Russian mercenaries are Putin’s ‘coercive tool’ in Africa

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) – When atrocities were reported in recent weeks in Mali – fake graves designed to discredit French forces; a massacre of about 300 people, mostly civilians – all evidence pointed to the shadowy mercenaries of Russia’s Wagner group.

Even before these dreaded professional soldiers joined the attack on Ukraine, Russia had deployed them for military operations under the radar of at least half a dozen African countries. Their goal: to advance President Vladimir Putin’s global ambitions and to undermine democracy.

The Wagner group disguises itself as a private military contractor, and the Kremlin denies any connection to it or even sometimes that it exists.

But Wagner’s commitment to Russian interests has become apparent in Ukraine, where its fighters, seen wearing the group’s cold white skull emblem, are among the Russian forces currently attacking eastern Ukraine.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Wagner has gained a significant foothold for Russia in the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali. Wagner’s role in these countries goes far beyond the cover story of simply providing a security service, experts say.

“They essentially control the Central African Republic,” and are a growing force in Mali, General Stephen Townsend, the head of the US Armed Forces in Africa, told a Senate hearing last month.

The United States identifies Wagner’s financier as Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to the Russian president and sometimes called “Putin’s chef” for his flashy restaurants favored by the Russian leader. He was accused by the US government of trying to influence the US presidential election in 2016, and the Wagner group is subject to sanctions from the US and the EU.

Russia’s game plan for Africa, where it has used its influence as far north as Libya and as far south as Mozambique, is in some ways straightforward, analysts say. It seeks alliances with regimes or junta that have been avoided by the West or face rebellion and internal challenges for their rule.

The African leaders get recognition from the Kremlin and military muscle from Wagner. They are paying for it by giving Russia first-class access to their oil, gas, gold, diamonds and valuable minerals.

Russia is also gaining positions on a strategically important continent.

But there is another goal with Russia’s “hybrid war” in Africa, said Joseph Siegle, research director at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

Siegle said Russia is also waging an ideological battle by using Wagner as a “coercive tool” to undermine Western ideas of democracy and turn countries against Moscow. Putin wants to challenge the international democratic order “because Russia can not compete very well in that order,” Siegle said.

“If democracy is touted as the ultimate aspirational model of government, then it is limiting for Russia,” Siegle said.

Wagner rather promotes Russian interests with soldiers and weapons, but also through propaganda and disinformation that Prigozhin has previously done for Putin.

In the Central African Republic, Wagner warriors drive around the capital Bangui in unmarked military vehicles, guarding the country’s gold and diamond mines. They have helped hold back armed rebel groups and keep President Faustin-Archange Touadera in power, but their reach goes much further. Russian citizen Valery Zakharov is Touadera’s national security adviser, but also a “key figure” in Wagner’s command structure, according to EU documents accusing the mercenary group of serious human rights violations.

A statue erected last year in Bangui depicts Russian soldiers standing side by side to protect a woman and her children. Russia has been chosen as the country’s savior, and pro-Russian marches have been held in support of the war in Ukraine and to criticize former security partner France – although several protesters said they were paid.

“A Central African proverb says that when someone helps you, you must reciprocate. That is why we have mobilized as one to support Russia,” said Didacien Kossimatchi, a Touadera political party official. “Russia has acquitted us of the West’s unacceptable dominance. “

Kossimatchi said Russia “acted in self-defense” in Ukraine.

Such support from African countries is a strategic success for Russia. When the UN voted on a resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine, 17 of the 35 countries that abstained from voting – almost half – were African. Several other African nations did not register a vote.

“Africa is fast becoming crucial to Putin’s efforts to dilute the influence of the United States and its international alliances,” said a March report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a non-profit created by the former British prime minister.

Russia’s strategy in Africa has minimal costs economically and politically. Analysts estimate that Wagner only operates with a few hundred to 2,000 mercenaries in a country. Many are former Russian military intelligence services, Siegle said, but because it is a private force, the Kremlin can deny responsibility for Wagner’s actions.

The real price is paid by ordinary people.

The people of the Central African Republic are no longer safe, said Pauline Bax, Deputy Director of the Africa Program for the International Crisis Group. “In fact, there is more violence and intimidation,” she said.

France, the United States and human rights groups have accused Wagnerians of extrajudicial killings of civilians in the Central African Republic. A UN panel of experts said private military groups and “especially the Wagner group” have violently harassed people and committed rape and sexual violence. They are just the latest allegations of serious abuse by the group.

In 2021, the Central African Republic acknowledged serious human rights violations by the Russians, forcing Russian Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko to leave his post.

The Wagner Group has responded with a charm offensive – creating films designed to delight the public, sponsor beauty pageants and distribute educational materials that promote Russia’s involvement in Africa. Russian is now being taught in universities.

Russia has taken its plan for the Central African Republic to Mali and elsewhere in Africa. In Mali, there has been a “clean-up of democracy,” said Aanu Adeoye, an analyst in Russia-Africa affairs at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

After coups in 2020 and last year, France withdraws troops from its former colony that had helped fight Islamic extremists since 2013. Wagner moved in and signed a security deal with Mali’s new military junta, which then expelled the French ambassador and banned French television stations. . Tensions with the West have escalated. The same goes for violence.

Last month, Mali’s army and foreign soldiers, as witnesses believed to be Russian, killed about 300 men. in the village of Moura. Some of those killed were suspected extremists, but most were civilians, Human Rights Watch said, calling it a “deliberate massacre of people in custody”.

This week, as French forces handed over control of the Gossi military base, suspected Wagner agents quickly buried several bodies nearby and a Russian campaign on social media blamed France for the graves. However, the French military had used air surveillance after their withdrawal to show the creation of the sandy tombs.

Both atrocities bear the hallmarks of Wagner’s mercenaries and Russia’s foreign policy brand under Putin, several analysts say.

“They have no worries about minor things like democracy and human rights,” Chatham House’s Adeoye said.

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Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa. AP writer Jean Fernand Koena in Bangui, Central African Republic contributed.

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