Ever since Russia’s Wagner mercenary group jolted Vladimir Putin’s regime with its brief mutiny in Russia, foggy uncertainty has surrounded Wagner’s future roles — whether domestically, as part of Putin’s web of armed forces, as a fighting force in Ukraine, or as a Kremlin tool of influence and profit in Africa. The past week offers the most prominent sign yet of how Wagner’s flamboyant chief, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, is pressing to retain an African role. While mostly shoved out of public view, Prigozhin was able to appear at Putin’s Russia-Africa Summit to meet African contacts and re-declare his relevance.

Masked fighters on a Moscow billboard invite recruits to the Wagner Group before its mutiny. Its founder, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, is campaigning to keep his role in running Wagner operations in conflict-torn African states. (Nanna Heitmann/The New York Times)
Masked fighters on a Moscow billboard invite recruits to the Wagner Group before its mutiny. Its founder, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, is campaigning to keep his role in running Wagner operations in conflict-torn African states. (Nanna Heitmann/The New York Times)

Prigozhin’s mutiny on June 23-24, in which his forces seized military bases in the city of Rostov and then drove an armed convoy toward Moscow, was the clearest domestic rebellion against Putin in his 20-plus years in power — and it immediately raised questions about Prigozhin’s and Wagner’s futures. The Kremlin announced soon after that Wagner fighters who had not been part of the mutiny would be contracted into the Russian state armed forces — and that others would be moved to Belarus. Prigozhin has continued to periodically issue statements, including declarations over a Wagner-affiliated social media account called “Gray Zone,” of his intent to continue his lucrative role in Africa. His ability to do so is likely to depend partly on the degree to which Wagner’s operations have been reliant on his personal relationships with his (and Russia’s) African clients.

Africa holds a central place in Putin’s foreign policy, which declares its determination to end an unjust “unipolar” world order dominated by a United States and its European allies, and replace it with a “multipolar” geometry among great powers, including Russia. Africa is a primary audience for Putin’s narrative, in which he promises Russian help to African states in casting off the lingering vestiges of European colonization.

Also, Africa is the single largest audience for Putin’s campaign against diplomatic isolation. African states are central to Moscow’s periodic appeals for nations’ votes, or at least abstentions, against U.N. resolutions condemning the brutal assault on Ukraine. Russian state media highlight declarations by figures such as Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who echoed Putin’s talking points back to him last week, saying of the Ukraine conflict “that NATO countries have declared on Russia.”

In Africa, Putin mainly has used two toolbags of policy: the standard instruments of diplomacy and commerce (notably in weapons), and the shadowy, corrupt and often brutal operations of Prigozhin’s Wagner and similar military or security firms.

Russia-Africa Summit 2.0

Putin’s regime last week convened its second Russia-Africa Summit after years of delay following the first one in 2019. Where that first conference drew 43 heads of state from Africa’s 54 countries, last week’s session gathered 17, by Russia’s own count, with other states represented by heads of government or lower-ranking officials. Putin secured the participation of presidents from South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, and the Comoros Islands, symbolically notable because President Azali Assoumani also serves this year as the chairperson of the African Union. Still, leaders from several of Africa’s most prominent countries, such as Kenya and Nigeria, stayed away.

It is unknown how many African leaders might have planned to attend only to change their decision following Russia’s withdrawal last month from the Black Sea Initiative that permitted critical grain exports from Ukraine and Russia to reach global markets. Russia’s expanded war on Ukraine last year cut off Ukrainian supplies and hiked grain prices, deepening food supply crises in parts of Africa, as well as elsewhere. The United Nations and Turkey helped broker the Black Sea deal to restore exports amid the war, but now Russia’s withdrawal from the deal – and its attacks on Ukraine’s main seaport, Odessa, threaten needed food exports to countries throughout the world, particularly in Africa.

African governments, notably Kenya, were among those criticizing Russia’s exit from the grain deal. Putin used the summit to try to reassure African countries that Russia would provide free grain from its own reserves and find a way to move its shipments to countries most in need.

For Putin, and arguably for many African states, the main benefit of the summit conference may be simply that it took place. Putin needs to retain his relations in Africa that help him dilute U.N. condemnations and economic sanctions over his attack on Ukraine. And, as African leaders often note to Western figures insisting that they cut back their ties with Russia, African states prefer a world in which they have options among the potential powers from which to seek resources on problems they face.

Prigozhin’s Surprise

A surprise at last week’s summit was Prigozhin’s appearance on its fringes, notably meeting a chief aide to the president of the Central African Republic, arguably the country most central to the Wagner Group’s Africa roles. Prigozhin advertised his presence with photos on Russian social media. He gave an interview to a Cameroon-based news outlet, Afrique Media TV, declaring that Wagner is not reducing its Africa operations and posted on social media that last week’s army coup d’état in Niger offered new evidence for the utility of Wagner, “because a thousand soldiers of … Wagner are able to establish order and destroy terrorists” in unstable states. (By contrast, Russia’s foreign ministry criticized the Niger coup.)

Over the past decade, as Russia has built new security relationships with African countries, it has supported Wagner’s provision of soldiers, advisors, trainers and weapons to help elites maintain their power in the face of insurgencies or communal conflict. Wagner finances its roles not only with funding from the Russian state but also by negotiating concessionary deals with those ruling elites to mine gold, diamonds or other minerals, or to extract valuable hardwoods from forestlands. Wagner and other Prigozhin-linked companies have been prominent, if uneven in execution, recent years in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mozambique, Sudan and Mali.

After the Wagner Group’s mutiny was halted — according to the Kremlin through the intervention of Putin’s pliant ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — Putin met with Prigozhin and some of his top Wagner Group commanders. The Kremlin soon announced that Prigozhin and his fighters would be relocated to a military base in Belarus, and Prigozhin mainly disappeared from public view.

Prigozhin’s appearance around the summit that was effectively Putin’s party underscored both his determination to keep his Africa role and his significant degree of freedom to pursue that goal, even after his mutiny. His ability to succeed in his objective will depend partly on the depth, and replaceability, of his personal relationships on the continent. Those ties are not inconsequential. Wagner has been deeply marked by Prigozhin’s flamboyant style in developing many of the partnerships that enabled his mercenaries and companies to sign lucrative contracts with several governments. One reason why Putin may not have more demonstrably punished Prigozhin for his mutiny could be Wagner’s, and associated companies', operations in Africa. The Kremlin appears likely to lack a clear successor with Africa connections similar to Prigozhin’s, so he may well remain a figure useful to Moscow for now.

Kirtika Sharad is a program assistant in USIP’s Russia and Europe Center.


Related Publications

Moldova: As Russia Fuels Conflict, Could Churches Build Peace?

Moldova: As Russia Fuels Conflict, Could Churches Build Peace?

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Russia’s escalating campaign to block Moldova from joining the European Union reflects a weakening in Eastern Europe of a longstanding Russian lever of regional influence: its Orthodox church. A number of Moldovan Orthodox priests and parishes are campaigning to withdraw their nation’s churches from two centuries of formal subordination to Russia’s church, and Moldova’s senior prelate has bluntly condemned his superior, the Russian Orthodox Church patriarch, for supporting Moscow’s war on Ukraine. As conflict escalates this year over Moldova’s future, advocates of European democracy and stability might strengthen both by supporting dialogue to reduce conflict between Moldova’s historically Russia-linked church and its smaller rival, subordinate to the Orthodox hierarchy in neighboring Romania.

Type: Analysis

Religion

What Does Further Expansion Mean for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?

What Does Further Expansion Mean for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Last week, foreign ministers from member-states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gathered in Astana, Kazakhstan. The nine-member SCO — made up of China, India, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — represents one of the largest regional organizations in the world. And with the SCO’s annual heads-of-state summit slated for early July, the ministers’ meeting offers an important glimpse into the group’s priorities going forward. USIP’s Bates Gill and Carla Freeman examine how regional security made its way to the top of the agenda, China’s evolving role in Central Asia and why SCO expansion has led to frustrations among member states.

Type: Question and Answer

Global Policy

Xi and Putin Strengthen Strategic Ties, Spurn U.S. Leadership

Xi and Putin Strengthen Strategic Ties, Spurn U.S. Leadership

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited China last week for the second time in just over six months. Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have met over 40 times and the two leaders have developed a close personal bond as their countries’ strategic partnership has deepened. Western sanctions against Russia for its illegal invasion of Ukraine have led Moscow to rely on Beijing for both an economic lifeline and moral and materiel aid. Both leaders share a broad worldview that opposes what they perceive as U.S. hegemony over the international order and want to lead an emerging multipolar international system.

Type: Question and Answer

Global Policy

Putin Renews His Signal on Ukraine: Readiness for a Long War

Putin Renews His Signal on Ukraine: Readiness for a Long War

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Several recent actions by the Kremlin reinforce its signals that Russian President Vladimir Putin is committed to sustaining his grinding war of attrition against Ukraine for years to come if necessary. Putin likely believes that Russia can outlast the West’s support for Ukraine, thereby achieving his aims of fully occupying the territory his country illegally annexed in 2022 (especially the Donetsk and Luhansk regions) and destroying Ukrainian sovereignty. Indeed, Putin may well see that successful annexation as vital to his foremost goal: retaining power in Russia.

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

View All Publications