On Saturday, June 24, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the private military company Wagner Group, announced that he was leading his troops in a rebellion against the Russian government. The move followed a trajectory of deteriorating relations between Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry. Prigozhin has become an increasingly vocal critic of the Ministry’s handling of the invasion of Ukraine, while concerns around Prigozhin’s own political ambitions, outsized public profile in Russia, and influence on the Russian information space have raised alarm bells within the Kremlin.

The events of the weekend seem to have been triggered by recent efforts by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to have Wagner soldiers placed under the direct control of his ministry— an order Prigozhin has refused to follow—as well as an apparent missile strike by the Russian Defence Ministry on a Wagner camp. 

After taking over Russia’s regional military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, a Wagner convoy advanced northwards, through the city of Voronezh, and as far as Yelets, before news broke that Prigozhin had halted the rebellion and ordered his men to return to their field camps in Eastern Ukraine. Following a deal brokered by Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, Putin’s press spokesperson announced that Wagner fighters would not be prosecuted, those who did not join in would be offered contracts by the Defense Ministry, and that Prigozhin would go into exile in Belarus.  

It is difficult to determine what impact these events will have on the course of the war in Ukraine which has claimed the lives of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian men and women and continues to have deeply negative consequences for Africa—something GGA has covered in a previous Intelligence Report

Some analysts have argued that Putin’s public standing and position of control within the Russian state has been compromised; deep divisions and failures within Russia’s security sector exposed; and the destabilising power of Russia’s ultranationalist community revealed. Others point to the fact that while publicly embarrassing for Putin, he has managed to exile a significant rival; created an opportunity to weed out political opponents within the security services; while his Defense Ministry can assert a new level of control over Wagner forces and now better manage the information space. 

The impact of these events on Wagner Group’s activities in Africa, and by proxy, Russia’s influence on the continent, are even trickier to predict. As argued in a recent study by Standyard, Vircoulon, and Rademeyer (2023) for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), the Wagner Group has rapidly become the most influential form of Russian engagement in Africa today, acting as a nominally private-sector actor in different capacities, in well over a dozen states. 

While principally a private military company, which currently has troop deployments in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, and Sudan, the Wagner Group also comprises a network of political influence operations and a range of subsidiary companies with both commercial and organised crime interests. Access to both licit and illicit resources often serves as a form of payment for Wagner military support, particularly in weak states seeking to maintain power in fragile contexts. Through the Wagner Group, Russia has been able to promote its geostrategic interests in parts of Africa, often at a fraction of the cost associated with more traditional bilateral military and development partnerships.   

It is unclear how Prigozhin’s exile will impact upon Wagner Group’s current operations on the continent. In addition to helping Russia secure its foreign policy interests in Africa,  the Wagner Group has also secured revenue streams for Russian oligarchs and organised crime interests, which many in Russia may want to maintain. However, Putin’s inability to control the Wagner Group may also raise concerns for African states looking to secure the company’s services. The Wagner Group’s success on the continent has been, in part, based on the fact that its profit-making objectives have aligned with Russia’s foreign policy objectives. If there is now a misalignment, both Wagner and Russia could be losers.

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Stephen Buchanan-Clarke is a security analyst with several years' experience working in both conflict and post-conflict settings in Africa, primarily on issues of peace and security; transitional justice and reconciliation; democratisation and governance; and preventing and countering violent extremism. He currently serves as head of the Human Security and Climate Change (HSCC) project at Good Governance Africa and is a co-editor of the Extremisms in Africa anthology series.

 

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Stephen Buchanan-Clarke is a security analyst with several years' experience working in both conflict and post-conflict settings in Africa, primarily on issues of peace and security; transitional justice and reconciliation; democratisation and governance; and preventing and countering violent extremism. He currently serves as head of the Human Security and Climate Change (HSCC) project at Good Governance Africa and is a co-editor of the Extremisms in Africa anthology series.  

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