As uncertainty reigns across the globe, Russian geopolitical scheming appears to remain as one of few inevitable certainties. In Mozambique, as in Sudan and the C.A.R. before it, Kremlin affiliated PMC ‘Wagner’ has embedded itself within an intra-state conflict in the hope of advancing Moscow’s strategic international agenda. Combining boots on the ground with its own cyber-division aimed at spreading disinformation, Wagner has fought in support of incumbent Mozambican premier Filipe Nyusi since September last year, typifying the Russian Federation’s ruthless approach to spreading its influence overseas.
A fractious partnership with Mozambique’s armed forces (FADM) has led to several chastising encounters for Wagner against Salafist guerrillas fighting out of the country’s north-eastern Cabo Delgado province. Reinforced by fighters from across East Africa, including Somalia, Wagner’s latest sub-Saharan venture has foundered in the face of well-organised and increasingly successful guerrilla resistance. Having sustained numerous casualties, Wagner mercenaries have apparently withdrawn more than 250 miles away from the Tanzanian border region, returning southwards to regroup and lick their wounds. According to Jasmine Opperman, a South African terrorism expert, this latest Russian venture bears all the hallmarks of prior unsuccessful interventions abroad. “The Russians don’t understand the local culture, don’t trust the soldiers [FADM] and have to fight in horrible conditions against an enemy that is gaining more and more momentum. They are in over their heads.”
The growing deployment of Russian troops on African soil has come largely as a response to the gradual retreat of U.S. influence from the region. Stemming from a refocusing of American priorities away from counterterrorism – and towards confrontation with Russia and China – the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Africa has been a key part of Donald Trump’s military agenda. The irony of this policy, that it invites America’s most erstwhile rivals to manifest themselves more prominently on the continent, is perhaps lost only on the President himself. With the bulwark of AFRICOM diminishing in significance, Vladimir Putin has been able to increase Russian influence exponentially, winning concessions for natural resources, alongside political amenability across a variety of African states. Both Mozambique and Libya have been targeted for their vas oil and gas reserves. Meanwhile, Russian contractors in C.A.R. have secured profitable diamond mining sites, amongst other mineral related holdings. In total, Moscow has signed over twenty defence-for-access agreements with African states since 2018, culminating in a summit of forty-three African leaders at Sochi in October 2019.
Thus, although Wagner has so far been unable to implement the style of Kalashnikov diplomacy it has so infamously deployed on Putin’s behalf in Syria and Ukraine, there is little to suggest a slowing of Russian encroachment in Africa. And whilever sanctions against Russia remain as inconsequential as many perceive them to be, grave human rights violations remain a distinct possibility wherever Moscow seeks to extend its reach. Although Wagner appears to have deployed only conventional weaponry in Mozambique, recent reports from Libya have suggested the outfit’s complicity in supplying either Sarin or white Phosphorus gas to General Haftar’s LNA forces. Exemplifying the Russian federation’s readiness to operate with impunity in foreign conflicts, ‘hidden’ behind the facade of PMC Wagner, such gross violations must be held to account. More forceful sanctions, which involve the U.N. and regional bodies such as the African Union, must be imposed to stem the Kremlin’s ruthless disregard for state sovereignty and human rights. At the moment there is little to prevent all theatres of Russian involvement from becoming laboratories of indiscriminate human slaughter. If this remains the case, the notion of a Russo-centric ‘‘evil empire’’ articulated during the Cold War may soon become a far more tangible reality.