The Wagner Group, which is fighting in Ukraine at the peak of Russian aggression, judging by American press publications, is not reducing its activity in Africa, where it helps authoritarian regimes and extracts minerals.
According to an April 23 Washington Post article, classified U.S. intelligence documents recently leaked online show that “Wagner is aggressively moving toward a ‘confederacy’ of anti-Western states in Africa, with Russian mercenaries fomenting instability by using their military and disinformation capabilities to support Moscow’s allies.”
The Washington Post notes that the mercenaries of “Kremlin chief” Yevgeny Prigozhin are active in a significant number of African countries, whose support has become extremely important for the Kremlin after it launched an open war against Ukraine. Wagner’s activities coincide with the efforts of the Russian Foreign Ministry, whose head, Sergei Lavrov, visited many African countries in 2022-2023. The newspaper also recalls that the second Russia-Africa summit is to be held this year, for which Vladimir Putin invited African leaders to come to Saint Petersburg at the end of July.
However, all of this, and especially the activity of the Wagner Group, may lead Russia to enter into direct competition with China for influence in Africa. So far, this has not been observed, but some recent developments, according to experts in Washington, can be considered in this light.
The assassination of Chinese specialists in the Central African Republic
At Georgetown University’s April 21 roundtable on Russian and Chinese actors in the African security landscape, one of the participants, Alessandro Arduino, an expert at King’s College London, said that “the Chinese companies in Africa face a growing atmosphere of uncertainty and danger.
“After the restart of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative in Africa after an enforced pandemic pause, there has been a significant increase in the number of Chinese workers on the continent. But in Africa, a new security actor has also emerged in recent years: the mercenaries of the Russian Wagner group, as well as other mercenary formations. Wagner is expanding his presence there, his footprint has become much more distinct and his interests are opposed to those of China,” notes the expert.
Arduino recalled a recent significant incident: “Despite the ‘boundless friendship’ proclaimed by Putin and Xi Jinping, the possibility of friction between them in Africa continues to increase. Recently, in the Central African Republic (CAR), there is had a horrific attack on a Chinese-run gold mine. It happened less than a month ago. Nine Chinese employees were killed and two injured. Some time earlier, another group of Chinese specialists had was abducted in the Central African Republic near the border with Cameroon. The perpetrators of these attacks and abductions have not yet been found, but Xi Jinping was extremely worried and demanded to find them, and local residents pointed to the possible involvement of mercenaries in these incidents.
In the statements of the opposition forces to the current authorities of the Central African Republic, it was said that the assassination of Chinese specialists at the Chimbolo mine on March 19 was the work of the “Wagnerians”, although the country’s government immediately accused opposition activists of committing this offence.
A month ago, The Daily Beast quoted Wilfrid Wondo, a member of CAR’s ruling United Hearts Movement party, as saying: “We can see a feud between CAR and China, on the one hand, and tensions between China and Russia. , on the other hand, especially if China is convinced that Wagner carried out the assassination. Many people are pointing the finger at the Wagner group these days and it could lead to disaster.
That the massacre of Chinese workers could be similar to the Wagner Group operation is not excluded by another participant in the Georgetown University roundtable, Marcel Plichta, a researcher and author of articles on American policy in Africa. He recalled that skirmishes between the “Wagnerians” and representatives of Chinese companies had taken place before:
“There are reports that Russian mercenaries have already taken two excavators from a Chinese company in the CAR, and also abducted or participated in the abduction of Chinese workers about two years ago. The current killing of Chinese specialists amounts to deliberate execution, which is very different from, for example, the actions of local militants: they usually kidnap people for ransom.
Marcel Plichta says that Russia naturally wants to avoid a deterioration of relations with China due to a possible rivalry in Africa, but this could still happen due to the rather weak control of the Russian authorities over the Wagner Group:
“Moscow, of course, does not want to allow Wagner to become the cause of its friction with Beijing, but in the case of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s subordinates, the question arises of how command and control functions can be exercised. to prevent possible conflicts. If everything is clear in the regular army, there is a chain of commanders who are subordinate to the leadership of the country, but this does not work with mercenaries.
Alessandro Arduino notes that the very way in which Yevgeny Prigojine’s mercenaries operate can lead China to consider them a hostile force: precisely interested in instability. She brings “managed chaos” through which she earns money and ostensibly provides security, in effect keeping tension alive in the places where she works.
According to an expert from King’s College London, the need for China to increase the presence of its security companies in Africa further increases the risk of clashes between Chinese citizens and Russian mercenaries:
“It is quite possible that the beginning of a serious rivalry between the representatives of China and Wagner, which at first glance does not look like hostility, but before that it may not be far away. China remains non-interventionist in the political affairs of the African countries where it operates, but it will obviously increase the size and professionalism of its companies dedicated to securing Chinese business. Generally, these companies do not currently have weapons, but they also contract with local armed units to provide security services.
The West is losing ground in Africa
However, according to experts, with all the possible competition in Africa, China and Russia are now increasing their presence and influence there, while the West, on the contrary, is losing it.
Russia, like China, offers weapons and economic projects to African authoritarian regimes unrelated to demands for democratization and improved human rights, experts say in an article in the Washington Post. Experts on the situation in Africa spoke about it earlier in an interview with the Russian service of American media.
Elijah Munyi, a professor at the United States International University in Nairobi, who participated in the Georgetown University roundtable, presented a statistical analysis confirming that African governments that are not interested in establishing ‘true democracy will look to China in particular for arms supplies and Russia more than to the United States and the West in general.
Migny pointed to another important feature: “The United States uses the term ‘great power competition’ everywhere, but in Africa – and certainly in smaller African countries – this term is not welcomed and rejected.”
According to the expert, one of the clearest examples of this is Djibouti:
“The Chinese military base in Djibouti, despite the fact that there is also an American military base, is a clear example of the reluctance to make a choice in ‘great power competition’, although at the same time Djibouti is buying weapons almost exclusively from China.”
Marcel Plichta believes that the United States should not expect a significant revision in the attitude of African countries towards Russian mercenaries because of the actions of the Wagner Group in Ukraine:
“Authorities in African countries are more likely to draw on the experience of Mali and the Central African Republic. Firstly because the actions of this group in Ukraine and in Africa are very different: in the Russian aggression, Wagner is an open assault force, it is not a question of economy, whereas in Africa these mercenaries engage in ghost and hybrid activities related to security, economic resources and propaganda”.
The latest example of the fact that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine did not significantly affect Moscow’s image among African countries, as well as the ability of China and Russia to cooperate with the Africa, including in the military field, is the February exercises of the naval forces of Russia, China and South Africa in the Indian Ocean Mosi II.
Washington reacted to this with concern, but, as experts point out, this did not hamper the exercise. The joint training of marines from the three countries took place at South African military bases.
The Washington Post article ends with a link to analysts’ view that “US investment in Africa pales in comparison to China’s vast infrastructure and lending program, while Russia is seen as offering more choice to African leaders who are hesitant to choose between Washington and , Beijing and Moscow.
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