Wagner Group Surges in Africa as U.S. Influence Fades, Leak Reveals

REUTERS/Igor Russak/File Photo
People gather outside PMC Wagner Centre, which is a project implemented by the businessman and founder of the Wagner private military group Yevgeny Prigozhin, during the official opening of the office block in Saint Petersburg, Russia, November 4, 2022.

The Wagner group is moving aggressively to establish a “confederation” of anti-Western states in Africa as the Russian mercenaries foment instability while using their paramilitary and disinformation capabilities to bolster Moscow’s allies, according to leaked secret U.S. intelligence documents.

The rapid expansion of Russia’s influence in Africa has been a source of growing alarm to U.S. intelligence and military officials, prompting a push over the past year to find ways to hit Wagner’s network of bases and business fronts with strikes, sanctions and cyber operations, according to the documents.

At a time when Wagner leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin has been preoccupied with Kremlin infighting over the paramilitary group’s deepening involvement in the war in Ukraine, U.S. officials depict Wagner’s expanding global footprint as a potential vulnerability.

One document in the trove lists nearly a dozen “kinetic” and other options that could be pursued as part of “coordinated U.S. and allied disruption efforts.” The files propose providing targeting information to help Ukraine forces kill Wagner commanders, and cite other allies’ willingness to take similar lethal measures against Wagner nodes in Africa.

And yet, there is little in the trove to suggest that the CIA, Pentagon or other agencies have caused more than minor setbacks for Wagner over a six-year stretch during which the mercenary group, controlled by Putin ally Prigozhin, gained strategic footholds in at least eight African countries, among 13 nations where Prigozhin has operated in some capacity, according to one document.

The only direct military strike mentioned in the files refers to “a successful unattributed attack in Libya” that “destroyed a Wagner logistics aircraft.” The document provides no further detail about the operation or why that single plane – part of a far larger Wagner fleet – was targeted.

The most significant American attack against Wagner was near Deir al-Zour, Syria, in February 2018, when U.S. airstrikes killed several hundred Wagner fighters who were attacking several dozen Delta Force soldiers, Rangers and Kurdish forces next to a gas plant.

Overall, the trove portrays Wagner as a relatively unconstrained force in Africa, expanding its presence and ambitions on that continent even as the war in Ukraine has become a grinding, if not all-consuming, problem for the Kremlin.

As a result, “Prigozhin likely will further entrench his network in multiple countries,” one of the intelligence documents concludes, “undermining each country’s ability to sever ties with his services and exposing neighboring states to his destabilizing activities.”

Wagner’s rise heralds a new surge of great power competition in Africa and with it a resurgence of authoritarianism, said Anas El Gomati, director of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute think tank.

Wagner, he said, “are a solution to the kind of problems that African dictators find themselves in: Democratic push back? No problem. We’ll help you with that, whether it’s tampering with ballots, or whether it’s literally fighting brutal kind of insurgencies like they have in [the Central African Republic] and in southern Libya.”

“If you’re suffering trying to get your resources and minerals out of your country, ‘not only can we bring [those] services to you, but we’ll put those dollars in your bank and no one will be any the wiser’ – because they operate these massive networks of shell companies,” he said, referring to Wagner.

Prigozhin entities have not only accelerated operations in Africa over the past year, according to the assessments, but appear to be operating with expanded ambition and authority – “shifting his approach from taking advantage of security vacuums to intentionally facilitating instability,” according to one of the documents.

The description appears on a slide marked with symbols indicating that it was prepared for U.S. Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his senior advisers. A footnote summarizes Prigozhin’s “aggressive agenda,” citing plans to counter U.S. and French influence in Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Mali and other countries, as well as Wagner’s direct support for a coup plot in Chad by setting up a cross-border training compound for rebels.

Chad has long been a linchpin of French and U.S. counterinsurgency operations against armed Islamist groups in the Sahel, and French President Emmanuel Macron signaled its importance when he attended Idriss Déby’s funeral in 2021.

One of the documents in the trove indicates that France “has communicated a willingness to strike Wagner if the [paramilitary organization] supports a coup in Chad.”

Prigozhin did not respond to a request for comment about the documents. Earlier, he told The Washington Post in response to questions about Chad that any suggestion that he had a role in destabilizing the transitional government there was “nonsense.”

Prigozhin claimed in comments on Telegram that his operations in Africa are “honest and fair,” designed only to “defend the African peoples, including those oppressed by bandits, terrorists, and unreliable neighbors.”

But in Libya, said El Gomati, Wagner’s intervention helped split and paralyze the country.

“They’re probably the most destabilizing actor now operating in Libya,” he said “They often continue this kind of sub-threshold violence so whether you’re living in peace or war, you don’t feel any sense of stability.”

As if to underscore his expanding sense of self-importance, Prigozhin on Friday offered himself as a peace-broker in Sudan where fighting between rival factions have brought the East African country to the brink of civil war.

“To help resolve the existing conflict and for Sudan’s future prosperity, I am ready to mediate” a conflict between the head of the country’s army and the leader of a powerful private paramilitary, Prigozhin said in a statement published by his press office on the Telegram social media platform. He claimed to be ready to send planes with medical supplies and “everything needed for the people who are now suffering.”

Offering humanitarian intervention in a conflict he arguably inflamed – by previously supplying weapons and training to security forces – would be consistent with the Prigozhin playbook described in the trove of documents.

‘A particularly creepy Russian organization’

After the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and United States fueled proxy wars in Africa, Russia retreated from the continent, leaving China to forge in with offers of infrastructure and cheap loans, free of the usual Western pressure for progress on human rights or democratic institutions.

Russia’s return to Africa in recent years has revived a jostling competition for military and political influence that recalls the colonial scramble for African resources, a contest that one Equatorial Guinean official said indicated that Africa was like a “pretty girl” with “many suitors,” including the United States, according to the documents.

“There’s certainly a perception on the continent that following the end of the Cold War, the U.S. became less interested in the continent, only perceiving it as a place where it could engage in humanitarian activity, maybe apply some pressure for democratization, but not really engage in a meaningful way. And that opened up a gap for others,” said Murithi Mutiga, African program director at International Crisis Group.

Wagner is extracting resources in the Central African Repubic (CAR), Libya and Sudan, according to one of the leaked documents. As well as a source of gold, uranium and other resources, the continent is a market for Russian weapons, nuclear power technology and security contracts. Russia leveraged its influence with Sudanese military leaders to agree on the completion of a naval base in Port Sudan by the end of 2023, according to the documents.

As Moscow intensifies diplomatic efforts to counter criticism of its war against Ukraine, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has visited multiple African countries this year, including Mali, Sudan, South Africa, Eswatini, Angola and Eritrea, all ahead of Putin’s July summit with African leaders in St. Petersburg.

In January, the State Department designated Wagner as a transnational criminal organization, with a pattern of “serious criminal behavior [that] includes violent harassment of journalists, aid workers, and members of minority groups and harassment, obstruction, and intimidation of U.N. peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, as well as rape and killings in Mali.”

CIA Director William J. Burns alluded to covert U.S. efforts to combat Wagner’s operations in public remarks at Georgetown University in February, describing Prigozhin’s group as “a particularly creepy Russian organization.”

He said that Wagner “is expanding its influence in … Mali and Burkina Faso and in other places, and that is a deeply unhealthy development and we’re working very hard to counter it because that’s threatening to Africans across the continent.”

Prigozhin – an ex-convict who rose to become an oligarch and close ally of Putin – offers security, military assistance, political advice, opinion polling, and political manipulation techniques to African leaders facing rebellions or instability, in return for resource contracts in regions that are too unstable to attract major Western companies.

“The Russians are very opportunistic and will just go in at very low cost and try to stir things up and see if they can create an advantage for themselves,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at London-based think tank Chatham House. “There’s opportunistic mischief going on in various places.”

In CAR, Wagner forces helped the government drive out rebels who were threatening the capital in 2020, and provided security for President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, whose Russian security adviser, Vitaly Perfilov, is a Wagner employee, according to the State Department. Prigozhin’s entities are entrenched in mining, forestry and other activities there.

French newspaper Le Monde reported in February that U.S. officials offered Touadéra a deal on the sidelines of the U.S.-Africa summit in December to break with Wagner, in return for U.S. military training and increased humanitarian aid.

In response, Perfilov proposed an anti-American disinformation campaign in CAR media and social media, according to the documents, claiming that Washington bribed government ministers and attempted to plunder CAR’s mineral resources.

Russia has taken advantage of former Soviet ties with African leaders, according to analysts, but it has also exploited the United States’ dwindling engagement in Africa, notably during the Trump presidency, as well as an anti-French backlash over its counterterrorism operation in the Sahel region, focused on Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger named Operation Barkhane.

France withdrew its forces from Mali in 2021, when Wagner mercenaries moved in, and in December withdrew its last forces from CAR, where some analysts say Wagner is engaged in state capture. In February, Burkina Faso ordered French troops to leave.

“Russia through troll factories and fake media has been kind of successful at poisoning views on France in Africa. It was already not good, but they’ve really been able to stir the pot, through trolling and so on,” said Vines. “The Sahel is a very worrying, deteriorating area: It’s the global hotspot for militant Islamic jihadism globally at the moment, not the Middle East. And so clearly Russia has seen an opportunity.”

He said Russian anti-French and anti-Western propaganda resonated with African leaders, angered by French missteps in the Sahel, and weary of Western leaders pressing them on democratic values and human rights.

To elites in Africa, the United States is perceived as “still focused on the old playbook of lectures about democratization and sending humanitarian aid” while Washington’s democratic institutions have lost some of their sheen, said Mutiga.

“America may have taken a reputational knock in terms of the health of its democracy in recent years, but not just because of Trump, but because of congressional gridlock and chaotic politics and of course Trump’s rejection of the election results.”

Meanwhile, some analysts say, U.S. investment in Africa pales in comparison to China’s vast program of infrastructure and loans, while Russia is seen as offering more choices to African leaders who do not want to pick sides between Washington, Beijing and Moscow.