into two: broadly pro-western coastal countries; and a more “Russophile” outlook in the land-locked states of the Sahel, the name given to a vast, coup-prone zone that stretches across the continent from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.

Moscow is keen to extend its sphere of influence on a global scale, find further export markets and access natural resources. Africa presents the perfect opportunity to execute those ideas, some observers say.

Influence is directed through an umbrella entity run by the Russian ministry of defence called Africa Corps, believed to be named after a German outfit in north Africa during the second world war. It has incorporated Wagner group, the controversial paramilitary company that was headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin before his death onboard a jet north of Moscow last August.In the decade before his death, Prigozhin had forged relationships with the leadership of countries such as Mali, Libya, Central African Republic and others, deploying mercenaries to help tackle insurgencies or provide personal protection for leaders. In return, Wagner got access to mines and infrastructure deals as well as political clout.

He was seen as the conductor of an orchestra of many parts: beyond provision of security, Wagner operatives also worked in mining, election interference, and the manufacturing and disseminating of disinformation.

It came at a bloody cost: at least 1,800 civilians have been killed during Wagner’s operations across Africa since 2017, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (Acled), an NGO.

After Prigozhin’s death, Wagner’s structure and operations were absorbed into Africa Corps, along with his son Pavel. Recruitments took place in December. Wagner fighters were given a choice: disband or join the new crew.

To quell speculation about the group’s continued existence, top Russian officials visited a few African leaders to reassure them of continuity and support.Analysts say the new arrangement is an indication from Vladimir Putin of a zero-tolerance approach towards independent mercenary forces.

For a long time the Russian state denied any links to Wagner, but that changed with the coup attempt and subsequent death of Prigozhin.

“[Wagner] had a lot of leeway to bend the rules and engage in questionable activity that the Russians could deny,” said Dr Joseph Siegle, the director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution within the US Department of Defense.

“Now the activities of these deployed forces are part and parcel of the [Russian] ministry of defence. They can’t be disowned as they might have been before.”

Some observers including Oleksandr Danylyuk, an expert in Russian multidimensional warfare and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based thinktank, argue that the change is merely a reversion to Russia’s original blueprint.

“There is no difference… because Prigozhin had never been owner of that operation,” he said of Wagner. “It was always an operation of Russian secret services and Prigozhin was nothing but the manager in this chain of command.”

The changes mean more by way of direct control from Moscow and less flexibility for the managers in charge of the “Russian conquest” of Africa, Danylyuk said.

Africa Corps, he continued, was merely part of a grand scheme called Expedition Corps, which was “originally designed and created for operations not only in Africa, but in all the countries of the global south. This is actually just the beginning.”

As coups and conflicts in former French colonies caused relations between them and Paris to deteriorate in the last decade, Russia rekindled cold war-era ties across parts of Africa. Hundreds of people showed up at pro-coup rallies draped in white-blue-red colours of the Russian flag, as French ones were burnt around them.As specks of jihadist activity appear in coastal west Africa, there are fears that they too could dump traditional allies for Moscow.Diplomats and foreign policy experts say Russia’s outreach continues to come with promises of regime stabilisation packages and fighting insecurity, but not much by way of outcomes.

Ladd Serwat, Africa regional specialist at Acled, said that, in Mali alone, violent events involving insurgent groups had almost tripled since 2021, when Wagner began operations in the country.

As the Russians come in and host states expel other western military and even, in some cases, UN missions, the numerical strength of available personnel for counterinsurgency has been on a decline, rather than rise.

Under the new arrangement, Russian troop arrivals have been restricted to only a few hundred per deployment. Even combined with understaffed local armies, numbers are too low to properly take on armed groups.

Experts say that is a design feature, not a flaw.

“These forces are not there for citizen security, they’re effectively protection details for the regimes… that Moscow has co-opted,” said Siegle.

“Moscow has seen [that] it doesn’t need to deploy many [soldiers],” he added. “There’s just a hundred or so in Niger and Burkina Faso… it’s a financially satisfactory arrangement for the Russians but, even more, it’s a politically satisfactory arrangement.”Even as Russia is seemingly gaining the upper hand in the Sahel, the situation remains complex, with multiple actors still vying for influence in different countries.

In April, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, met his Central African Republic (CAR) counterpart, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, for the second time in six months in Paris. In a joint statement, both countries said “a roadmap for a framework for constructive partnership” that respected “state sovereignty” was under way, in which Paris would “contribute to stability… and accompany economic and social development” in CAR.

Some were quick to interpret it as a signal of possible shifting of geopolitical alliances but Touadéra’s ties with Moscow still run deep. His private security consists of personnel from Russia and Russian is now a language of instruction in the country’s schools.In January, the interim president of Chad, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, met Putin. Sources say Moscow, which backs the incumbent regime, reportedly rebuffed a request for support by a section of the Chadian opposition to remove Itno.

Russia could change sides across the region at any time and endorse different proxies, analysts say.

Danylyuk said all the activity fell within a grand design “to establish pro-Russian governments or even Russia-controlled governments, with increasing intensity and scale”.

Russia had “never been interested in any sort of autonomy of client states”, he said. “This is not any kind of liberation. This is actually just Russia’s way of colonialism and it could be very difficult to find anyone who will liberate you from that. Look at what’s going on in Ukraine.”

theguardian

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