Abuses have been reported in Mali in recent weeks – fake graves designed to discredit French troops; the massacre of some 300 people, mostly civilians – all evidence pointing to the shadowy mercenaries of the Russian Wagner Group.

Even before these feared career soldiers joined the offensive against Ukraine, Russia had deployed them to low-key military operations in at least six African countries. Their goal: to advance President Vladimir Putin’s global ambitions and undermine democracy.

The Wagner Group masquerades as a private military contractor, and the Kremlin denies any ties to it, and sometimes even its existence.

But Wagner’s commitment to Russian interests became evident in Ukraine, whose fighters wear the group’s creepy white skull emblem and are among the Russian forces currently attacking eastern Ukraine.

A Russian armored personnel carrier drives in Bangui, Central African Republic, on October 15, 2020 [File: Camille Laffont/AFP]

In sub-Saharan Africa, Wagner gained a significant foothold for Russia in the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan and Mali. Experts say Wagner’s role in these countries goes far beyond the cover story of merely providing security services.

“They basically run the Central African Republic” and are a growing force in Mali, General Stephen Townsend, commander of the U.S. armed forces in Africa, said at a Senate hearing last month.

The U.S. identifies Wagner’s backer as Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch with close ties to the Russian president who is sometimes called the Russian leader’s favor for his flamboyant restaurants For “Putin’s cook”.

He is accused by the US government of trying to influence the 2016 US presidential election, and the Wagner Group is the subject of US and EU sanctions.

“Hybrid War”

Analysts say Russia’s game plan for Africa, with influence as far north as Libya and as far south as Mozambique, is in some ways straightforward. It seeks alliances with governments shunned by the West or facing armed uprisings and internal challenges to their rule.

African leaders are recognized by the Kremlin and Wagner’s military might. They paid for it by giving Russia its primary access to oil, gas, gold, diamonds and valuable minerals.

Russia has also gained a position on a continent of great strategic importance.

But Russia’s “hybrid warfare” in Africa has another goal, said Joseph Siegel, research director at the African Center for Strategic Studies.

Russia is also waging an ideological struggle, using Wagner as a “tool of coercion” to undermine Western democratic ideals and turn countries toward Moscow, Sigler said. Siegel said Putin wanted to challenge the international democratic order “because Russia cannot compete well in that order”.

“If democracy is considered the ultimate ideal model of governance, then that’s a limitation for Russia,” Siegel said.

Instead, Wagner promotes Russian interests through soldiers and guns, but also through propaganda and disinformation, as Prigozin did for Putin before.

In the Central African Republic, Wagner fighters patrolled near the capital Bangui in unmarked military vehicles, guarding the country’s gold and diamond mines.

They helped stop armed rebel groups and keep President Faustin-Archange Touadella in power, but their influence goes further.

According to EU documents accusing the mercenaries of gross human rights abuses, Russian national Valery Zakharov was Touadella’s national security adviser and a “key figure” in Wagner’s command structure.

ukraine war

A statue erected in Bangui last year depicts Russian soldiers standing side by side to protect a woman and her child.

Russia is seen as the country’s savior and has staged pro-Russian marches in support of the Ukrainian war and criticized former security partner France – although several protesters said they were paid.

“The Central African proverb says that when someone helps you, you have to reciprocate. That’s why we mobilized to support Russia,” said Didasian Kosimach, a Touadera party official. “Russia has freed us from the unacceptable domination of the West.”

Russia is “acting in self-defense” in Ukraine, Kosimach said.

This support from African countries is a strategic success for Russia.

When the United Nations voted on a resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine, 17, or nearly half, of the 35 countries abstaining from voting were Africans. Several other African countries were not registered to vote.

“Africa is fast becoming the key to Putin’s efforts to reduce the influence of the United States and its coalition of nations,” said a March report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, set up by the former British prime minister. non-profit organization.

Russia’s strategy in Africa has the lowest economic and political cost. Analysts estimate that Wagner has only a few hundred to 2,000 mercenaries in a country.

Many are former Russian military intelligence agencies, but because it is a private force, the Kremlin can deny responsibility for Wagner’s actions, Siegel said.

The real price is what ordinary people pay.

‘More violence’

People in the Central African Republic are not safer, said Pauline Barks, deputy director of the Africa Program at the International Crisis Group think tank. “In fact, there was more violence and intimidation,” she said.

France, the US and human rights groups have accused Wagner mercenaries of extrajudicial executions of civilians in the Central African Republic. Private military groups and “particularly the Wagner group” have violently harassed people and committed rape and sexual violence, the UN panel said. They are just the latest allegations of serious abuse of power by the group.

The Central African Republic’s recognition in 2021 of gross human rights abuses by the Russians forced the resignation of Russian ambassador Vladimir Titorenko.

The Wagner Group responded with a charm offensive — producing films designed to please the public, sponsoring beauty pageants and distributing educational materials promoting Russia’s involvement in Africa. Russian is now taught at the university.

Russia has brought its automotive blueprints to Mali and the rest of Africa. In Mali, “democracy has been uprooted,” said Aanu Adeoye, a Russia-Africa analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London.

After coups in 2020 and last year, France is withdrawing troops from its former colony, which has been helping fight armed groups since 2013.

Wagner moved in and struck a security deal with Mali’s new military junta, which then expelled the French ambassador and banned French television. Tensions with the West escalated.

So is violence. Witnesses killed about 300 men in the rural town of Mora last month by Malian troops and foreign soldiers suspected of being Russians.

Some of the victims were suspected fighters, but most were civilians, Human Rights Watch said, calling it a “deliberate massacre of detainees.”

When French troops handed over control of the Gosi military base this week, suspected Wagner agents rushed to bury several nearby bodies, with a Russian social media campaign blaming France for the graves. However, the French military used aerial surveillance after the evacuation to show the formation of the sand tomb.

Both atrocities carry the hallmarks of Wagner’s mercenaries and the brand of Russian foreign policy under Putin, several analysts said.

“They don’t care about little things like democracy and human rights,” said Chatham House’s Ade Oye.