Wagner Group’s Engagements in West Asia and North Africa

Wagner Group’s mutiny against the Russian military establishment and the sudden withdrawal in June 2023 has created chaos in Russia. This leaves analysts of Russian politics with several questions regarding the future of Wagner and the country’s internal dynamics. Such questions have also been raised in countries where there has been an active engagement of the mercenary group, especially West Asia and North Africa. It is also believed that the group’s presence will be further weakened as Wagner’s operations in the region are largely believed to have been facilitated by the Russian state. This failed mutiny also holds severe implications on Russia’s policy towards the countries in the region.

The business model used by Wagner seems to have three elements, namely, military, economic and political. In cases when the states had to turn to Russia for security, they ultimately welcomed Wagner for their military operations. Wagner later built its own economic networks to make money while also offering political services like disinformation campaigns in some African countries like Mali, Madagascar and so on. In North Africa, Wagner has military and political influence in Libya. In West Asia, the accurate data about the group’s presence is hardly known. However, Syria is known to be the “largest base” of Wagner’s operations. Wagner makes its money through a network of shell companies in West Asia and North Africa by exploiting the natural resources like gems and jewels in Africa and the oil and gas in West Asia.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of Wagner Group, allegedly said in a Telegram message that Wagner Group has carried out a “number of tasks” in West Asia and North Africa in “Russia’s interests”.. Wagner aided the rebel leader Khalifa Haftar in Libya. Mr. Prigozhin also has longstanding ties with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which the Arab countries regard as a way to please President Putin.

Wagner’s Presence in West Asia and North Africa

Wagner has a significant presence in West Asia and North Africa, specifically in countries like Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, etc., where their primary job is to protect the emerging or ruling elites.

Libya’s geostrategic location, oil and natural resources make it highly attractive to the Kremlin and its associated networks, like Wagner. Libya can also offer Russia with an additional port in the Mediterranean apart from the Syrian facility of Tartus, which can help Russia to compete with the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces in the region. The Wagner Group started deploying its units in Libya in 2019. Wagner helped the warlord Khalifa Hafter to gain control over some of the major oil fields in Libya. The group did not observe the regulations, such as “arms embargo”, prescribed by the United Nations and associated agencies. This was followed by Russia disavowing any responsibility it had with Wagner. The US had imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group and on individuals associated with the group. Despite the Western sanctions, the Wagner Group continued to undertake its covert military operations in Africa. Haftar relied extensively on Wagner to establish and consolidate his control over parts of Libya. A sudden withdrawal of the mercenary forces, if imposed by Putin, would affect Haftar’s influence and have a serious security impact on the country.

The Wagner Group allegedly has close links with the United Arab Emirates too. Some analysts believe that Russia depends on the UAE to enable Wagner’s operations in Africa. Wagner’s chief Prigozhin shares a good relationship with the UAE. However, following Wagner’s mutiny in June 2023, questions arise whether Russian President Putin will put pressure on the UAE to “clamp down” on Wagner.

Wagner has been involved in Syria since 2015. It was one of the first operations of Wagner outside of Europe. The Group has fought alongside Bashar-al-Assad and was a strong supporter of the Russian air campaign in Damascus. Wagner also faced losses induced by the US forces after their assault on the American military outposts. For Russia, Syria is significant for the projection of its power in the region and also, to gain access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. As Russia got busy on its Eastern front with a full-blown armed conflict, its military presence in Syria was affected. Consequently, Wagner’s presence was also greatly impacted. However, the Syrian and Russian authorities took necessary measures to prevent the spillover of the Wagner’s uprising which was largely successful. Under the measures undertaken, the mercenary fighters were asked to sign new contracts with Russia’s defence ministry or to leave Syria. 

What’s Next?

President Vladimir Putin clearly stated that the operations of the Wagner Group in Ukraine are funded by the Russian government. Some experts believe that Mr Prigozhin is easily replaceable by the Russian defence establishment as he is nothing more than a “charismatic leader adept at logistics”. In West Asia and North Africa, Wagner has had an important role to play to meet Russia’s strategic interests. It does offer great advantages for the Kremlin. Their covert operations have been critical in the development of Russia’s strategy towards the region in recent years. Wagner’s presence in the region helps Russia resist the Western sanctions and gain access to resources. The Kremlin has also exploited the presence of the group to propagate anti-Western messages in these countries.

Some analysts of the WANA region opine that the Russian influence is bound to reduce in the region while some have a contrasting opinion. The Arab and African nations are left in an awkward position balancing their ties with the mercenary group vis-à-vis with President Putin. The United States views Wagner’s presence through the lens of rivalry with Russia for influence in West Asia and North Africa.

For Russia, though Wagner is not an official part of its military, it has played an important role in Russia’s policy towards the countries in West Asia and North Africa. However, following the attempted mutiny by Wagner, some analysts believe that the countries hosting Wagner will be less willing to have them for longer. In contrast to this view, there is also a speculation that such a push from the mutiny against Moscow may result in boost to its reputation, thus to its business in the region. 

Wagner’s attempted uprising could be a sign of the weakening of the Russian state or the regime’s legitimacy. This may result in WANA countries reassessing their perceptions of Russia. Russia’s influence in WANA may be greatly impacted by the future of Wagner in the region. As for Wagner’s future in WANA, which is still unclear, some analysts believe that the Group’s operations may still be carried out while under government control. Libya’s situation is improving with the conflict “at a low ebb”. Thus, even a lapse in Russian presence might not result in an escalation of tensions. In Syria too, Wagner’s transformation into a state entity may not cause a challenge as Russia’s foothold is strong in the West-Asian country.

Though it is difficult to predict the impact with certainty, it can be said that Wagner’s mutiny in Russia will consequently impact its presence in the WANA region. However, it can only be guessed upon how the dynamics between Putin and Prigozhin may play out. Russia may be increasingly perceived as a weakening state with WANA countries looking at China as an alternative to both the US and Russia.

[Yevgeny Prigozhin’s military mutiny in Rostov-on-Don on June 24, 2023. A tank with flowers in the muzzle. Photo by Fargoh, via Wikimedia Commons]

Gokireddy Hima Bindu is a postgraduate research scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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