The Hand of Wagner – Russia’s PMSCs and the “Africa Strategy”

di Young Think Tanker - 30 Aprile 2022

 from Rome, Italy

“Corporate Warriors” – an introduction  

As the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation began in late February 2022, rumors regarding an intervention by the Wagner Group spread very quickly. A month later, in March 2022, British intelligence sources confirmed that Wagner had been deployed in Eastern Ukraine. The New York Times reported that a contingent of at least 1000 men were expected to focus on the Kremlin’s goals in the country. As a matter of fact, the Wagner Group’s “love story” with Ukraine is, unfortunately, old news. Wagner visibly emerged as a relevant actor in armed conflicts during the internationally condemned annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014. From then on, they have continued to operate in several conflicts around the world where Moscow was involved. Most importantly, since around 2017-2019, they have been supporting Assad’s regime in Syria and have backed warlord Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya. 

The Wagner Group’s appearance in Ukraine has perhaps brought back the attention to the mystified figure of the modern “mercenary”. General awareness of the phenomena is mostly a positive consequence. The role and actions of Private Security and Military Contractors (PMSCs) are still covered by a veil of secrecy. However, in this case, a much more realistic discussion needs to be carried out among policymakers. While in 2012 the Wagner Group operated in just two countries, now that number amounts to twenty-seven. More and more frequently, since 2015, Wagner has been spotted in Middle Eastern and African countries, supposedly undertaking different activities for several authoritarian regimes. That is why, the actions and the future implications of Moscow’s use of its very own PMSCs (only nominally independent) needs to be further analysed.


What is the “Wagner Group”?

The Group was reportedly founded by Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin. Utkin is an unusual figure, an ex-lieutenant colonel of a special force unit of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). But what is the Wagner Group, really? The Group has often been described as a “network of mercenaries” and a “paramilitary group”. The more modern terminology would be Private Security and Military Contractor firm (PMSC), as outlined by P.W. Singer in his 2001 article “Corporate Warriors”. Singer (2001) pointed out how the rise to prominence of PMSC firms was coherent with the rise of privatization in all sectors during the 1990s. As a consequence, he argued that their emergence as actors was the outcome of the outsourcing of war after the end of the Cold War. However, the Wagner Group, from the scarce evidence available, seems to be much closer to the classical definition of mercenary than it may seem. 

The Wagner Group presents an atypical model of PMSC firm for today’s standards. Traditional PMSCs are international companies, with employees coming from a wide range of nationalities, offering their vast catalog of services to employers around the world. On the other hand, the around 6000 employees of the Wagner group are, for the vast majority, former combatants for the Russian Army. A “code of honor” was revealed in 2019, including ten principles to follow, among which the protection of Russian interests “always and everywhere”. Furthermore, evidence has shown that they share bases with the Russian military, they are transported with Russian military aircrafts and have access to Russian health-care services. Plus, the Russian state has been providing Wagner Group with passports. For this reason, many observers agree that the company does not exist as an independent entity. On the contrary, it is a disguised “special” branch of the MoD. 


Ghost soldiers at the Czar’s secret service

 Due to the reasoning above, the Wagner Group has often been depicted as the de facto personal army of President Putin. Of course, the Russian government has always vehemently denied having any contact with Wagner. But the extensive personal ties between its supposedly current owner, Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, and President Putin seem to point to something else. Namely, to a deep intertwining between the Wagner Group and the Russian State. Relatedly, the ongoing refusal of Russia to recognise the existence of Wagner operatives has led to their informal designation as “ghost soldiers“. More recently, however, in a 2018 interview, Putin did not refute information on the presence of the Group in Donbas. Nevertheless, he stated that the main principle is to ensure that they do not violate Russian law, since PMSC firms are illegal in Russia. 

The reason why the Russian Federation employs a private security company is quite simple: plausible deniability. Wagner is considered a third party, theoretically independent from the Russian government. As such, it has a wider room of maneuver; especially in settings in which Moscow has interests but could face backlash if the Russian Army were directly involved. These covert operations have the advantages of pursuing Russian foreign policy goals without any “boots on the ground”. And this makes them very lucrative to use, from a financial and reputational perspective, both at the domestic and at the international level. From what the scant evidence collected suggests, Wagner offers all three the kinds of services described by Singer (2001). They engage in fighting, provide advisory and training services and, lastly, contribute to operations with technical support. The Wagner Group is the full package, at the Czar’s secret service. 


Libya & Syria – protecting Russian interests in the Middle East since 2015

The Russian military intervention in protection of Assad’s regime began in 2015, after an official request by Damascus of military aid to fight the rebels. Russia’s declared geopolitical goals were not only to fight Islamic terrorism, but more importantly, to reduce US influence by <<stabilizing the legitimate power>>. At the same time, since 2015, Wagner has been reportedly fighting side by side with Assad’s forces and providing technical support, such as the guarding of oil fields. Wagner was pivotal during the Palmyra offensive and to turn the tides of the siege of Deir ez-Zor between 2016 and 2017. Moscow’s contribution, and the Wagner group as its battering ram, did effectively change the situation on the ground in Assad’s favor and has kept him in power since. 

Similarly, in October 2018, the Wagner Group joined the ongoing civil war in Libya. The Group inflated the ranks of the renegade forces of warlord Khalifa Haftar during his attack on Tripoli. Clearly, Libya’s geostrategic position in the center of the Mediterranean and Tripoli’s extensive natural resources are very alluring. Not only from a geopolitical point of view, but also from a business perspective. Companies linked to Wagner have been getting more and more concessions to extract oil and natural gas – as it had happened in Syria. Not surprisingly, an UN human rights investigation has accused Wagner of committing violations that may include, among others, war crimes in the country. The official ceasefire of the Second Libyan Civil War was signed in October 2020, but Wagner influence is still heavily present in Libya.


Wagner in the Coup Belt – a blueprint 

Not surprisingly, the area in which the Wagner Group has been focusing its efforts in the last five years is Sub-Saharan Africa. Countries that have been host to the Group include Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Central African Republic, and Mali. While their strategy can change  according to the specific characteristics of the target country, Wagner usually profits from the ongoing political instability in these countries. The three cornerstones of their modus operandi are put under the spotlight by Parens and Saini Fasanotti: first, actively conducting disinformation and pro-government warfare campaigns. Second, Wagner receives payments by way of licenses to extract natural resources, channeled through various companies linked to the Group. Third, Wagner becomes involved with the country’s military through training, logistical support and anti-insurgency operations on the ground. This way, Russian foreign policy advances its goals and has the opportunity to do lucrative business in the extraction and arms sectors.

One clear example was the deployment of over 500 operatives by the Wagner Group in Sudan in 2017, to quell the popular insurrection that would eventually have led to the ousting of Omar al-Bashir. Wagner received, as payment, the exclusive rights to mine gold, the greatest natural resource of the country, channeled through an investment company directly to Prigozhin. Another instance is the support they are providing, since 2018, to President Touadéra in the Central African Republic, essential to avoid the complete collapse of the regime at the hands of rebel groups. Again, a Prigozhin-linked investment company was awarded diamond and gold mining concessions. Needless to say, as it happened in Syria and Libya, Wagner is accused of perpetrating severe human rights violations throughout the countries. For these reasons, the European Union sanctioned the Group in December 2021 


Mali – “open sesame”? 

Mali’s case is also particularly telling. Due to its central geopolitical position, Mali has been, for a decade, a major stronghold in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism in the Sahel. However, in the last five years, the country has become more and more unstable. On the political side, two coups d’état took place in less than a year. Moreover, the economic situation is disastrous and continuous inroads in the territory by Al-Qaeda related groups contribute to Mali’s unsteadiness. Due to disagreements with the military junta, led by Colonel Assimi Goïta, and to a design intended to downsize its efforts in the Sahel, France recently announced the end of the nine-year long Bamako-based Operation Barkhane, and the eventual withdrawal of all its military forces. At the same time, several sources disclosed a deployment of the Wagner Group in Mali since September 2021, which was promptly condemned by the international community. 

The first leg of the strategy can be seen from a released poll, conducted by an associate of Prigozhin, which had the goal to show an overwhelming support for the decision of the government to reach out to Wagner. A second and the third are already underway. The aim is to protect the military elite currently in power by training senior officers and providing services aiming to reduce possible threats to the leadership. It is very likely that Wagner will take advantage of the situation to carry out an extremely profitable weapons business and to spread Russian influence along the way. Mali’s case is particularly relevant because it had always been in the sphere of influence of Europe and France. But France’s withdrawal, combined with the arrival of the Wagner Group, could signify a significant shift in the region, accomplished by the Russian Federation through hybrid and non-conventional means. 



Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has been resorting to the use of the Wagner Group to pursue its economic and geopolitical interests. While the emergence of PMCs has been a worldly phenomenon, Wagner’s characteristics are more those of a paramilitary organization, than of a traditional PMSC firm.As a matter of fact, they provide an all-in-one package of disinformation in favor of the regime, participation in combat, training and logistical support. A clear strategy has been identified, through a closely repeated pattern in almost every target country, with very precise steps to follow. Moreover, the predominant hunting ground of choice, Sub-Saharan Africa, is particularly relevant. In fact, in many countries in the area the feeling that the West has not done enough for them is deeply widespread – and has been worsened by an acute recent disinterest. But what does it mean? What are future challenges? 

First of all, broadly, the use of Wagner shows how Russia is committed to implementing an hybrid and irregular strategy to spread influence. Especially in areas of the world that traditionally have not been interested in the Russian Federation. Moreover, it also highlights how Moscow has ambitions to become a security broker in Africa by increasing its clout with authoritarian regimes through military-to-military relations. The Russian Federation seems to be very eager to fill the vacuum left by European foreign policy failures. Last but not least, more instability in the area would not be unexpected. Most of the time, the hiring of PMSCs in highly politically volatile countries usually ends up disrupting even more their economic and political conditions. For these reasons, the Wagner Group’s actions, especially in Africa, need to be carefully observed over the next months – and categorically taken into account in every policy decision. 



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Autore dell’articolo*: Emma Visentin, esperta di geopolitica. Dottoressa in Scienze Politiche all’Università LUISS Guido Carli di Roma e studentessa di Master in International Security Studies presso l’Università di Trento e la Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna di Pisa. 


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