The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today we shed light on the consequences that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s attempted coup in Russia will have on the Wagner Group’s presence and interests in the Middle East and Africa.
Although unsuccessful, the Wagner rebellion in Russia marks a significant event in the evolution of the group’s relationship with the Russian state, as well as its foreign missions. The attempted coup’s consequences on the regions where Wagner is active remain unclear. Including in the Middle East and Africa, where Wagner has been active for the past decade, with the purpose to bolster Russia’s military, economic and strategic interests. Over ten thousand members of the company are estimated to be stationed across Syria and the African continent (primarily active in Libya, Mali, Sudan, and the Central African Republic), providing paramilitary aid and security assistance. Prigozhin’s rebellion casts a shadow on the future of these ‘missions’. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has reassured Middle Eastern and African allies that Russia’s armed forces will remain, and that Moscow won’t withdraw Wagner mercenaries from their countries. While the strategic importance of Wagner’s presence in the region for the Kremlin cannot be understated (particularly since the invasion of Ukraine), the future of state-non state Russian forces in these countries is blurry. What repercussions may the intra-Russian military rivalry have on Russia’s African and Middle Eastern missions?
Experts from the ISPI network analyse the consequences that Wagner’s mutiny will have on their Middle Eastern and African missions.
Libya is and will remain strategically important to Moscow
“For at least 5 years, Libya witnessed a strong presence of the infamous Russian Wagner Group. The private military company has been providing aid and support to the forces of the ‘strongman of the East’, General Khalifa Haftar, effectively operating on behalf of the Russian Ministry of Defence and state apparatuses. The group’s presence has remained significant even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: an estimated 1.200 mercenaries have been withdrawn from the Arab country and relocated to Eastern Europe, leaving Moscow with a presence of another 1.000 units approximately, which still makes one of the biggest Russian ‘missions’ across the Middle East and Africa. This should not surprise: Libya is strategically important to Moscow for its connections to Sub-Saharan Africa and especially the Sahel, besides being seen as an epicentre of Mediterranean politics. As Prigozhin’s attempted mutiny has upset precarious equilibria among Russian state and non-state military branches, all eyes are now on those contexts where these two interact, including Libya. This is all the more true as a drones attack last week has struck the al-Kharrouba air base in Eastern Libya, south-east of Benghazi, where Wagner group contractors are believed to be stationed. The attack’s origins remain unknown at the moment. Its timing and context in which it happened, however, cannot be ignored, as the strikes coincide with the Russian state efforts to spoil the private company’s activities in African countries where it operates.”
Chiara Lovotti, Research Fellow and MED Scientific Coordinator, ISPI
Wagner’s operations in Mali and throughout the region will not be liquidated
“Changes in the Wagner’s leadership and structures in Africa and the Middle East may well take place and the group may be renamed or even broken up into smaller entities, but this tool of the Kremlin is unlikely to be liquidated for several reasons. First, Wagner-Ukraine operations have been substantially separate from its Africa and Middle East operations. Second, Wagner’s operations in Africa and the Middle East remain of high utility to Russia and converting these operations into deployments of the formal Russian military would carry too high costs for Russia and host governments. Nor can various African and Middle Eastern countries that have signed up Wagner easily fire it. For example, as the Malian junta under Wagner’s influence pushed the French military out of the country in 2022 and recently asked the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali to leave, the junta is more than ever dependent on Wagner’s forces in the country. Wagner has been as lousy at the counterterrorism mission in Mali as elsewhere in Africa, but it also provides praetorian services to the regime, its principal selling point.”
Vanda Felbab-Brown, Director, Non-State Armed Actors Initiative; Co-Director, Africa Security Initiative; Senior Fellow, The Brookings institution
Wagner’s network in the Central African Republic will remain, but with trusted Kremlin men at the top
“Of all the countries in which it operates, the Wagner Group is most deeply entrenched in the Central African Republic. In addition to providing training and combat assistance, Wagner and its affiliates are closely involved in various government functions, ranging from managing security to performing basic bureaucratic functions. At the same time, other Wagner-linked entities have secured industrial-scale mining concessions and access to other natural resources, as well as control over local media outlets. All of this could provide significant financial and strategic value to whoever controls Wagner and its wider network of companies going forward. It would be difficult to dislodge and replace Wagner in CAR, given the group’s existing relationships, knowledge, and operational infrastructure. Therefore, I would speculate that Russia will most likely attempt to replace Wagner’s leadership in CAR with individuals loyal to the Kremlin while keeping the operational structure relatively intact. This would ensure both continuity of operations and could also reassure the Touadéra regime amid ongoing uncertainty about the future of their partnership with Russia.”
Catrina Doxsee, Associate Director and Associate Fellow, CSIS
The Impact of Wagner’s coup attempt on Sudan is unlikely to be a game changer
“Over the past few years, Wagner’s presence in Sudan has generated profits for the group’s own business networks, while also benefiting the Russian state (e.g. strengthening Moscow’s footprint, and ensuring gold supplies that can help Russia’s economy to offset the impact of sanctions). After Wagner’s coup attempt, the Kremlin may try to bring the group’s operations in Africa – including in Sudan – more closely under its control. It is unclear, however, what results these efforts could have, given Wagner’s entrenched presence on the ground, where it enjoys its own local connections and business interests.
Regardless of the outcome of this dispute, the Wagner-Kremlin showdown is unlikely to be a game changer for Sudan’s conflict. This is partly because the roots of the conflict are largely domestic (a power struggle between the SAF and the RSF), and partly because Russia’s influence in the country is limited, especially as compared to that of other foreign actors (most notably Egypt and the United Arab Emirates).”
Guido Lanfranchi, Research fellow, Clingendael
The UAE and Russia: has Abu Dhabi backed the right horse?
“Last month, the President of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed, was the guest of honour at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russia’s largest forum. The visit was coined a “positive calculated risk” by numerous media outlets, a statement further supported by the diplomatic adviser to the UAE, Anwar Gargash. Following Prigozhin’s Wagner mutiny, speculation arose on whether some MENA countries, including the GCC monarchies, which have shown diplomatic and political support for Putin, may have misplaced their faith. Whether for the UAE it is a “calculated risk” or geopolitical necessity to maintain relations with Russia, time will show. The outcomes of the Ukraine war shall play an important role, alongside the challenge of balancing relations with Western partners. At this point it is clear: Abu Dhabi takes an active stance in seeking a mediation role in the Ukraine crisis. Should it succeed and aid in reaching an end to the Ukraine war, the UAE will reach further global recognition; so, why not risk a bet on the right horse, and invest in facilitating much-needed peace?”
Diana Galeeva, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford