Russia Hires Its Own Africa Army To Succeed Wagner’s Mercenaries

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Russia, in a new push to expand its influence in Africa, is recruiting for an armed force to replace the Wagner group’s mercenaries across the continent.

The Africa Corps would bolster Russia’s military presence with what it says would be a network of planned Defense Ministry-controlled bases, in a bid to revive Moscow’s Cold War-era clout on the continent at a time of steeply declining Western influence. It would also allow the Kremlin to consolidate control of Wagner’s business network in Africa, including potentially lucrative mining interests, following the death last year of the group’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.

“It’s a recognition on the part of the Kremlin that there’s an opportunity to exploit,” said J. Peter Pham, former US special envoy to the Sahel. “If it’s formalized, especially with the French withdrawal, it’s certainly going to be a much more significant and potentially lasting shift in geopolitical and diplomatic alignments.” French troops fighting insurgents in the Sahel left both Mali and Burkina Faso after the military ousted the civilian government and moved closer to Russia.

The Africa Corps, which controversially shares the name of Adolf Hitler’s expeditionary force, aims to enlist new recruits and former Wagner fighters by mid-year to deploy to at least five Russia-friendly countries — Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic and Niger — according to the group. Wagner was technically disbanded following Prigozhin’s death but remains active.

But it remains to be seen where it will be able to find the 20,000 soldiers that a person close to the Russian Defense Ministry said the group seeks. At its peak, Wagner’s African operations numbered at most several thousand personnel and Russia is already trying to recruit at least another 250,000 troops to fight in Ukraine this year.

At the same time, transitioning to an official military role will collapse the arm’s length relationship to Wagner’s operations that gave the Kremlin plausible deniability against United Nations allegations of war crimes in Africa made against the mercenary group.

“There is a downside for the Russians as well, which is that you no longer have deniability,” said Pham, the former senior US diplomat. “If you rebrand those forces as part of the army, you now own that problem.”

Small Start

Moscow’s approach has started small. Last Wednesday, about 100 Russian troops arrived in Burkina Faso to provide security for Captain Ibrahim Traoré, the soldier who seized power in a 2022 military coup, the group said in a statement posted on its Telegram channel.

But it has ambitious plans, seeking to build a regional headquarters in the Central African Republic, where over the past six years Wagner has waged a brutal campaign on behalf of the president, and embedded itself in the national security apparatus in exchange for diamonds and gold.

“The military base will be built. We have a lot of men and many Russians here. It’s necessary to provide them with a base,” Patrick Bida Kouyagbele, a senior adviser to President Faustin-Archange Touadera, told Bloomberg News by phone. He said the base’s exact location was “top secret” and the government was still in the process of analyzing several sites.

The number of Russian military personnel in CAR has almost doubled to nearly 2,000 since September — a month after Prigozhin’s death — a sign of how security cooperation with Russia “has intensified,” Kouyagbele said.

Sahel Clique

Moscow has capitalized on the destabilization in West Africa wrought by military coups and Islamist insurgencies in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, exacerbated by popular resentment of former colonial power France and perceived Western meddling.

The three Sahelian countries and Russia signed a mutual defense pact in September. Last week, the military leader of Niger’s neighbor Chad — now considered the last bastion of Western influence in the Sahel — met with Putin in Moscow to discuss security cooperation.

The US State Department’s top Africa official, Molly Phee, expressed concern that Russia will succeed in striking a deal on a military presence in Niger, where the US has a major drone base. The country’s new army junta last year also expelled French troops and effectively forced the closure of France’s embassy.

“If they chose to have a partnership with countries like Russia, that would be very complicated,” Phee said Jan. 18. “We hope they make the right decision.”

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who’s in charge of taking over Wagner activities in Africa and the Middle East, visited Niger in early December. The country’s prime minister traveled to Moscow for talks and the signing of a new defense agreement with the Kremlin this month.

In November, Mali’s army recaptured the strategic northern town of Kidal, which had been held by separatist rebels for over a decade, with the help of Russian fighters. As in other countries, Mali has seen Wagner contractors slowly — though not fully — replaced by regular army forces, two Western officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Along with its role in propping up regimes, the Africa Corps is expected to maintain Wagner’s focus on extracting raw resources with the goal of bringing in hard currency to finance the war in Ukraine, the officials said.

“It may be a rebranding exercise so far but it’s already a great result for the Russians,” said Lou Osborn, an analyst at All Eyes on Wagner, a consortium that tracks the activities of the group and its successor. “Suddenly they’re going from Wagner, which the West put a lot of effort into deterring — new tentacles of the hydra have emerged and it’s now called Africa Corps.”

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