Russia’s Wagner Group is expanding into Africa’s Sahel with a new brand

MOSCOW, October 1, 2023: People visit a makeshift memorial for Wagner private mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in central Moscow on October 1, 2023, to mark 40 days since his death according to Orthodox tradition.

Natalia Kolesnikova Afp | Getty Images

The Wagner Group has been replaced by a new entity known as Russia’s Africa Corps in its key strongholds on the continent, its new leader has confirmed.

The founders of the notorious mercenary organization, Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, were killed in a plane crash in August 2023, two months after they led Wagner fighters on a march through Moscow to attempt a mutiny against the country’s defense forces.

The paramilitary contractor has an established presence in a number of politically volatile African nations, including the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and Sudan, and is now seeking to gain ground in Burkina Faso, which has been ruled by a military junta since a January 2022 coup. .

However, since the deaths of Prigozhin and Utkin, the future of his role on the continent has been shrouded in uncertainty.

“We continue to work on the African continent and we continue to work in Belarus. We continue to work for the good of Russia,” new leader and Wagner veteran Anton Yelizarov said in a video last week.

“We are working successfully. I am at the headquarters of the group in the Cossack camps. We are building a camp so that the new units that will be formed — which will become part of the volunteer corps of the Russian National Guard — can arrive and settle.”

Gelizarov added that what is now the African Corps “has always defended, is defending and will defend the people of the Russian Federation and the interests of the Russian Federation, and we will do so anywhere in the world.”

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The African Corps said publicly on Telegram in late January that it had deployed 100 personnel to Burkina Faso to assist current leader Ibrahim Traore in fending off Islamist insurgencies in the Sahel region.

The new entity has been undertaking operations in Mali and Libya for several months, and negotiations are reportedly underway to establish a Russian military base in the CAR.

Analysts at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw believe new units will likely be developed in the Sahel states, KARDA and Libya, although contracts with local governments will dictate the scope of the group’s activities.

Unrestricted access to transport hubs in Libya and Algeria will be “a prerequisite for the smooth operation of Russian military forces” in the Sahel states, senior fellow Piotr Żochowski and researcher Miłosz Bartosiewicz said in a report last week.

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“The African Corps consists of mercenaries and volunteers and is not part of the Russian Armed Forces. It started recruiting in December 2023 and has also included job offers for former Wagner Group mercenaries. It can also recruit locals,” they explained. .

“The formation of the Africa Corps under the umbrella of the Russian Ministry of Defense shows that an effort is underway to put things back in order after the dismantling of the Wagner Group, as the Corps is set to take over its operations.”

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov oversaw the creation of the Africa Corps, which is expected to be fully completed by this summer.

The CES suggested that the arrival of 100 African Corps personnel in Burkina Faso marks “both an expansion and formalization of the Kremlin’s military presence in the Sahel region,” a cause that would be furthered by the establishment of a military base in CAR.

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Yevkurov made several trips to Africa before the Burkinabe deployment, while Moscow opened its first embassy in Ouagadougou in more than three decades as Russia continues its efforts to fill the security vacuum left by the withdrawal of French troops from many former countries of the country. colonies in recent years.

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“The military juntas that have seized power in many countries in the Sahel region in recent years see Russia as a protector both domestically and internationally and wish to cooperate with it in the field of defense,” Żochowski and Bartosiewicz said.

“While the stated aim of the Africa Corps is to provide assistance in the fight against jihadism, its presence on the continent will primarily serve to expand the Kremlin’s military, political and economic footprint.”

Many analysts also believe the new leadership will be keen to expand into Niger, a move that will be complicated by the presence of a major US drone base inside the country, where a military junta seized power in July last year.

Amid a worsening security situation across the Sahel, the juntas ruling Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger formed the “Sahel Alliance” and last month announced their unilateral withdrawal from the Western Economic Community of Africa (ECOWAS), a move by many analysts. he saw as paving the way for greater security cooperation with Moscow.

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