Baria Alamuddin: On June 29, days after Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed uprising, Russian President Vladimir Putin assembled the group’s leadership to ask if they would be willing to work under a different commander. Although several nodded in the affirmative, Prigozhin vigorously blocked the proposal — thereby making his appointment with death a virtual certainty.
Paramilitary groups linked to Putin loyalists, such as Konvoi and Redut, then embarked on a recruitment drive for operations in Africa, highlighting the Kremlin’s determination to sideline Prigozhin. In a last-ditch effort to forestall such maneuverings, Prigozhin spent his final days in Mali and the Central African Republic trying to shore up support. He is also thought to have received a consignment of gold from the Wagner-backed paramilitary Rapid Support Forces in Sudan. The plane crash that wiped out Prigozhin and Wagner’s entire top echelon put a definitive end to these exploits.
Alongside Prigozhin’s swansong African odyssey, Russian officials were making parallel journeys with a very different message. A day before the crash, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister visited Benghazi to reassure allies that Wagner fighters would remain in Libya — but under Kremlin control.
These tussles for supremacy highlight Moscow’s focus on its African power grab, even while Russia is supposedly consumed by Ukraine. Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu wants to fully integrate Wagner into the regular armed forces, while the GRU foreign military intelligence agency may oversee Wagner’s lucrative African operations.
There is much at stake in this struggle for control of Wagner’s assets: monopolization of gold and diamond mines, oil wells, and mineral and agricultural resources. Thousands of Wagner personnel and a dense network of shell companies were embroiled in economic sectors such as timber, beer, vodka, logistics and entertainment.
Overseas recipients of Moscow’s largesse are probably less worried about who their Russian point man is than whether the spigot of military support will remain open. Without Prigozhin’s blood-drenched Syrian intervention around 2016, Bashar Assad would not still be in power. After Wagner withdrew many of its forces from Syria, and then lost Putin’s backing, anti-Assad forces perceive a moment of regime vulnerability that may be exploited to the full. Protesters have taken to the streets throughout Syria’s south, chanting anti-regime slogans and decrying subsidy cuts and hyperinflation.
Three post-coup West African regimes — Mali, Burkina Faso and most recently Niger — appear to have been in various stages of mortgaging their security to Wagner, while demanding the ejection of Western forces. This is already proving a disaster that has enabled the rapid expansion of ascendant jihadists. After the recent Niger coup, noisily championed by Prigozhin, troops were pulled back to protect the capital from a possible counter-coup invasion. Predictably, Daesh in both the west and east seized the opportunity to go on the offensive.
US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned the UN last week that the activities of Russian paramilitaries in Africa were “destabilizing, and we’ve encouraged countries in Africa to condemn their presence.” Experts at the same Security Council meeting warned that Daesh was exploiting the instability from successive coups and Russian interference to expand its West African operations.
In practice, the number of Russian mercenaries deployed to these states is often very small, not capable of much more than protecting regime leaders and securing key economic assets for their own profit. Wagner frequently compensated for numerical weakness by committing widespread atrocities against unarmed civilians in naked displays of unrestrained force. In Darfur, the indiscriminate supply of Wagner munitions has precipitated wholesale genocide.
Western powers in their arrogance have consistently failed to perceive and act upon glaring symptoms of emerging crises with planet-wide ramifications throughout the developing world. The predatory and destabilizing behavior of entities such as Wagner is largely the fault of the international community in failing to actively support region-wide stability and good governance, causing a domino effect of contagious state collapse across sub-Saharan Africa.
Can Russian overseas mercenaries remain a significantly potent force after Prigozhin’s death? He literally had to wage war against the Defense Ministry to acquire sufficient ammunition and weaponry, even for strategically crucial operations in Bakhmut. Prigozhin’s demise is furthermore predicted to have a cataclysmic impact on paramilitary morale, with his forces obliged to pledge loyalty to Putin personally. How much more difficult will it be for these troops — without a charismatic, outspoken demagogue leader — to receive sufficient weaponry to wage war in obscure corners of Africa?
Bouts of mourning for Prigozhin, particularly among ultranationalist and militia demographics, should also give Putin sleepless nights worrying where future manifestations of dissent and revolt will emerge from.
Prigozhin’s troll factories and propaganda outlets championed Wagner as a force for liberation and stabilization, hence the enthusiastic Russian flag-waving and support throughout West African capitals. Russian-backed channels have unleashed a flood of self-serving propaganda in the aftermath of the Niger coup. Central African Republic presidential adviser Fidèle Gouandjika paraded for cameras in a Wagner T-shirt and eulogized Prigozhin as a national hero who had saved the country. “There will be another Prigozhin,” he enthusiastically declared. “We’re awaiting the next one.”
While Wagner’s decapitation was categorized by some as a spectacular show of strength by Putin, the media’s characterization of a president allegedly blowing a plane out of the sky with the aim of killing off one of his previously most powerful warlord allies is hardly likely to inspire confidence in regime stability.
This latest Russian turmoil should provoke disquiet among African citizens in considering whether Wagner and its kleptocratic successors are genuine champions of African rights, liberties and national sovereignty — or whether their arrival ushers in a new phase of imperialist oppression and all that comes with it in terms of atrocities, industrial-scale looting of resources, and colonialist subjugation.
This also offers a lesson for dysfunctional states such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan and Libya, that foreign-sponsored militias can never be relied on to secure regime survival or social stability.
These militia catalysts of chaos ultimately become Trojan horses for hostile foreign domination, and open a Pandora’s box of interminable anarchy and violence.
Weiter: Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.