Russia-Africa: Are Wagner’s mercenaries really effective?

By Mathieu Olivier
Posted on Friday, 25 February 2022 11:04

Wagner’s men, who were present in Libya, the CAR and Mozambique in recent years, have been in the Malian theatre for the past three months. Although they have aroused some people’s enthusiasm, have they proved their know-how?

At the beginning of January 2021, the Coalition des Patriotes pour le Changement (CPC, an alliance made up of Central African armed groups) was feeling optimistic. The rebellion’s leaders, notably Noureddine Adam and Ali Darassa, claimed that they were at the gates of Bangui and could overthrow President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s government. Their troops were suffocating the capital and controlling the main access roads, particularly the one linking the city to Cameroon, which was a vital artery for supplying the people of Bangui. They said that victory was only a matter of time.

However, Bangui did not fall. “President Touadéra knew he could count on Rwandan soldiers’ support and especially on Wagner’s mercenaries, who already numbered over a thousand. They loosened the stranglehold and pushed back the CPC fighters,” says a security source in Bangui. Alongside the “Russian” allies (in reality, fighters from all over the Caucasus, and even Syria), the Central African army, which was poorly trained and above all ill-equipped, was trying to put on a good show. But Wagner was already in charge. Installed in Bangui, at the Roux and Kassaï camps, and in Berengo, where their headquarters were located, the “Russians” were the real leaders of the reconquest. As the days went by, the list of towns taken back from the rebels grew longer.

Is this a deceptive success?

Could we describe it as a resounding victory? On 15 October 2021, Mathieu Simplice Sarandji, president of the Central African National Assembly, congratulated the “Russian contingent” in the presence of Aleksandr Ivanov, head of Russian trainers and president of the Association des Officiers pour la Sécurité Internationale, and Dmitri Sytyi, one of Wagner’s executives in Bangui. However, a person close to the CPC said that “one must really put things into perspective. There has been little fighting. The rebels retreated at the request of ECCAS [Economic Community of Central African States]. The Russians took back some towns, but most of them had been abandoned.”

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“Territorially, it cannot be denied that the Russians and the Central African army have reinvested in urban areas. But they have not neutralised the armed groups, many of whom have simply retreated,” said a UN expert. Above all, adds the same source, “a lot of abuses have been committed against the civilian population, particularly the Peul people.” Last December, the European Union decided to sanction several companies and figures linked to Wagner, including Dmitri Utkin, who is a former officer of the Russian military intelligence special forces (the powerful GRU), number two at Wagner and a regular visitor to Bangui – where he met Jean-Claude Rameaux Bireau, minister of defence.

Wagner’s defeat but the Kremlin’s victory?

On the continent, Wagner was involved in two other theatres of conflict. In Mozambique, 200 of its men were deployed from September 2019 to fight local armed groups affiliated with the Islamic State and secure some strategic mining infrastructure. But the adventure in Cabo Delgado turned out to be short-lived. After suffering heavy losses – notably in an ambush that could have only been set up on the basis of leaked information regarding their movements – the “Russian” mercenaries choose to withdraw from this terrain that was too costly, both in terms of foreign currency and men’s lives. During the course of 2020, the Maputo authorities decided to trust other contractors that had been hired by the South African Dyck Advisory Group.

On the Libyan front, around 1,000 Wagner men supported Marshal Khalifa Haftar in his attempt to seize power. Following an agreement reached in November 2018 at a meeting between the latter and Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister (a meeting attended by Wagner financier Evgeny Prigozhin), their deployment began in April 2019. “Wagner provided technical and military assistance and secured oil sites,” says an expert on the Libyan conflict. “But this support was not enough for Haftar and the offensive stalled.” Above all, at the end of 2020, Moscow gradually distanced itself from the rebel marshal and got closer to Mohammed el-Menfi, head of the Presidential Council.

“Russia facilitated Wagner’s presence on the ground in order to put itself back in the diplomatic game and play a more important role in Tripoli,” says our expert. “Militarily speaking, this failure has no consequences for the Kremlin, which can deny its relationship with Wagner. And diplomatically, this victory comes at a lower cost since Vladimir Putin has managed to return to the heart of the Libyan issue.” What can be expected in Mali? “The armed movements that Wagner faced in the CAR were not as well equipped and organised as the groups in the Sahel,” says a West African diplomatic source. “Although Wagner risks getting bogged down, the gains are already apparent to Moscow as the French have accelerated their departure from Mali.”

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