JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—They’re named after one of the world’s greatest composers, but the orchestra they’ve been conducting in Africa for the past five years has brought death and destruction as they’ve fought to prop-up dictatorships and kleptocracies, in exchange for gold, diamonds, and other mineral wealth.
President Vladimir Putin has always denied that the Wagner Group is controlled by the Kremlin, insisting they’re “private military contractors” providing “security” and “advice” to governments and armies and protecting Russian “assets.”
Western governments say Wagner is, in effect, Putin’s private army, tasked with carrying out his “dirty work” under the guise of being an independent consultancy and thus giving the Kremlin plausible deniability.
Wagner mercenaries have been accused of committing war crimes, including torture, murder, and rape, everywhere they’ve so far been deployed, including in the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Mali, and Mozambique.
But now, according to several members of African and international intelligence agencies and foreign missions across the continent, Putin’s war in Ukraine has severely eroded Wagner’s presence in Africa.
The intelligence community in Africa says at one stage Wagner had between 20,000 and 30,000 mercenaries on the continent. This number, they believe, is now down to 5,000.
“The rest have gone to Ukraine. It has really left them exposed on several African fronts,” Jasmine Opperman, a South African security consultant specializing in extremism, told The Epoch Times.
“The withdrawal of Wagner forces from Africa since Putin invaded Ukraine has shown that Wagner is completely under the control and command of the Kremlin,” Opperman said.
One West African intelligence operative who spoke with Epoch Times said: “In late March and early April, when it became clear Putin wasn’t going to get the quick victory he expected, the Wagner guys simply began disappearing. They’d clearly been ordered to go to the frontlines of Ukraine.”
On August 8, the Biden administration said the number of Russian fatalities in Ukraine could be as high as 75,000. It added that as many as a quarter of Moscow’s casualties since the beginning of the war were of “mercenaries,” and that about 5,000 Wagner operatives had been killed in Ukraine so far.
The Kremlin has described these tolls as “lies and propaganda.” It insists only about 1,300 Russians have died in the conflict.
Marisha Ramdeen of the ACCORD group, which monitors terrorism and violence in Africa, told Epoch Times the “minimal” Wagner forces remaining in Africa are “increasingly isolated and vulnerable. My information is that they’re keeping a low profile, they have to adopt a kind of adapt-or-die strategy and they can’t exactly have the kind of all-guns blazing attitude that they previously had. They don’t have the weaponry or manpower anymore, because it’s now all in Ukraine. They’re stranded.”
Wagner’s new vulnerability in Africa is already being exposed. In early August, the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) group, affiliated to al-Qaeda, said it had killed four “Russian mercenaries” in an ambush around Bandiagara in central Mali.
But African intelligence services describe Wagner fighters as “resourceful survivors,” often thriving by setting up organized crime networks, including protection rackets.
In CAR, they say, Wagner operatives have fought off local smugglers and are now in control of illicit diamond and gold mining in some regions.
In Mali, remaining mercenaries are also involved in gold mining.
“The left-over Wagners are now mining for gold in northern Sudan,” an intelligence agent in East Africa told Epoch Times. “They share the gold with local warlords.”
The Wagner Group gained international notoriety in the early months of the war in Ukraine, when that country’s intelligence service said Wagner members were responsible for “war crimes,” including roadside executions of unarmed civilians and rapes of women and girls in Bucha near Kyiv. Moscow denied the allegations.
Washington began paying attention to Wagner’s activities in Africa long before the war in Ukraine, but that event has sharpened its focus.
The Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act passed the House of Representatives on 27 April by a massive, bipartisan 419-9 majority, and will become law should it pass the Senate.
The bill defines malign activities as those that “undermine United States objectives and interests” and it seeks to “hold accountable the Russian Federation and African governments and their officials who are complicit in aiding such malign influence and activities.”
“The bill’s clearly designed to target Wagner and Russian companies and oligarchs involved in illicit minerals extraction in Africa,” Professor Dirk Kotze, a political analyst at the University of South Africa, told The Epoch Times.
“Most African governments want nothing to do with Wagner. Through the African Union they’ve made it clear that African problems must be solved by Africans, not by foreign mercenaries.”
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Kremlin first deployed Wagner fighters during its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Wagner’s next appearance was in Syria, where it helped the regime of Bashar al-Assad defeat the Islamic State. But its main mission seems to have been to recapture oil and gas wells, with Assad later giving Wagner a stake in the wealth. In July 2017, a video emerged showing Wagner fighters assaulting and beheading a “Syrian army deserter” in the Palmyra area.
The Bellingcat investigative and intelligence organization, based in the Netherlands, says Wagner was established in 2013 by former special forces officer Lieutenant-Colonel Dmitry Utkin.
He named his Putin-sanctioned band of mercenaries after his “military call sign,” Wagner, after Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer. Social media posts, since deleted, have shown Utkin sporting Nazi tattoos, including the Eagle of the Third Reich across his chest and insignias of Hitler’s notorious Reichsadler and Sturmabteilung units.
Several international intelligence agencies, including the CIA, claim that Wagner’s bankrolled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch and self-described “political advisor” to Putin.
Wagner’s sorties into Africa began shortly after its Syrian adventure, said Peter Fabricius, consultant for South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies. Wagner fighters wore camo uniforms and helmets emblazoned with a skull and two crossed swords, their faces usually covered by black balaclavas or bandanas.
“As France, once the biggest colonial force in Africa, has withdrawn from the continent, so Wagner has moved in,” Fabricius told Epoch Times.
The overwhelming majority of Wagner operations in Africa are in conflict-ridden but resource-rich former French colonies with weak and corrupt governments that are battling Islamist terrorists.
The Russian “company” began establishing a presence in CAR in 2017, after French forces prematurely declared victory over jihadists and left. Early last year, a 2,000-strong Wagner deployment prevented the ouster of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra by a rebel coalition.
“At first, the Russians were welcomed by the people of CAR because they undoubtedly restored the most stability in the country for many years. Forces from France and South Africa failed to achieve this,” said Fabricius.
But Wagner’s fighters soon lost popularity as, according to the United Nations, they committed serious human rights violations against ethnic groups perceived to be opposed to Touadéra.
In May last year, a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wagner “mercenaries” were responsible for several “massacres” in CAR.
In the report, witnesses described how “Russians” set up a roadblock near the town of Bossangoa on the morning of July 21, 2021, stopping 13 unarmed men on motorcycles, severely assaulting them and executing them. Most of the bodies were “dumped” in a shallow trench near the road.
The U.N. Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries wrote to Touadéra in September, saying “military personnel and Russian security” were responsible for the atrocity. The President promised an “investigation” but nothing has come of it.
“The government of CAR refuses to acknowledge Wagner’s official presence, and if there’s a contract between it and the group, it’s secret,” said Fabricius. “There’s therefore been a lot of talk that the government’s paying Wagner by means of mining contracts, and that’s in fact the case in several African countries, like Sudan.”
The CAR is one of the most mineral-rich places on earth, with a wealth of gold, diamonds, copper, tin, and uranium.
Wagner was particularly active in Africa in 2019, but didn’t fulfil many of its “official” missions. It sent about 200 fighters to Mozambique’s oil and gas rich Cabo Delgado province, ostensibly to help government forces fight an Islamic State-sponsored insurgency. But a few months later they withdrew, after rebels killed seven Wagner troops.
In Libya, Wagner forces supported a rebel attack on the capital, Tripoli. It failed to topple the government, yet its “advisors” remain in the country.
In Sudan, another oil-rich nation, Wagner failed to prevent the overthrow of dictator President Omar al-Bashir. It remains in the country at the request of powerful military commander General Mohamed Hamdan.
In December last year, 800 Wagner fighters joined the battle against Islamist insurgents in Mali; the UN and human rights groups have since blamed them for the deaths of about 500 “innocent civilians.”
According to Fabricius, Wagner and other forces similar to it will have a presence in Africa as long as there are “democratic voids” on the continent, and as long as there are autocrats who will do anything to remain in power and luxury.