In October 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin labelled Africa a region of “significant opportunity” for cooperation with Russia. Over the past two years, Russian mercenaries have increased their presence in Africa in order to train local forces and exert Russian influence abroad. In August, Germany’s Foreign Ministry revealed a Russian plan to establish military bases in six African states. Yet despite these ambitions, mercenary deployments in Africa consistently fail to meet their objectives and in the process spread the Kremlin’s resources too thin, presenting opportunities for the United States and its allies in the region.
Russia’s use of irregular forces
Russian law technically forbids the existence of private military contractors (PMCs), yet observers have spotted Russian mercenaries deployed in conflict zones ranging from Syria, Ukraine, and most recently in African countries. Since PMCs don’t technically exist in Russia, their activities aren’t directly tied to Kremlin policy, granting them flexibility over the scope of their operations. PMCs act as tools of Russian foreign policy, creating opportunities for Russia to increase its presence in Africa. The Wagner Group, a Russian PMC allegedly headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch and close friend of Putin, spearheads Russian mercenary operations across Africa. Nevertheless, the Wagner Group’s forces remain cheap and ill-equipped compared to American PMCs. As a result, the United States and its European allies could potentially gain influence in Africa by collaborating with local governments, increasing economic cooperation, and forging genuine diplomatic ties in regions where Russia has failed.
Mozambique’s rampant terrorist insurgencies led its government to host Russian mercenaries, but they have thus far failed to contain the threat. In September 2019, Wagner Group forces deployed to Mozambique to combat the so-called Islamic State’s Central Africa Province’s (IS-CAP) insurgency in the northern Cabo Delgado province. Before deciding to host Russian mercenaries, Mozambique entertained offers from both U.S. and Russian PMCs, declining an offer from an experienced American firm in favor of cheaper Russian forces. Mozambique’s President, Felipe Nyusi, likely felt an obligation toward Russia for its decision to forgive over 90% of the debt Mozambique owed to Moscow; the president also thanked Russia for the former Soviet Union’s role in aiding Mozambique’s independence movement. As a result, Russian advisors and equipment arrived in hopes of aiding President Nyusi’s campaign against the insurgents. Additionally, Russia and Mozambique struck deals allowing Russian businesses to extract liquefied natural gas. The deal, whose feasibility relied on Wagner’s success in Mozambique, held the potential to increase economic cooperation and even expand new pipelines across southern Africa.
The Wagner force’s inability to combat IS-CAP’s insurgency in Mozambique led to a humiliating withdrawal from the region. When Wagner forces arrived, the mercenaries failed to understand the local environment or cooperate with the Mozambican military, regularly sustaining casualties from IS-CAP ambushes. In late October, IS-CAP killed seven mercenaries and 20 Mozambican soldiers in two separate attacks, after successfully blocking roads and attacking convoys. The attacks stemmed from Wagner’s inability to cooperate with the local military, and the mercenaries were said to not even have the capacity to communicate in the same language.
In November, Wagner’s forces evacuated Cabo Delgado – proof of the group’s failure to contain the IS-CAP’s insurgency. Nine months later, in August, the insurgents successfully captured the strategic port town of Mocimboa da Praia. American PMCs, unlike the Russians, could potentially move into the region and collaborate with local forces while successfully navigating the terrain. American businesses, as a result, could develop ties in Mozambique and craft deals to extract natural gas reserves, increasing influence in a region traditionally allied with Russia.
Central African Republic
The Central African Republic (CAR) remains one of Russia’s key allies in Sub-Saharan Africa, granting Moscow economic concessions in exchange for military advisors and training. In 2018, Russia sent President Faustin-Archange Touadera, the CAR’s President, 175 instructors to train military personnel and police to protect against rebels in the country’s seemingly endless civil war. Since then, Russia has provided the CAR with military assistance and developed economic ties. The CAR granted Russian businesses key diamond mining concessions and allowed Russia to organize newspapers and radio stations in its capital, Bangui.
The Wagner Group implements most of Russia’s military and economic assistance to the CAR, often working with other Russian businesses belonging to Prigozhin. These businesses exploit the CAR’s local divisions in the Kremlin’s favor, driving profits for Russian businesses while prolonging the civil war. Over 80% of the CAR remains under rebel control, and despite Touadera’s access to Russian weaponry and expertise, his forces have struggled to establish control in the rest of the country. Wagner, along with providing military training, allegedly collaborates with these rebels to exploit the local population. Wagner forces reportedly coordinated with rebel forces to allow a Russian mining company to access diamond mines in insurgent territory, undermining their wider objective in the region.
As the CAR’s civil war reaches its eighth year, Russian forces have failed to end the conflict. Militia groups continue to engage the government and each other as religious and ethnic divisions complicate any peace prospects in the region. All the while, Russian mercenaries profit from the CAR’s diamond mines while advising the country’s leaders. Despite granting Russia heightened influence in the CAR, Wagner forces failed deliver any decisive victories in the civil war to the Touadera government. Quite the contrary, peace seems unlikely as ever in the near future, and mercenaries remain stationed in Bangui with little international oversight.
The CAR’s case exhibits the exploitative practices of Russian PMCs. African states should realize that Russia will likely prolong conflicts when it deploys its mercenaries. Collaborating with the United States and its allies by crafting detailed plans of action could bring stability to various conflict zones and security to local populations.
Opportunities for the United States
Russia’s limited resources as a state, ignorance of African geography and cultures, and sub-standard equipment prevent the Kremlin from achieving decisive military objectives in the region, presenting the United States and its allies with key opportunities for cooperation. Developing economic ties with states that Russian firms have failed in, such as Mozambique, could potentially balance against the Kremlin in Africa. Additionally, African investments could grant the United States key inroads in the region, building allies as American businesses fund important projects. U.S. firms, unlike Russian ones, could lay the groundwork for partnerships in Africa, allowing the United States to balance against its adversaries while helping to alleviate the region’s security concerns.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com or any institutions with which the authors are associated.