France-Russia: How far will the new cold war in Africa go?

By Mathieu Olivier

Posted on Wednesday, 22 December 2021 16:15
Yevgeny Prigozhin and Jean-Yves Le Drian © Montage JA: Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/REUTERS; Aziz Taher/REUTERS

Driven by French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, the European Union's sanctions against the Wagner group and several figures linked to its presumed financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin, have re-launched the arm-wrestle between France and Russia in Africa.

There is no need to go to St. Petersburg in search of its headquarters, or to look for its telephone number or e-mail address. There is also no point in trying to contact a company boss.

In recent years, the  ‘Wagner Group’ has featured prominently in international diplomatic discussions between the east and west. However, it does not officially exist. In the words of the EU, which imposed sanctions on it on 13 December, the group is “an unincorporated private military entity”, in other words, a legal ghost with real employees.

The European Council – the EU’s executive body – therefore imposed “restrictive measures” against Wagner, as well as “eight individuals and three entities linked to it”. These are Aleksandr Kuznetsov (commander, injured in Libya in 2019), Dimitri Outkin (founder, ex-Russian military intelligence officer), Stanyslas Dychko (mercenary in Syria), Valery Zakharov (considered Wagner’s representative in the CAR), Denis Kharitonov (commander in Donbass, Ukraine), Serge Shcherbakov (fighter in Donbass), Andrey Troshev (chief of staff in Syria), Andrey Bogatov (commander in Syria), Velada LLC, Mercury LLC and Evro Polis LLC (oil and gas companies operating in Syria).

“The listed individuals are involved in serious human rights violations, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings, and in destabilising activities in some of the countries where the group operates, including Libya, Syria, Ukraine (Donbass) and the CAR,” said the EU Foreign Affairs Council, who also cited “malign influence […] in the Sahel region.” As a result, the listed individuals and entities are now officially subject to an EU asset freeze and a ban on entering EU territory.

Le Drian, Paris’s sword

In the circular room where European foreign affairs ministers met on 13 December, one man knew he was on the front line. His name is Jean-Yves Le Drian. The Frenchman was one of the ones who pushed the hardest for sanctions to be implemented against the Wagner group.

Appalled by the situation in the CAR, where Paris has gradually lost its footing to Moscow and Wagner, and worried about the same group’s ambitions in Mali and the Sahel, the minister has been putting the Quai d’Orsay to work for many months with President Emmanuel Macron’s approval and encouragement. France is due to take over the EU’s rotating presidency in January. As such, European sanctions are part of Paris’s strategy.

On the one hand, the Russians tell us that Wagner does not exist and that they do not control private security companies, but on the other hand, they let us know that they can retaliate.

Under the Brussels panelling, Le Drian is well aware that he is advancing one more pawn in the chess game between Paris and Moscow. “These are real sanctions, which target individuals and companies, but they are also symbolic, as they make this political arm-wrestling match between these two countries official,” says a European diplomat. “It is above all a matter of demonstrating that Europeans are not standing idly by in the face of Russia and its activism in Ukraine, Syria and Africa. The objective is also to highlight a confrontation and avoid losing ground in the Sahel, like we did in the CAR.”

Moscow responded quickly. On 14 December, the day after the sanctions had been announced, Russia’s foreign affairs minister Sergei Lavrov mocked “the hysteria that has spread in the West” about Wagner.

Never short of anti-Western tirades, the head of Russian diplomacy also pointed out “the jealousy of former European metropolises towards African and Middle Eastern states” whose sovereignty and independence they were “eventually forced to recognise”. “Our authorities do not control private military companies,” said the minister, defending countries’ “sovereign right” to use them and stating that Moscow “reserves the right to respond to the EU’s hostile actions”.

“It’s interesting,” says a source close to the Quai d’Orsay. “On the one hand, the Russians tell us that Wagner does not exist and that they do not control private security companies, but on the other hand, they let us know that they can retaliate.”

Prigozhin, Saint Petersburg’s untouchable

The shadow of another character hovers above the diplomatic duel between Macron and Vladimir Putin, and that of Le Drian and Lavrov. His name is Yevgeny Prigozhin and he was not one of the figures who was sanctioned on 13 December.

A former fast-food owner who was convicted of fraud and incitement to prostitution in 1981, this close friend of the Russian President made his fortune in hot dogs after the fall of the USSR. Above all, he took advantage of his connections in St. Petersburg, the stronghold of the Kremlin’s current master, to make a name for himself in Russia. Today, the EU and US Treasury view him as one of the founders and main financiers of the Wagner group.

Dmitri Outkin, the former military intelligence officer targeted by the EU sanctions, is one of his relatives. European and US investigative services believe that Concord, one of the companies he co-owned and still controls, serves as a front for the activities of many other companies that make up the Wagner Group nebula, including Evro Polis LLC, the oil company operating in Syria and sanctioned by the EU.

As we explained in an investigation published last August, Concord was also linked to mining activities in Sudan and the CAR, where Wagner’s representative, Valery Zakharov – also on the EU list – was, until recently, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s security advisor.

Although he does not appear on the list of sanctioned individuals that Brussels made public on 13 December, the Europeans have not spared Prigozhin either. He has been subject to the same restrictions since October 2020, due to his “close and financial links” with Wagner, which – at the time – was guilty of arms embargo violations in Libya, according to the EU.

The US administration has also placed the Russian under sanctions for the same reasons and accuses him of interfering in the 2016 US presidential election. “It is of course terrible,” Prigozhin recently told the Russian press. “For example, I was forced to give up properties in Miami, New York and the Bahamas.”

Wagner, Putin and the Wizard of Oz

The defence of Putin’s protégé has not varied much over the years of controversy surrounding Wagner. “As I have said many times before, I have nothing to do with Wagner and, as far as I know, no such structure exists. Therefore, I can give you as much information on that subject as I could on the land of the Wizard of Oz,” he told journalists when asked about the sanctions that the EU had imposed on 13 December.

However, he does concede that some of his investment projects in St Petersburg may have been slowed down due to European and US intervention. Should Prigozhin, who is considered untouchable under Putin, be worried?

In recent weeks, his companies have won 15 out of 16 tenders in Russia to supply meals to Moscow hospitals. These contracts are worth a total of 8.6bn RUB ($116m). Many others, worth much more, have been won in the defence field. “It’s a give and take. Everyone pretends not to know about Wagner, but the group serves as a low-cost projection of Russian diplomatic power in the Middle East and Africa. In return, Prigozhin, who is exposed to sanctions, obtains contracts with the state, via companies that are well established, especially in the restaurant business,” says an expert on Wagner operations.

Bamako at the heart of the conflict

“The EU sanctions are also a way of telling our partners, especially in Africa, that Europeans have weapons to counteract the Russian game,” says a French diplomatic source. “Even in the CAR, we have financial levers to make ourselves heard. We are not condemned to remain silent.”

In the wake of the 13 December announcements, the EU declared that it was suspending part of the activities of its mission to the armed forces in the CAR (EUTM), and temporarily – and “reversibly” – ending the training of Central African soldiers in order to “avoid overlap between EUTM and Wagner elements.”

“We want to make sure that the Central Africans that we train are not then employed with Wagner, which the UN has accused of abuses. It is a question of respecting humanitarian law,” says a European source in Bangui. “Even in Bangui, where Touadéra has chosen Moscow and where criticising Russia can make you lose your job, no one has forgotten that the EU is the state’s main donor,” says a person close to the Central African presidency.

Will the demonstration be enough to counter the Russian advance in the Sahel, where Moscow hopes to rely on increasingly present anti-Western sentiment? In his recent speeches to diplomats and journalists, Le Drian clearly stipulated that Bamako’s transitional authorities must not allow Wagner to arrive in Mali.

French intelligence is also keeping a close eye on the meetings of Colonel Sadio Camara, the Russophile defence minister, as well as the comings and goings of Mali’s minister of mines. This is so that it can detect whether a company linked to the Prigozhin galaxy has entered the country’s extractive sector – particularly gold mining.

Macron was supposed to discuss this thorny issue once again with President Assimi Goïta on 20 December. However, the French president’s visit to Bamako was cancelled at the last minute, mainly because of the deteriorating health situation in Europe. Mali’s foreign minister is also expected to meet with Lavrov, his Russia’s counterpart, though the date has not yet been set. On the chessboard of the confrontation between Europe and Russia, the Malian capital definitely occupies a prominent place.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options