Wagner Group Putin
Photo: Sharaf Maksumov, Adobe Stock

Wagner Group: Putin’s mercenaries are supposed to bring security – and sow fear

While Vladimir Putin continues to wage war against Ukraine, he is trying to expand Russian influence in the Middle East and Africa. The activities of the Wagner mercenaries have long preoccupied not only political experts. By Katrin Gänsler, Markus Schönherr and Joachim Heinz

Pretoria/Porto-Novo/Bonn (KNA) – Take Mali, for example. In September 2021, the first word from the West African state was that the transitional government under Assimi Goita wanted to sign a contract with the Russian Wagner Force. Goita, who had swept to power with a group of generals in August 2020, is reportedly paying the equivalent of just over 9.1 million euros a month to the up to 1,000 mercenaries.

In April this year, Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop tried to play down the matter: There has been cooperation with the Russian state for a long time. Mali is not an isolated case. The mercenaries are also said to operate in Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique.

Political experts observe the activities of the group, which is not part of the regular Russian armed forces, with concern. And not only because Russia wants to secure influence in Africa with this engagement. In the Syrian war, the mercenaries proved that human lives do not count for much with them.

Those familiar with the scene were hardly surprised when the United Nations reported on a massacre by the Malian army on the border with Mauritania at the beginning of August. The victims were members of the Peulh ethnic group. In tow of the Malians: “white soldiers,” presumably Wagner mercenaries. They are also said to be partly responsible for the death of up to 400 people in Moura in the centre of the country.

Lieutenant Colonel Dmitri Utkin, a former member of the Russian military intelligence service GRU, is repeatedly named as the founder of the force. “He chose the name Wagner as a tribute to the German composer and because of the symbolic character associated with it,” says a recently published book on “Putin’s Secret Army”. Utkin was “a great admirer of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler.” In social networks, the mercenaries alluded to themselves as members of an orchestra “led by a ‘composer’ and giving ‘concerts’ all over the world.”

Financially, service in the force is quite lucrative. The mercenaries can allegedly earn up to 3,000 euros a month on foreign assignments – the average wage in Russia was recently 400 euros. The oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin is considered the most important backer. The 62-year-old served time in prison as a young man for several offences. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he began a second career and operated, among other things, a hot dog chain and several luxury restaurants.

Today, “Putin’s cook” has a direct line to the Kremlin ruler and, according to the book’s authors, acts like an old-school mafia godfather: “Omnipresent, but invisible.” In Africa, the fighters he supports usually behave similarly discreetly. Their activities are nevertheless carefully registered – not least by aid organisations. Some only speak out behind closed doors. Others, like Misereor, are more open.

“Dealing with the mercenaries is a topic that is constantly on the agenda of our partners in Mali,” says the head of Misereor’s dialogue and liaison office for Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, Adegbola Faustin Adeye. He adds, however, that a large part of the population in the crisis-ridden country sees the commitment quite positively. “The people of Mali want peace and security, pacification by force if necessary,” Adeye says.

The sympathies for Russia also have historical roots, as the Misereor representative explains. Even Mali’s first president, Modibo Keita, pursued a socialist course. Students and military personnel alike were always welcomed with open arms in the Soviet Union and its successor states. Adeye estimates that about half of the officers in Mali received military training in Russia.

In the Central African Republic, the situation seems similar to that in Mali. “Since the Russian intervention, there is more security in the country,” says an academic in the capital Bangui. “They have pushed the rebels back far enough that we have been able to live pretty much without fear.” Unlike the UN blue helmets in the country, the Wagner mercenaries also held guns on their enemies, rather than just cameras.

The editor of an online newspaper in Bangui also confirms the presence of Russian fighters: “Before the war started in Ukraine, there were 2,500. When the war broke out, some of them returned to Russia.” However, “mistreatment” has led to a change in the population’s thinking: “They are no longer popular. People want them to leave.”

In Mozambique, the government tried to put down the insurgency by Islamists that began in 2017 with the help of the Wagner Group. But the mission was a “sheer failure”, according to Mozambique expert Eric Morier-Genoud. “If I remember correctly, six or eight of their men were beheaded by the insurgents, after which they decided to leave again.” Reports of “attacks on civilians” also increased in the South African country during this period, recalls Johan Viljoen, director of the Catholic Denis Hurley Peace Institute in Pretoria.

Wherever Wagner fighters appear, they seize parts of the local economy. They are involved in Sudan’s gold sector as well as in the Central African diamond mines; they are even said to have entered the coffee and sugar business. In Mali, apart from gold, they are after gas, oil, potash, uranium – and water. The country has access to a huge reservoir that reaches as far as Libya.

In addition to mercenaries, Moscow has recently been sending more political and economic aid, also in the form of weapons, says Gustavo de Carvalho. Putin is exploiting the mistrust that exists between the West and some African countries, analyses the expert from the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). He doubts, however, that Russian involvement will bring stability in the long term.

Meanwhile, “Putin’s cook” Prigozhin is apparently preparing the ground for further alliances. Earlier this month, he spoke out after the coup in Burkina Faso. “I salute and support Captain Ibrahim Traore.”

Marat Gabidullin, “Wagner – Putin’s Secret Army. An Insider’s Account. With a foreword by Ksenia Bolchakova and Alexandra Jousset”, Econ, Berlin 2022, 22.99 euros.

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