Russia’s Wagner Group expands into Africa’s Sahel with a new brand

MOSCOW, Oct. 1, 2023: People visit a makeshift memorial for Wagner private mercenary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in central Moscow on October 1, 2023, to mark 40 days since his death as per Orthodox tradition.

Natalia Kolesnikova | Afp | Getty Images

Wagner Group has been replaced by a new entity known as Russia’s Africa Corps across its key strongholds in the continent, its new leader has confirmed.

The infamous mercenary organization’s founders, Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, were killed in a plane crash in August 2023, two months after leading Wagner fighters in a march on Moscow to attempt a mutiny against the country’s defense forces.

The paramilitary contractor has an established presence in a number of politically unstable African nations, including the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and Sudan, and is now seeking to gain a foothold in Burkina Faso, which has been ruled by a military junta since a January 2022 coup.

Yet since the deaths of Prigozhin and Utkin, the future of its role on the continent has been shrouded in uncertainty.

“We continue to work on the African continent and we continue to work in Belarus. We continue to work for the good of Russia,” new leader and Wagner veteran Anton Yelizarov said in a video last week.

“We are working successfully. I am located at the group’s headquarters in Cossack Camps. We are building a camp so that the new units that will be formed — which will become part of the volunteer corps of the Russian National Guard — can arrive and settle.”

Yelizarov added that what is now the Africa Corps has “always defended, are defending and will defend the people of the Russian Federation and the interests of the Russian Federation, and we will do this anywhere in the world.”

The Africa Corps publicly declared on Telegram in late January that it had deployed 100 personnel to Burkina Faso to aid current leader Ibrahim Traoré in repelling Islamist insurgencies in the Sahel region.

The new entity has been subsuming operations in Mali and Libya for several months, and negotiations to establish a Russian military base in the CAR are reportedly underway.

Analysts at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw believe new units will likely be deployed across the Sahel states, the CAR and Libya, though contracts with local governments will dictate the scope of the group’s activities.

Unrestricted access to transport hubs in Libya and Algeria will be a “precondition for the smooth operation of Russian military forces” in Sahel states, Senior Fellow Piotr Żochowski and Research Fellow Miłosz Bartosiewicz said in a report last week.

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“The Africa Corps consists of mercenaries and volunteers, and does not form part of the Russian Armed Forces. It began recruiting in December 2023, and has also included job offers for former Wagner Group mercenaries; it may also recruit local residents,” they explained.

“The formation of the Africa Corps under the umbrella of the Russian defence ministry indicates that an effort is underway to put things back in order after the dismantling of the Wagner Group, as the Corps is set to take over its operations.”

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov oversaw the creation of the Africa Corps, which is expected to be fully completed by this summer.

The CES suggested that the arrival of 100 Africa Corps personnel in Burkina Faso signals “both an expansion and the formalisation of the Kremlin’s military presence in the Sahel region,” a cause that will be furthered by the installation of a military base in the CAR.

Yevkurov made several trips to Africa prior to the Burkinabe deployment, while Moscow opened its first embassy in Ouagadougou for more than three decades, as Russia continues its efforts to fill the security vacuum opened up by the withdrawal of French troops from many of the country’s former colonies in recent years.

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“The military juntas that have seized power in many countries of the Sahel region in recent years see Russia as a protector in both the domestic and international arenas, and are keen to cooperate with it in the field of defence,” Żochowski and Bartosiewicz said.

“While the Africa Corps’ stated aim is to provide assistance in the fight against jihadism, its presence on the continent will primarily serve to expand the Kremlin’s military, political and economic footprint.”

Many analysts also believe the new leadership will be keen to expand into Niger, a move that would be complicated by the presence of a significant U.S. drone base within the country, where a military junta seized power in July of last year.

Amid a deteriorating security situation across the Sahel, the juntas ruling Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have formed the “Alliance of Sahel States” and last month announced their unilateral withdrawal from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a move many analysts saw as paving the way for greater security cooperation with Moscow.

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