The primary driver of Russian expansion in Africa are Private Military Contractors (PMC). Exerting hard power, while maintaining plausible deniability for the Russian state, PMCs are active across Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and more. Providing a cheaper alternative to Russian army deployments, PMCs, like the infamous Wagner Group, enable Russia to generate economic outcomes. The mechanisms by which they do so, however, remain murky. I will therefore interrogate these processes, arguing that Russia’s strategy revolves around exchanging PMC-derived hard power for economic concessions and partnerships.
Russian influence in Africa
Russia relies on Soviet legacies to maintain and build its influence in Africa. With enduring historical ties rooted in Cold War geopolitics, Russia is less affected by accusations of neo-colonialism. It never held colonies on the continent and thus carries less baggage in its dealing with regional governments. Putin has promoted Russian partnerships as “no strings attached”, differentiating their agreements from those with former colonial powers which often demand political or structural economic reforms.
Russia has acted opportunistically to offer military assistance to states affected by civil war, social unrest, and terrorism. Wagner Group was sent to CAR in 2018 following the end of French peacekeeping mission Opération Sangaris and the failure of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force to disarm rebel groups. In Sudan and Madagascar, Russia answered calls for security assistance amidst social and political unrest. In Libya, up to 1200 Wagner troops directly supported Haftar’s LNA (Libyan National Army) 2019 Tripoli Offensive. Finally, Mali’s recent contracting of Wagner Group follows the gradual end of France’s counterterrorism mission Opération Barkhane, which has not solved lingering issues of terrorism in the Sahel, while significantly heightening anti-French sentiment in the country.
A clear strategic trend is therefore apparent, Russia is identifying African security vacuums and offering PMC-led military aid. However, such Russian military aid is not free, PMC forces are often deployed in exchange for economic concessions.
Russia’s geopolitical strategy
Putin believes Russia is a great power and should retain this position, no matter the cost. While Russia’s military power is widely recognized, the same cannot be said for its economy.
The Russian president employs a foreign policy that exploits Russia’s hard power to expand its economic ties. In what are known as “packages”, Moscow offers foreign governments PMC support in exchange for natural resource concessions and the opening of national markets to Russian companies. That African governments request assistance is crucial, as it gives Russian interventions a degree of legitimacy within the international community.
In the short term, Russia focuses on exploiting natural resource concessions. Such concessions are granted as direct payments for the deployment of Wagner Group forces. On top of natural resources, the Kremlin’s economic interests in Africa revolve around arms exports to the continent. These bilateral security ties provide billions to the Kremlin, essential for keeping foreign interventions going and financing the defence industry.
In the long term, Putin is looking to position Russian export companies at the centre of CAR’s, Libya’s, and DRC’s economies. Although these countries’ populations possess little purchasing power, this will not always be the case. Their large young populations represent key emerging consumer groups, thus far untapped by the global market. By stoking new, massive export markets for Russian companies, Putin is looking to plan ahead, positioning Russia to benefit from long term shifts in the global economy.
Finally, the Russian president seeks to establish a strong base of geopolitical influence in Africa. This would give Russia a foothold on Europe’s southern border, notably in Libya, boosting Russia’s geopolitical position vis-à-vis the EU. The Kremlin will continue to offer package deals to African countries with geographically strategic locations and maturing markets.
Plausible deniability and controlling PMCs
PMCs give Putin plausible deniability. They are neither part of, nor officially affiliated with, the Russian state, therefore the Kremlin cannot be held accountable for their actions. Furthermore, PMCs technically do not exist in Russia, as they are banned by the law. Employing these companies allows Russia is to mitigate scrutiny into its overseas operations, reflected by continued uncertainty about the exact number of Wagner personnel in Libya, CAR and DRC. The PMC’s covertness acts as force multipliers to contracting armies and to hide casualties from the general public.
Putin exploits the lack of legal status to control the PMCs, who suffer consequences when they step out of line, such as the shakeup of Wagner’s command after the battle of Kasham. Wagner Group is heavily connected to Russia’s military intelligence (GRU), its founder, Utkin, was the commander of the GRU’s 700th Special Forces Unit of the 2nd Separate Special Forces Brigade. Wagner Group’s headquarters are a shared military base with the GRU’s 10th Separate Special Purpose Brigade, based in Molkino, Krasnodar. The contractors receive passports from the Central Migration Office Unit 770-001, which are only issued for GRU operatives. In 2016, Putin honoured Utkin at a reception for the “Hero of the Fatherland Day”. When 33 Wagner Group operatives were arrested in Belarus during the 2020 presidential elections, Putin intervened personally to have them freed.
The lack of official connection between the contractors and the Russian state also makes their deployment far cheaper. A Wagner soldier’s monthly salary of $4,600 is almost four times that of a Russian soldier at $1,200. However, the mercenary’s salary, accommodation and equipment are paid by Wagner Group owner Prigozhin’s network, using income from the exploitation of natural resource concessions. Therefore, Russia deploys Wagner troops abroad with low financial drawbacks, only paying for transport and occasional medical treatment. By controlling Wagner’s operational capacity to deploy to conflict zones, the Kremlin’s exerts direct authority over the contractors.
Putin’s intercessions in favour of Wagner Group and the outfit’s very close ties to the GRU demonstrate a direct link between the mercenaries and the highest levels of the Russian state. These ties are further compounded by Putin’s inner circle often owning PMCs, natural resource companies and financial firms active in Africa.
PMC’s financial structure and economic interests
One man is at the centre of Putin’s private interests in Africa: Yuri Prigozhin. Kremlin insider and Wagner Group’s financier, Prigozhin was tasked to exploit African natural resources in exchange for Russian mercenary assistance. With Putin’s backing, the businessman set up contacts all over the continent, negotiating “package” agreements.
Prigozhin owns M Invest, an umbrella company that manages a mix of security and energy firms. Through this umbrella company, he secures natural resource concessions by negotiating “package” agreements in the Kremlin’s name. He then guards the natural resources with PMCs, exploits the resources with specialized energy companies, and distributes the profits amongst African partners, himself and likely the Kremlin. M Invest’s subsidiaries include Lobaye Invest, which extracts gold and diamonds in CAR, Meroe Gold, a gold mining operation in Sudan, and Sewa Security Services, which provides personal security for government officials.
Closely interlinked and with direct ties to the Kremlin, these companies further the interests of bigger Russian multinationals. For example, after a 9 month halt in operations that coincided with the Wagner-backed Tripoli offensive, Gazprom resumed operations in Libya in May 2021. The firm concurrently jumpstarted its pre-planned infrastructure expansion projects to boost gas production. This pattern of interlinked companies is repeated across the African countries where Russia has a significant presence.
Prigozhin is one of many oligarchs that control the system of highly interconnected security, energy and financial firms. Closely connected to these oligarchs, Putin, through his inner circle, stands to personally profit from Russia’s expansion into Africa. This operation is in line with the Russian President’s rule, defined by informal personal network connections and high military corruption.
In conclusion, Russian PMCs are a tool employed by the Kremlin to expand Russia’s economic, political and geopolitical influence in Africa. The contractors are at the heart of Russian strategy, which trades hard power assistance with natural resource concessions and long-term economic partnerships. Putin’s long-term strategy of gaining preferential market access to emerging African states furthers his Grand Strategy of maintaining Russia’s great power status. However, Putin’s private economic interests in the exploitation of natural resources points to an inability to separate personal gains from state governance. This blurring of the lines may hamper Russia’s long-term strategy on the continent. Nevertheless, in the short term, Russian PMCs are set to continue playing a defining role in Africa’s security sphere due to their efficiency and low operational costs.