Wagner’s mercenaries swap Ukrainian trenches for natural resources in Africa

The head of the Russian paramilitary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been meeting with representatives from Mali, the Central African Republic and Niger. The United States, meanwhile, is attempting to block the Wagner Group from profiting from African mines

Wagner group mercenaries
Undated photo provided by the French army showing three Russian mercenaries in northern Mali.AP
Javier G. Cuesta

In Saint Petersburg, the gigantic PMC Wagner Center sign no longer hangs in the majestic building at 15 Zolnaya Street (or Ash Street, in English). The mercenaries’ short-lived mutiny against the Kremlin — which took place on June 23 and 24 — couldn’t be punished by Vladimir Putin, since the organization continues to be essential for his interests. However, he has forced its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to alter the objectives of his private military company.

As the address of its public headquarters insinuates, only ashes remain from the memory of the paramilitary army, which made headlines in the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut. Now, the old Wagner — which was created by Moscow a decade ago to undertake covert operations in far-away lands — has been reborn. Following Ukraine, Africa and its natural resources have become the main objectives of the paramilitary group.

Although he was forced to leave the Ukrainian trenches, the insurgent Prigozhin hasn’t lost his commercial interests in Russia, despite having demanded the dismissal of the Ministry of Defense’s high command in the middle of a war. Several companies belonging to Putin’s former cook — known for having built his empire from the catering business — have still been awarded contracts worth 4.4 billion rubles (or about $45 million) to provide services to school cafeterias across Moscow, as revealed by the Dossier Center.

However, it has been Africa, and specifically Niger, that has led Prigozhin to return to the public eye after the failed mutiny. He was first seen at the end of July in Saint Petersburg, on the occasion of the Africa-Russia summit. The head of the Russian House cultural center in the Central African Republic, Dmitri Sytri, posted a photo on Facebook on July 27, in which a smiling Prigozhin is seen shaking hands with a delegate from that country at the Trezzini Hotel, where the summit was held. According to the newspaper Fontanka, he received representatives from Niger, Mali and the Central African Republic.

The latter two countries are among the Wagner Group’s main clients. The firm offers its mercenaries’ services in exchange for the exploitation of natural resources. Russian paramilitaries are in several African countries, but are particularly active in the Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan and Libya.

On August 8, Prigozhin once again made a public statement, in which he mocked the United States for its attempts to negotiate a way out of the coup in Niger. “I am proud of the guys from the Wagner Group. When [they’re around] the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda seem like obedient children… The U.S. now recognizes a government that it didn’t recognize yesterday, just because it didn’t meet with Wagner in that country,” the businessman sneered, referring to the meeting between U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the new military leaders of the African country. Concern in Washington (and in the European Union) about his the possible support he may have given to Niger’s coup plotters has encouraged him to return to the public scene.

Niger is listed as one of the group’s short-term priorities. According to three different sources who spoke with AP, the rebel general Salifou Modi traveled to Mali on August 2, allegedly to ask for support from a representative of Wagner. A day later, Prigozhin published an audio recording, in which he affirmed that the rebellion had his blessing. “Changes were needed in Niger. This is a liberation struggle,” he said.

“Wagner is no longer here”

After the mutiny and the mediation of the Aleksandr Lukashenko regime, the mercenaries fled to Belarus. The Belarusian National Resistance Center — an opposition entity — has denounced the establishment of several military camps in the country, with the presence of around 6,000 soldiers carrying light weapons. The Baltic countries and Poland have strengthened the surveillance of their borders, while Ukraine is also keeping a close watch.

Gone is the splendor of the headquarters in Saint Petersburg, which Prigozhin inaugurated at the beginning of November last year, when his group gained prominence as a parallel army in the war in Ukraine. The building was going to house the administrative apparatus of the mercenaries and would offer free rent to “patriotic” technology companies, according to Prigozhin. He is also the owner of the Patriot Group, which includes the troll factory that heated up the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign with various means of propaganda. However, this company didn’t survive the riot; it was closed in early July.

“Wagner is no longer here,” a receptionist kindly replies at the entrance to the building. “The building is owned by the Morskaya Stolitsa company. If you wish, you can rent a space here,” she adds, after offering a catalog with the benefits and prices of each floor of office space.

Even though it’s August, both the parking lot and its floor-to-ceiling windows reveal an unusually empty building. In the six months prior to the uprising, all kinds of pro-war initiatives moved in. Among them, the so-called Z-bloggers, who create propaganda in favor of the invasion of Ukraine; the Oktagon drone school; a volunteer recruitment center; and the Wagnerenok youth movement. The independent media outlet Bumaga contacted these organizations and confirmed that they have not ceased their activities, although they’re in the process of relocating. “The members of the club are taking a break. In September, we will resume activities,” the head of the Wagnerenok youth movement Alexander Troni told Bumaga.

The same goes for almost all of Wagner’s mercenary recruitment points. On July 30, the company announced that they were temporarily closing. A day later, however, Prigozhin clarified that the company might need people in the near future because it “continues its activities in Africa, as well as in training centers in Belarus.” The online magazine Vazhnye Istorii has revealed that the group still recruits candidates for Africa, at centers in the Siberian cities of Omsk and Novosibirsk.

Mercenaries in exchange for African resources

The mercenary company was born as an extension of the Russian army’s intelligence service (the GRU) to carry out armed interventions, without the need for Moscow’s public involvement. For example, its soldiers claimed to be “Russian volunteers” when they stormed into eastern Ukraine in April and May 2014, just before the Donbas War began. However, Wagner’s main source of funding comes from the natural resources offered by certain regimes in Africa, in exchange for their fighting power. This is especially the case in the sub-Saharan zone, which is now vital for the Kremlin due to the pressure of sanctions on the Russian economy.

Through Wagner, Moscow tries to occupy Africa, taking advantage of the space left behind by Europe, especially France, a major colonial power on the continent. “I need to protect the institutions of the republic. I asked everyone for help. Should I refuse the help of those who wanted to help us?” stressed the president of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, in an interview with NBC in early June. In exchange for supporting him against his country’s rebels, Wagner was granted access to the CAR’s natural resources. Three Russian journalists were killed in 2018 while investigating these movements.

“Moscow cannot afford to lose the political, military and economic benefits that Wagner provides,” stresses an analysis from the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). According to the center’s estimates, in the Central African Republic alone, Wagner obtains more than $1 billion a year. This is thanks to the protection it offers the authorities, in exchange for important concessions, such as the Ndassima gold mine.

Aware of the importance of this financing, the U.S. has launched a new wave of sanctions this summer against the gold mines that feed the Wagner Group in the Central African Republic and Mali, as well the entities that supposedly contribute to laundering the firm’s money in the United Arab Emirates. “The U.S. will continue to target the revenue streams of the Wagner group to undermine its expansion and violence in Africa, Ukraine and elsewhere,” the U.S. Department of the Treasury warned, three days after Prigozhin’s failed mutiny in June.

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