The Wagner Group is a private military company headed by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The organization is very secretive, and its exact motives and operations are unknown. However, it has been accused of numerous human rights abuses and war crimes. In 2014, the organization emerged into the public eye when it assisted Russia in the annexation of Crimea.
Nine years later, the organization is yet again operating in Ukraine during the ongoing Russian invasion. In January, the US Treasury Department designated the Wagner Group as a “significant transnational criminal organization” and placed the organization’s network under a slew of sanctions.
Stories of the Wagner Group’s ruthless actions in Ukraine have occupied recent headlines around the world, yet their influence has been felt far beyond Eastern Europe, with operations in Africa causing recent concern among Western nations. In Libya, a 2020 leaked UN report described between 800-1,000 Wagner Group operatives active in the country since 2018. They fought alongside a rebel general, Khalifa Haftar, who launched an attack on the sitting, UN-backed Libyan government in Tripoli, an attack that ended in failure in 2020. Looking toward Mali, Western nations have accused the military junta of hiring the Wagner Group to enforce the junta’s rule; Wagner operatives, supported by Russian troops, reportedly entered Mali in December 2021, and since then, terrorism and human rights abuses have increased in regions Wagner forces operate. In 2017, an estimated 500 Wagner Group operatives were also deployed to Sudan to suppress uprisings against Sudan’s dictatorship. Afterwards, Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group, was given exclusive rights to gold mining in Sudan and Russia was offered a naval base on the Red Sea by Sudan’s dictator. The Central African Republic’s government sustained a similar relationship with the Wagner group, one that put the government at odds with the United Nations and the West. The UN repeatedly criticized the human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law by Wagner operatives working with the CAR’s armed forces and urged the government to end any association with the organization. Moreover, the Wagner Group since 2018 has protected the rule of CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, with a company linked to Prigozhin receiving diamond and gold mining licenses in return.
Although the Russian state denies any involvement in the organization, the Wagner Group has been suspected of furthering Russian interests in Africa, from propping up sitting governments or advancing emerging political figures to create a dependency on a military supplied by Russia. Human Rights Watch described the Wagner Group’s involvement in Mali as “representative of Russia’s strategy to spread influence in the region by irregular and deniable means,” further supporting the idea of Russia’s new, covert foreign policy in Africa. And as Catrina Dozsee, associate director and associate fellow for the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggests, this focus on the Wagner Group could be Russia’s new ploy to create a modern sphere of influence in Africa, one not felt since the Cold War.