The Russian Ministry of Defense has officially taken over Wagner’s activities activities in Africa, creating the “African Corps” (Afrikanskiy Korpus in Russian), a unit headed by Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. Russia claims that the Africa Corps, whose name was probably inspired by the infamous African Army of Feldmarschall Rommel, will help African states against terrorist threats. By taking over Yevgeny Prigozhin’s activities after his attempted coup in June 2023, Moscow is not hiding its interference in Africa anymore, after having denied it for a long time while using Wagner as a proxy. Prigozhin’s personal ambitions, halted by his brutal death, may well have forced Vladimir Putin’s hand.
The challenges of Russia’s new African policy
The creation of this new military structure implies two things. First all, Russia is formalizing its military presence on the African continent. A “nationalization” of the Russian mercenary group could have direct consequences for the stability of African countries, which are already weakened by systemic conflicts in the Gulf of Guinea, Central Africa, the Sahel, Libya and Sudan. Although Moscow is actively taking control of Wagner’s operations, it seems to be a slow process. In Mali and CAR, for example, Wagner continues to play a leading role, conducting military operations alongside local armed forces. The dependence of these juntas on Wagner’s services will likely make negotiations difficult. A few months ago, Central African President Touadéra opposed the replacement of Wagner leaders with individuals closer to the Kremlin. Furthermore, whose interests will this new unit really serve, those of the Russian regime or those of the African population? Wagner’s services are being paid directly by states that will be using them. In other words, Russia is selling its services, but at what price?
Economic cooperation or large-scale scam?
Artem Kureyev, member of the “Valdaï Club” and one of Moscow’s agents who is running the “Afrinz” media, repeats the Russian narrative: he speaks of a fair collaboration that will benefit both Russia and its clients. According to him, this system will only be effective if Russia develops its presence in African states which pay will for the services of its private army. How can this be achieved? By participating in “reforms”, by setting up strategic companies, or by hosting large numbers of African students. In other words, this “collaboration” will primarily benefit the Russian “big brother”, who seeks to control markets, monopolize resources and strengthen its political and economic hold on the continent. This operation is being carried out at the expense of African taxpayers, who will be charged by Russia for these services, taking advantage of the economic weaknesses and growing military dependency of some African regions.
A threatening soft power
When it comes to security issues, outsourcing counter-terrorism may initially have seemed like a good option. But the Wagner group has had disappointing results against terrorist groups in West Africa. On its Telegram channel, the “African Corps” explains that the organization is looking to recruit experienced veterans. This includes former members of Wagner, which have been guilty of and complicit in exactions against civilian populations on several occasions; and of the Russian army, known for its war crimes in Ukraine. The recruitment criteria announced by the unit are therefore hardly reassuring, as they do not correspond to pacification missions. The Russian MoD taking over mercenary activity also implies a budget increase and an acceleration of this process verging on enslavement.
Will Russia clash against China?
China and Russia have been actively developing their presence on the African continent since the early 2000s. This trend was accelerated with the coups in Mali, Burkina-Faso and Niger. China has been developing its economic influence and trade in Africa, notably within its “New Silk Road” project. While it is the leading trading partner of many sub-Saharan countries, it is seeking to increase its military presence, but has only one military base in Djibouti, which opened in 2017. Russia, meanwhile, is clearly betting on increasing its military presence, unable to compete directly with China’s investment in Africa. According to Valentina Matviyenko, President of the Council of the Russian Federation, these divergent interests are not a source of conflict. But in reality, this rivalry is likely to grow in the next few years and pose a serious threat to the security of the sub-Saharan region.