When abuses were reported in recent weeks in Mali – fake graves designed to discredit French forces; a massacre of some 300 people, mostly civilians – all evidence pointed to the shadowy mercenaries of Russia’s Wagner Group.
Even before these feared professional soldiers joined the assault on Ukraine, Russia had deployed them to under-the-radar military operations across at least half a dozen African countries. Their aim: To further president Vladimir Putin’s global ambitions and to undermine democracy.
The Wagner Group passes itself off as a private military contractor and the Kremlin denies any connection to it or even, sometimes, that it exists.
But Wagner’s commitment to Russian interests has become apparent in Ukraine, where its fighters, seen wearing the group’s chilling white skull emblem, are among the Russian forces currently attacking eastern Ukraine.
In sub-Saharan Africa, Wagner has gained substantial footholds for Russia in the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan and Mali. Wagner’s role in those countries goes way beyond the cover story of merely providing a security service, experts say.
“They essentially run the Central African Republic (CAR)” and are a growing force in Mali, General Stephen Townsend, the commander of United States (US) armed forces in Africa, told a Senate hearing last month.
The US identifies Wagner’s financer as Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch who is close to the Russian president and sometimes is called “Putin’s chef” for his flashy restaurants favoured by the Russian leader.
He was charged by the US government with trying to influence the 2016 US presidential election and the Wagner Group is the subject of US and European Union sanctions.
Russia’s game plan for Africa, where it has applied its influence as far north as Libya and as far south as Mozambique, is straightforward in some ways, say analysts. It seeks alliances with governments shunned by the West or facing armed uprisings and internal challenges to their rule.
The African leaders get recognition from the Kremlin and military muscle from Wagner. They pay for it by giving Russia prime access to their oil, gas, gold, diamonds and valuable minerals.
Russia also gains positions on a strategically important continent.
But there is another objective of Russia’s “hybrid war” in Africa, said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies.
Siegle said Russia is also waging an ideological battle, using Wagner as a “coercive tool” to undermine Western ideas of democracy and turn countries towards Moscow. Putin wants to challenge the international democratic order “because Russia can’t compete very well in that order”, Siegle said.
“If democracy is held up as the ultimate aspirational governance model, then that is constraining for Russia,” Siegle said.
Rather, Wagner promotes Russian interests with soldiers and guns but also through propaganda and disinformation, as Prigozhin has done for Putin before.— Al Jazeera