Wagner Group: Russia’s International Influence Explained

This week, the European Union imposed sanctions on Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization accused of committing human rights abuses in the Central African Republic and further afield. The EU said in a statement that Wagner had recruited, trained and sent independent military operatives to war zones around the world, fueling violence, as well as unlawfully stealing natural resources and intimidating civilians. In August, the United Nations reported more than 500 incidents July 2020. Amongst those documented were extrajudicial killings, torture and sexual violence. As a result, the EU, one of the regions largest humanitarian donors, suspended its mission to help train CAR forces. This was due to concerns that Wagner mercenaries were commanding units the EU had assembled.

EU spokesperson Nabila Massrali said that Brussels was increasingly concerned by Wagner Group’s activities. Along with issues in the CAR, the UN says the group has carried out war crimes in Libya. “[T]heir legal status is vague, as are their modus operandi, objectives and targets,” Massrali said, explaining the difficulty of enforcing accountability for human rights abuses with “such ambiguity.”

Still, the group’s slippery nature possesses solid foundations. Despite Russia’s denials, the EU insists on connections between Wagner and the Kremlin. One of the parties sanctioned by the EU was Valery Zakharov, a former member of the Russian state security service, and a security advisor to CAR President Touadéra. According to the EU, Mr Zakharov is “a key figure in… Wagner Group’s command structure,” and maintains “close links with the Russian authorities.” The group is also believed to be funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a rich financier with links to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Prigozhin has consistently denied any connection with Wagner.

The main objectives of the group are, furthermore, congruent with Kremlin foreign policy: the suppression of pro-democracy protests, along with the extraction of natural resources like metals and diamonds. Candace Rondeaux, a senior fellow with the Centre on the Future of War, told Foreign Policy: “[I]t is extremely problematic that we continue to refer to them as the Wagner Group because it makes them sound like these ghostly operators that cannot be traced, and that’s just not the case.”

Wagner became prominent in 2014, when it fought alongside pro-Russian separatists in the annexation of Crimea. Since then, the group has gained influence in the Middle East, as well as central and southern Africa. The mercenaries now remain in CAR, a country embroiled in civil unrest since President François Bozizé was overthrown in 2013, to support incumbent President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in the fight against rebels still controlling large parts of the country. In 2017, after the UN Security Council approved a Russian training mission in CAR and did away with the 2013 arms embargo, President Touadéra signed a number of security agreements with the Kremlin. These included a petition for military support, in exchange for access to the CAR’s significant reserves of diamonds, gold and uranium.

In addition to Libya, the EU also brought attention to Wagner mercenary operations in Sudan and Mozambique. In the former, they have reportedly been involved in training, as well as protecting officials and mining sites. In Mozambique, Wagner has supported the army in its fight against Islamist insurgency. More recently, Mali, on paper a Western ally, announced it wanted to employ about 1,000 Wagner operatives to help provide security, as international interventions had not proved fruitful in forcing the country to consider alternatives. Wagner’s potential entry into Mali reminds many commentators of the way the group began operating in the CAR. And whilst the attention of the West remains fixed on Russia’s dispute at the Ukrainian border, Wagner Group’s African presence seems to be symbolic of the subtle influence that Russia, nonetheless, possesses beyond its own frontiers.