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Wagner rebranded

A year after the disastrous anti-Putin putsch that cost its founder his life, the Russian state-funded military group has resumed its mission to cause chaos and destruction – and in its more official guise is no longer trying to deny it

People stand with a bouquet of roses near a sculpture of Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin installed on his grave (Photo by Artem Priakhin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

After Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed march on Moscow at the head of his private paramilitaries on June 23 last year, the immediate question was, “how long will he survive?” We did not have to wait too long to find out.

Vladimir Putin decided to follow Stalin’s maxim that, “Death is the solution to all problems. No man – no problem.” In August, Prigozhin and his neo-Nazi field commander, Dmitry Utkin, were killed when the private jet in which they were flying exploded in circumstances described generously as “suspicious”.

The next question was, “what will happen to his Wagner Group?” Initially, recruitment was halted, their base in southern Russia was dismantled, and it was forced to surrender thousands of tons of weaponry. We are now, however, starting to understand what the plan for a rebranded Wagner is both in and outside of Ukraine, as they resume their mission to cause chaos and destruction.

Weeks after Prigozhin’s death, despite the company passing to his son, Pavel Prigozhin, in his will, Putin met Andrei Troshev, a former senior Wagner commander, to discuss how its units, so key to the few tactical battlefield victories the Russians achieved in 2023, could again be used in Ukraine.

After the meeting, the Kremlin confirmed that Troshev had signed a contract with the defence ministry and would become leader of the group. Wagner soldiers were urged to sign contracts with the military and swear an oath of allegiance to Mother Russia. Some chose to join other private military companies, such as Redut and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen special forces group.

In February, however, another former senior Wagner commander seemed to confirm himself as the new field commander of Wagner. The UK Ministry of Defence reported that Anton “Lotos” Yelizarov had taken command after he made his first video statement. In it, Yelizarov detailed the location of Wagner’s new HQ, “Cossack Camps”, in southern Russia, co-located with the barracks of Russia’s 150th Motor Rifle Division.

Yelizarov claimed that Wagner’s new base would also house the new Volunteer Corps of the Rosgvardiya (Russian National Guard). The MoD assesses this confirms Wagner’s subordination into the Rosgvardiya command structure, which for the Kremlin reduces any potential internal threat Wagner might pose. The MoD report states that active recruitment had resumed as early as last October.

Two other groups of Wagner employees are operating under the control of the defence ministry and Moscow’s intelligence services, probably including some of the disinformation operatives who worked in Prigozhin’s troll farms. This new Volunteer Corps formation of Wagner personnel has reinforced Russia’s operations in its spring offensive in north-east Ukraine. The White House National Security Council stated in December that Wagner’s presence in Ukraine was made up of approximately 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts – recruited from Russian prisons. Many of these will form the “volunteers” of the corps.

There is evidence from the prisoners taken by Ukrainian forces that Wagner is increasingly looking to volunteers from developing countries, including Syria, Libya, and Central African Republic (CAR), to make up its numbers as homegrown volunteers dry up.

While there have been leadership changes the tactics are not likely to change. These Wagner recruits will be sent to the frontlines to absorb Ukrainian fire to clear the way for better-trained regular forces. Casualty rates for such units in the “meat-grinder” of Bakhmut reached 50%. Over recent conflicts the ratio of casualties who go on to die has significantly reduced as battlefield medicine and transportation have improved.

But Russia’s military in Ukraine has reversed this trend. This is not just because they lack medical resources and personnel, but also reflects the value placed on their private recruits. As the Volunteer Corps is deployed, we will see the grotesque spectacle of further meat-grinder tactics.

In between Prigozhin’s fated march and his death, he had supposedly cut a deal with Putin that he would focus on Wagner’s operations in Africa and the Middle East that he had built up over the preceding decade. Africa has become more strategically important to Russia, mainly due to its diplomatic isolation and the economic sanctions placed on it.

The Africa Corps’s economic and political networks will act as a tool for Russia to pursue its interests on the continent and undermine America’s interest (a process made easier by America’s unequivocal support of Israel, which is not playing well across many African countries).

Their operations on the continent have also received a rebranding in the last few months. In February adverts circulated online for drone pilots for an Expeditionary Force or Africa Corps, the same name as Hitler’s expeditionary force in Africa.

This force or corps is Wagner rebranded and reports directly into the Russian Ministry of Defence. They are looking to build a network of bases and enlist new recruits and former Wagner fighters to deploy to several countries, in particular Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, CAR, and Niger.

Pavel Prigozhin is likely to be in charge of some forces in the CAR and Mali. The group may now have its sights set on Chad and Cameroon in the coming months (with limited success if the current pro-western leaders remain in power, but they have already started disinformation operations to try to change this).

To their current clients, Wagner are offering a “regime survival package” to protect newly installed military juntas who came to power in a series of coups. In return, they are securing mining rights that will fund the war in Ukraine. Some estimates have the amount of gold extracted by Wagner in Africa at £2bn in the past two years.

In early February, Wagner troops secured their first gold mine in north-eastern Mali. They have also targeted the extraction of a cohort of minerals that, as technology evolves, we are becoming more reliant on, such as lithium, cobalt, and graphite to make electric batteries; silicon and tin for our electronics; rare earth elements for electric cars and wind turbines.

They have started to influence governments to write laws governing western companies’ mining access. In Mali, the mining code was recently rewritten to give the junta greater control over natural resources, resulting in an Australian lithium mine suspending trading.

The most recent coup was in Niger last July. Russian flags were seen among coup supporters who also sang anti-French slogans. The military junta expelled French troops, there to combat jihadist groups in the region, and forced the closure of their embassy.

Events in Niger could end France’s decade-long military involvement in the region, their own “forever war”. An editorial in right wing French newspaper Challenges has called for a rethink by France of its “broken down” Africa strategy, and claimed: “An era is over, that in which France positioned itself as the anti-jihadist policeman of a region five times greater than its territory.”

Russia will be revelling in the political fallout it has helped to create in Paris due to Wagner’s African operations, but they have more chaos to sow.
In April, after hundreds of Wagner mercenaries arrived in Niamey, claiming they were there to help train Niger’s military, the Biden administration announced it would withdraw the 1,000 US troops in the country, creating the appearance of Russian forces supplanting those of the US. In Niger, the Russians are now influencing the government to strip French access to the uranium mines.

France relies on nuclear power for almost two-thirds of its energy. About a fifth of its uranium is imported from Niger. Uranium will be key to fuel a new generation of nuclear small modular reactors (SMRs) being developed by China, US, UK, and Russia that will support the even greater energy needs of coming AI technology.

Europe has so far survived its self-imposed restrictions on the use of Russian gas. If Russia does manage to gain control of West Africa’s uranium mines, Europe could be further exposed to a new Russian energy blackmail.

Potentially the greatest havoc that the rebranded Wagner could create will be through controlling key migrant routes. The Sahel remains a major transit route for migrants travelling from sub-Saharan Africa to north Africa (especially Libya where Wagner operate) and on to Europe.

Niger’s former government had partnered with EU countries to stop the flow of migrants north and agreed to take back migrants from detention centres in Libya. Migration is a weapon of hybrid war that Russia has previously used to great effect.

It could be used to create social and economic pressures and push more populists towards power, Wagner can take advantage of conditions across the region where there are already large numbers of displaced people and manipulate the fragile politics of the region to create more.

The impacts of climate change in the region are severe. Temperatures are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average. Diminishing land and water resources are leading to frequent clashes between herding, farming, and fishing communities. Violence caused by the jihadist groups and the attempts to defeat them continues to exacerbate this humanitarian crisis.

To make matters worse, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso have left the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and formed the military Alliance of Sahel States, following Ecowas’s threat to intervene to restore civilian rule in Niger, increasing the risk of regional inter-state conflict.

The risk of direct conflict between foreign powers is also increasing. Intriguingly, last September, unconfirmed reports suggested that Ukrainian special forces were behind a series of drone and ground strikes against a Wagner-backed militia near Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Has Ukraine decided to take the fight against Wagner to Africa as part of an emerging campaign by Kyiv to strike at Russian interests far beyond the Ukraine war’s frontlines.

Despite the rebranding, the tactics of sowing chaos remain, and now in their more official guise, under direct state control, they are no longer trying to deny it. Whilst the implausible deniability is gone, the cynicism remains.

A year on from the march that guaranteed Prigozhin’s death, Russia is using his creation to stoke anti-French sentiment, playing to the anti-colonial narrative, all the while implementing its strategy of isolating these regimes, capturing their elites, and plundering their natural resources, while throwing poor foreign soldiers in to do their fighting – all the worst traits of a colonial power.

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