Mercenaries are enjoying a resurgence in Africa, hired to fight in some of the continent’s most intractable conflicts. Perhaps the most famous outfit is the Wagner Group, a nebulous network that combines military force with commercial and strategic interests, now at the vanguard of Russia’s expanding ambitions in Africa.
Wagner fighters have been active in the wars of Mali, Central African Republic, Mozambique and Libya. They ally with embattled leaders and militia commanders who can pay for their services in cash, or with lucrative mining concessions for precious minerals like gold, diamonds and uranium. Wagner troops have faced frequent accusations of torture, civilian killings and other abuses.
But Wagner is far more than a simple guns-for-gold scheme. Operating through a sprawling web of shell companies, it has become a byword for a broad spectrum of Kremlin-backed operations in over a dozen African countries. Wagner meddles in politics, props up autocrats and orchestrates digital propaganda campaigns. It donates food to the poor and produces action movies set in Africa. It has even organized a beauty pageant.
The Kremlin denies any link to Wagner. But American and European officials, as well as most experts, say it is an unofficial tool of Russian power — a cheap and deniable way for President Vladimir V. Putin to expand his reach, bolster his war chest against Western sanctions, and expand his influence on a continent where sympathy for Russia remains relatively high.
“It’s a power play by Russia,” said Pauline Bax, deputy Africa director at the International Crisis Group. “Through Wagner, it wants to see to what extent it can spread its influence in Africa. I think the results have surprised a lot of people.”
Here’s a look at how Wagner has spread across Africa, and why its operations are increasingly important to Mr. Putin.
How Wagner Got Its Name, and Went to Africa
Wagner emerged during Mr. Putin’s first assault on Ukraine in 2014, when its mercenaries fought alongside pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region. Its commander was Dmitry Utkin, a retired Russian Special Forces commander said to be fascinated by Nazi history and culture.
The group’s name, and Mr. Utkin’s military call sign, is taken from the composer Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite. Some of the group’s fighters share that ideology: Ancient Norse symbols favored by white extremists have been photographed on Wagner equipment in Africa and the Middle East.
Wagner expanded to Syria in 2015, tasked with bolstering President Bashar al-Assad and seizing oil and gas fields, American officials said. In 2016, Mr. Putin awarded Mr. Utkin with military honors at a banquet in the Kremlin. A year later, the United States imposed sanctions on Mr. Utkin for his activities with Wagner.
The group turned to Africa in 2017 under the apparent guidance of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian tycoon known as “Putin’s chef.”
Like Mr. Putin, Mr. Prigozhin hails from St. Petersburg, where he once ran a hot-dog stall before setting up a catering business that prospered on lucrative Kremlin contracts. The United States indicted him in 2018 on accusations that he financed a Russian troll factory accused of meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
In Africa, Wagner began to advise tottering dictators, run social media disinformation campaigns and deploy teams of fake election monitors, according to Western officials, experts and United Nations investigators. Companies linked to Mr. Prigozhin operated gold and diamond mines.
Mr. Prigozhin denies any link to Wagner, and has even questioned the group’s existence. “The Wagner legend is just a legend,” he said in a written response to questions.
He may be technically correct: No longer a single company, Wagner has become the brand name for an unofficial Russian network spanning the continent, experts say.
Since 2016 the US. has imposed at least seven sets of sanctions on Mr. Prigozhin, his companies and his associates, singling out his yacht and three private jets. Facebook and Twitter have removed hundreds of fake accounts run by his associates. Russian investigative news outlets have documented his close ties to Mr. Putin and the Russian defense ministry.
That profile makes Mr. Prigozhin quite different from other Russian oligarchs who made their fortunes through Russian state privatizations in the 1990s, experts say.
“He’s not an independent businessman per se,” said Samuel Ramani of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based nonprofit, and the author of a forthcoming book on Russia in Africa. “His business interests are very tightly tied to what Wagner does, and he gets a cut by being a middleman in deals between African leaders and the Kremlin.”
Where Wagner Works
One of Wagner’s earliest forays on the continent was a disaster.
In 2019 it deployed about 160 fighters to the gas-rich, Muslim-majority Cabo Delgado region, in northern Mozambique. But within weeks, rebels with a local Islamic State affiliate killed at least seven Wagner troops, American officials said. A few months later, the Russians pulled out.
Wagner appeared to learn from those mistakes in Central African Republic, where it arrived in 2018 to protect the besieged president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. After training local security forces, it helped the army to repel a major Islamist offensive in early 2021.
But those modest gains came at a high cost: United Nations investigators found that Wagner forces killed civilians, looted homes and shot worshipers at a mosque. Critics noted that the operation focused on regions where Mr. Prigozhin’s companies were mining for diamonds.
In Libya, Wagner fighters supported a failed assault on the capital, Tripoli, in 2019 by Khalifa Hifter, a power hungry commander. Thousands of Wagner fighters remain stationed at four bases across Libya, mostly near the country’s oil fields, Western officials and analysts say.
In Sudan, Wagner obtained gold mining concessions and tried, unsuccessfully, to save the country’s autocratic leader, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was toppled in April 2019.
Now Wagner’s main Sudanese partner is General Mohamed Hamdan, a powerful paramilitary commander who flew to Moscow on the eve of the war in Ukraine for meetings with senior Russian officials.
Perhaps Wagner’s most contentious operation is in Mali, where Wagner forces arrived in December 2021 amid what the U.S. State Department called “a barrage of targeted disinformation to hide its arrival and activities.” Its fighters quickly joined the fight against Islamist insurgents.
But by mid-April, Wagner had been involved in more than a dozen incidents in which nearly 500 people died, according to researchers and United Nations reports.
More Than Mercenaries
In addition to providing hired guns, Russia has tried to shape the politics of at least a dozen African countries with social media and political influence campaigns.
Last year the U.S. treasury department identified what it called “a front company for Prigozhin’s influence operations in Africa” that it said had sponsored phony monitoring missions in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Mozambique.
In 2019, two Russians employed by Mr. Prigozhin met with a son of the former Libyan dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, only to get thrown in jail. A Prigozhin-linked company later made a movie about the Russians’ ordeal, portraying their captors as violent sadists. The detainees were released in December 2020.
“Russians don’t abandon their own!” said Mr. Prigozhin’s company, Concord, in a statement.
Since October 2019, Facebook has shut down over 300 fake Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to Mr. Prigozhin that it said targeted a dozen African countries.
Wagner fights through popular culture, too. In Central African Republic, Mr. Prigozhin’s companies sponsored a beauty contest, funded a radio station, and last year released a movie, “Touriste,” that glorified the actions of Wagner mercenaries in that country.
In December, another Prigozhin-financed movie aired on Russian TV, this time about Wagner’s bloody misadventures in Mozambique. Wagner maintains a discreet presence in that country: after its fighters withdrew in 2020, they left behind a small cyberwarfare cell that is employed by the Mozambique government, a Western security official in Africa said, citing European intelligence reports.
The Payoff for Putin
Mr. Putin signaled his ambitions for Russia in Africa at a summit of African leaders in Sochi in 2019, when he described the continent as a place of “significant opportunities” for the Kremlin.
That expansion is part of Mr. Putin’s broader desire to re-establish Russia as a great power, analysts say, pitting him in part against China, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and other countries that have jockeyed for position in Africa as Western influence wanes.
Some African leaders are drawn to Moscow by weapons: Russia has become the largest arms supplier in Africa. But Mr. Putin is also tapping into deep historical and political currents.
Many African nations have been reluctant to join Western condemnation of Russia’s assault on Ukraine — some because of lingering Cold War sympathies, but many others out of frustration with what they see as Western disregard for Africa.
In West Africa, Russia is exploiting a growing wave of anti-French sentiment in countries like Mali, where the arrival of Wagner operatives led to a departure of French soldiers and diplomats this year. A military coup in Burkina Faso was welcomed by demonstrators waving Russian flags. And in Cameroon, officials signed a defense agreement with Russia in April that some saw as a possible precursor to a Wagner deployment.
A second Russia-Africa summit is scheduled for November. This time, the proposed venue is Mr. Putin’s home city of St. Petersburg — which also happens to be Mr. Prigozhin’s base of operations.
Elian Peltier contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.