How Russia’s Wagner PMC benefits from chaos and destruction?
    Bloody business and bone trade

    ANALYTICS  08 June 2023 - 15:00

    Fuad Shahbazov

    In recent years, the Wagner Group, a strong private military force, has 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. 

    Although initially, the Russian government and media categorically rejected any allegations about the existence of such a private military company led by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, the reports later confirmed visually. Loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, he and the group have become indispensable private-sector players for Russian interests. With its rapidly growing network, Wagner made inroads into various regions and countries by deploying its military personnel to these areas.

    Nevertheless, the regional countries accommodating the Wagner on their soils insist that there are no contractors but only military instructors. In the Central African Republic, for example, 1,890 so-called "Russian instructors" are supporting government troops in the ongoing civil war, while in Libya, up to 1,200 Wagner mercenaries are believed to be fighting on the side of rebel leader Khalifa Hafter.

    In Mali, the pro-Russian, anti-Western military junta has also brought hundreds of Wagner fighters into the country. There, they have been accused of committing serious human rights violations. Therefore, since its active involvement in military operations in Africa, the European Union (EU and the US imposed sanctions on Wagner specifically related to its activities across Africa and recently in Ukraine.

    Notably, Wagner first emerged in Ukraine in 2014 when hostilities broke out in the eastern Donbas region. It was later involved in operations in the Syrian civil war, supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in battles against armed opposition groups and the so-called Islamic State. Although PMCs are illegal under Russian law, the Kremlin uses Wagner to forward its foreign policy interests in Africa, the Middle East, and now in Ukraine.

    For several years, Wagner provided critical assistance to brutal authoritarian regimes in Africa and the Middle East to preserve the existing political regimes. Wagner’s services vary based on the needs of its clients, which include rebel groups and authorities, and its funding ranges from direct payment to resource concessions. In this context, Wagner’s activities in Sudan seemed very critical. Sudan has long been a particular focus for Wagner mercenaries, and many of them exist.

    During the rule of the dictator Omar al-Bashir, who was in power from 1993 to 2019, licences already went to the Russian firm "M-Invest," which is probably under the control of oligarchs, including Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.

    This led to Wagner members being given the job of protecting the M-Invest gold mines in Sudan. The ousted Omar Al-Bashir 2017 promised Russia's Vladimir Putin to become "Russia's key" to Africa. However, the continuous unrest and political instability in Sudan led to the military coup and the ouster of Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

    Nevertheless, Wagner mercenaries are still in the country and have even been able to boost their influence on the Sudanese military. The military government wants to maintain control over Sudan at all costs and is apparently receiving active help from the Russian Wagner troops. Given Wagner's suitable leverage over the unstable Sudanese government, it is unlikely that the PMC will retreat from the country soon.

    Moreover, Wagner has created other opportunities out of turmoil across Africa, notably in former French colonies such as the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali and Burkina Faso, that have endured civil war, insurgencies or coup d'etats in recent years. Thus, Russia successfully instrumentalized Wagner PMC as its foreign policy tool in Africa and the Middle East to reach its diplomatic goals.

    Despite its extensive network in Africa and the Middle East, Wagner's "success stories" in local battlegrounds are arguable by many military experts and scholars. The general narrative is that Wagner's so-called instructors' training methods barely match the requirements of modern warfare tactics and therefore are less effective in real war scenes. As such, Wagner only makes inroads in countries that could be seen as "pariah states."

    For example, in Ukraine's Bakhmut, ill-equipped Wagner units suffered grave losses while failing to ensure significant territorial gains. Undoubtedly, earlier, Prigozhin and his affiliates denied facts about enormous human casualties, though after he admitted that Wagner lost 20,000 troops in Bakhmut and blamed Russia's Defense Ministry and top command for "failing to supply ammunition on time." 

    Regardless of its failures in Ukraine and the Middle East, Wagner and its chief Yevgeny Prigozhin will remain a tool of Russia's intimidation policy for the short and medium term. Also, Western-imposed sanctions and international pressure will be insufficient to stop Wagner's destructive actions and human rights violations across vast regions.


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