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A nation must think before it acts.
In a recent video released by Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, he stares into the camera and berates several of the Russian military’s top leaders, including Russian army general and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov and Sergei Shoigu, an army general and Russia’s Defense Minister. He also seems to allude to Russian President Vladimir Putin as “grandpa,” while threatening to withdraw his forces from Ukraine altogether.
If Prigozhin continues his erratic behavior, he will almost certainly run afoul of Putin. But perhaps he is crazy like a fox? Wagner’s comparative advantage is not found in fighting in conventional formations against well-equipped and battle-hardened Ukrainians. On the contrary, Wagner was designed for expeditionary operations abroad, where its forces can conduct scorched earth counterinsurgency tactics against jihadists and other non-state actors, with the ultimate goal of securing contracts for natural resource extraction.
This latest rant comes on the heels of Prigozhin accusing the Russian military of withholding ammunition for his fighters in Bakhmut, prompting Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov to offer Chechen fighters in place of Wagner mercenaries. Moreover, as a trove of intelligence released as part of the so-called ‘Discord leaks,’ Prigozhin apparently offered to provide Ukrainian intelligence with information on the positions and locations of Russian military forces in Ukraine. Prigozhin has released numerous videos posted online in which he vents growing frustration that not only have his men been deprived of the weaponry needed to prevail, but they also receive inadequate medical attention on the battlefield. As many as 30,000 Wagner mercenaries have reportedly been killed over the past fifteen months of combat. Recruited from prisons and jails throughout Russia, Prigozhin’s troops have been treated akin to cannon fodder, while Russia keeps many of its more elite troops away from the danger of the front lines.
By focusing so much attention on himself and denigrating Russia’s war effort, Prigozhin may be trying to force the Kremlin’s hand in redeploying Wagner forces from Ukraine to locales abroad. Dating back as far as 2015, Wagner has operated throughout Africa, where the private military company has deployed forces to more than a dozen countries. Throughout the continent, Wagner has provided a range of services, including military (offensive combat operations, training and equipment, personal and/or regime security), political (advising government leadership), economic (extracting natural resources), logistical (providing facilitation hubs), and information operations. Wagner maintains ongoing operations in Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan, Eritrea, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic.
The current conflict in Sudan has raised concerns about Wagner, since the group has had an established relationship with warlords operating in that country, most notably Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, the commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). In Sudan, the Wagner boss operates Meroe Gold, a subsidiary of M-invest, which extracts gold in return for the provision of weapons and training to paramilitaries such as the RSF. As much as 90 percent of Sudan’s gold is smuggled out of the country, the majority of it through the United Arab Emirates. This arrangement—which some, including Wagner expert Raphael Parens, have labeled “Wagner’s playbook”—has been replicated in other African countries.
Gaining access to commodities helps Russian President Vladimir Putin evade crushing Western sanctions as his war machine in Ukraine shows no signs of abating, despite the struggles of the Russian military. Wagner also maintains consistent access to gold and diamond mines in the Central African Republic. According to the Global Initiative on Transnational Organized Crime, “Moscow and other sanctioned entities are largely barred from generating and accessing profits from gold production within and outside Russia; using gold to access foreign exchange; or engaging in global gold and financial markets. However, they can evade these restrictions if they engage in gold and money laundering to disguise the origins of the gold and the beneficiaries of the gold profits.”
Wagner maintains close relationships with the GRU, Federal Security Service (FSB), and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). As detailed in the 2023 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, Russia uses the Wagner Group for myriad ends, including to “try to undercut U.S. leadership; present itself as an indispensable mediator and security partner; and gain military access rights and economic opportunities.” Wagner has even explored the option of sending forces to Haiti and has approached “Turkish contacts” about securing weapons and equipment for its forces fighting in Ukraine.
To contain Wagner’s spread in Africa, the United States and some of Washington’s European allies have been meeting with diplomats from Bangui to Kigali. Speaking in March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “Where Wagner’s been present, bad things inevitably follow … We’ve seen countries find themselves weaker, poorer, more insecure, less independent as a result of their association with Wagner.”
In recent months, US officials have also agreed to share intelligence on Wagner with officials in Chad, Rwanda, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic. In January, the United States declared Wagner a transnational criminal organization under Executive Order 13581, established in 2011 to block the assets of “transnational criminal organizations” that pose “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” There are growing calls for the United States to go even further and designate Wagner as a foreign terrorist organization, which would provide US policymakers with an even broader set of tools to combat the group.
Moscow may eventually agree. There have been numerous reports of Russia developing new private military companies, including one by the energy giant Gazprom to protect its infrastructure and interests. Last month, the British Ministry of Defence provided an intelligence update that suggested: “Russia is likely seeking to sponsor and develop alternative private military companies (PMCs) to eventually replace the Wagner Group PMC in its significant combat role in Ukraine.”
Even with its track record of human rights abuses, Wagner remains in fairly high demand, at least for now. As French President Emmanuel Macron noted, Wagner functions as “life insurance of failing regimes in Africa.” The allure of recruiting a mercenary outfit like Wagner to provide security for a junta is that there are no preconditions or unrealistic expectations—no human rights requirements and no expectation that the mercenaries will abide by the laws of war or any other laws for that matter.
So, in the end, if Prigozhin is able to stay alive long enough to extract his forces from Ukraine, he could just get his wish—an opportunity to focus exclusively on operating in fragile states throughout the Global South.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
Image: REUTERS/Igor Russak