"Black Cat in a Dark Room": Examining the Impact of Russia's Wagner Group in the Central African Republic and Mali

This Argument appears in Vol. 75, No. 2, "War in Ukraine: The World Responds" (Spring/Summer 2023).

By Marco Mussa and Matvej Dubianskij


“[Africa] is not a major part of Russian foreign policy, but it’s like many things that Putin has done throughout his twenty years in power, which is to use things opportunistically.”[2]

— J. Peter Pham (former U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel under the Trump Administration)

Although the resort to private security providers goes back centuries, the modern understanding of the phenomenon, centered on the “corporate identity” of current private security and military companies (PSMC, also abbreviated PMC), emerged after the end of the Cold War. It is particularly during the 1990s that the “write a cheque and end a war” logic gained momentum, with some brilliant exploits—notably Croatia—followed by more controversial instances, such as Sierra Leone. In parallel, countries such as the United States started employing these actors to pursue an interventionist foreign policy without the risk of remaining stuck in muddy conflicts with national troops.[3] Others, especially in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, called for greater use of PSMCs to provide UN peacekeeping missions with ready-to-deploy divisions and avert similar tragedies in the future.[4]

Despite the benefits of resorting to private entities, which include their expendability (both political and material), flexibility, and arguable efficiency, many observers have drawn attention to the potentially disruptive effects of the “commodification of the use of force.”[5] Allowing other players to exercise military power in place of the government has led many to call for the diffusion of state authority.[6] As will be highlighted in the following pages, the idea of overcoming the state-centered, Weberian understanding of the monopoly on the use of force is not the only ground of concern vis-à-vis the privatization of security. Nevertheless, despite the criticisms voiced against the resort to PSMCs, they have gradually become a lucrative and geographically-widespread phenomenon, encompassing activities beyond mere war-fighting, such as consultancy, military training and logistical assistance.

One of the most well-known and recent examples of the privatization of security is the Wagner Group, the Russian private actor with murky ties to the Kremlin. Over the past decade, Wagner has progressively established itself as a crucial component of Moscow’s peacebuilding toolbox and, more broadly, of its foreign policy. If anything, this reality has been clearly evident during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Although the Group actively participated in the annexation of Crimea, as part of Russia’s contingent of “polite people” who took over the peninsula in 2014, and was later noted to have participated in the infamous battle of Debaltseve in January 2015, the group’s visibility reached new heights once Vladimir Putin announced the commencement of Russia’s “special military operation.”[7] Since then, Wagner, led by its chief Yevegny Prigozhin, has emerged as a leading force behind Moscow’s invasion, playing a crucial role in the Russian capture of Soledar in January 2023 while being engaged in the bloody Bakhmut offensive as of April. This newfound notoriety has been further amplified not only by the Group’s recruitment of prisoners to be used as “cannon fodder,”[8] but also by the growing public feud between Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry, whom the warlord accuses of upstaging, and undermining, the work conducted by the mercenaries.[9]

Wagner’s growing importance to the Russian military effort in Ukraine has catalyzed interest in the group within the international forum.[10] At the same time, its widespread presence in other contexts, such as Africa, has drawn little attention to its activities undertaken and its crucial role as part of Russia’s illiberal peacebuilding model. Deployed in multiple geographic areas to advance Putin’s strategic agenda, the African continent is where Wagner has recently played a more prominent role, particularly in Libya, Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), and others. Against this background, its increasing relevance has not heretofore been matched by adequate scrutiny. Both the literature on Russia’s foreign and security policies, and the one concerning PSMCs, have been, until recently, relatively underdeveloped concerning this specific actor. Wagner in particular has been fundamentally understudied, a lack made all the more visible by Moscow’s full-fledged invasion of its neighbor.

Furthermore, the nexus between Wagner’s activities and their implications on local peace and security has been largely ignored by in the debate. As such, in order to grasp the Group’s impact on those aforementioned dynamics, especially when it comes to the Ukrainian conflict and its future evolution, it is crucial to investigate its activities beyond the European theatre. Consequently, this work can be conceived as an attempt to fill this lacuna by looking at where the group has been active the longest, namely Sub-Saharan Africa. To this end, the paper will first introduce the conceptual frameworks employed, outlining the theoretical insights on the Russian peacebuilding and conflict management model, and those on the impact which resorting to PSMCs has on the state. Subsequently, two case studies—CAR and Mali—will be introduced, and the conceptual tools presented in the first section will be applied to these two geographical contexts. The objective is to highlight how the Wagner Group interacts with the contemporary African state and the broader illiberal peacebuilding strategy, and the repercussions that this interaction has elsewhere in the world.

Theoretical Frameworks

Russia’s “Illiberal” Conflict Management Approach

“Pax Rossica,” Moscow’s model of peacebuilding and conflict management, is arguably in its embryonic stages, lacking a comprehensive theoretical backbone or a cohesive doctrine. Nevertheless, the Kremlin’s form of mirotvorchestvo, which can also be translated as “peacekeeping,” first began to figure as a prominent component of Russia’s foreign and security policies with the rise of Putin in the early 2000s, in turn finding the nucleus of its identity in its “ideological and normative” opposition to the “liberal models of peacebuilding” and conflict resolution.[11] Scholars such as Roy Allison have noted that the theoretical and doctrinal divides in peacebuilding approaches between the Kremlin and the liberal West are, at their very core, linked to the phenomenon of “normative friction” which has arisen in light of Russia’s contemporary “quest for respect” and recognition as a great power and “equal partner” of the West.[12]

Moscow has long viewed the so-called “diffusion” of liberal norms across the world, and specifically within Russia’s post-Soviet “near abroad,” as a direct affront to the country’s identity as a sovereign state, as well as its “national security.”[13] Therefore, and somewhat unsurprisingly, the Russian government has long championed the primacy of sovereignty norms, which should, in Moscow’s opinion, be reinforced by a “strong state [structure] and a [bullet-proof] political order.”[14] Liberal ventures, such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), have in turn been portrayed by the Kremlin as simply a “fig-leaf” for “western-backed regime change,”[15] while liberal peace frameworks have been deemed inherently ineffective and destabilizing.[16] Furthermore, and most importantly, within the context of peacebuilding and conflict resolution, Russia has wholeheartedly prioritized “order over justice” or human rights, advocating for “short-term goals of conflict management” over long-term solutions[17] while simultaneously disregarding calls to address the “structural causes of conflict,” by “reducing opportunities and resources” for rebel and/or opposition mobilization through the direct use of “state coercion” and “hierarchical power structures.”[18]

Therefore, Russia’s so-called “counter-norm entrepreneurship” can be distinguished by a number of underlying principles which have defined Moscow’s engagements in conflict areas, ranging, most notably, from the Chechen insurgency in the 1990s to the Syrian Civil War in the past decade.[19] David Lewis has noted that the Kremlin’s approach is, firstly, based on the brute “use or threat of force,” seeing the Russian establishment combine potential mediation efforts with conventional coercion.[20] This emphasis on power projection also feeds into Moscow’s focus on the negotiations themselves, since although Russia leaves the door open to mediation with “multiple actors regardless of ideology,” it prioritizes such initiatives only from a “position of strength.”[21] Furthermore, the Kremlin also prefers to engage in “multipolar,” rather than multilateral, internationalized deals, believing that the key actors in resolving conflicts are “states… [rather than] international organisations [or] civil society.” This notion also inadvertently feeds into the final component of Russia’s conflict management approach: the West is, by its nature, viewed as a “problem, not the solution,” meaning that its involvement should be “managed and minimized.”[22]

In addition, the aforementioned principles, quite interestingly, overlap with the importance that Russia places on the control of so-called social domains” within a fraught context, specifically public discourse, physical space, and economic resources.[23] Moscow actively limits any attempts at open public discussion and communication, constraining dissenting voices through direct “hegemonic discourse,” which actively employs news and media sources in order to control knowledge production.[24] Moreover, the Kremlin’s conflict management approach makes good use of the “political, physical and symbolic dominance of space,” evident in military patrols, encampments and urban reconstruction, a framework which directly opposes “political autonomy or decentralisation for […] minorities.”[25] Ultimately, the economic components of the state are also weaponized with the primary aim of political stabilisation, with the Kremlin instituting a form of political economy, heavily based on corruption and rent-seeking, which “approximates” to a “hierarchical, single patron order.”[26]

The Wagner Group

Most importantly for the context of Sub-Saharan Africa, Moscow’s mirotvorchestvo has also manifested itself in the proliferation of Russian-backed PSMCs, especially the Wagner Group, a powerful security tool used by the Kremlin which falls directly within its illiberal peacebuilding and conflict management agenda. Many in the academy have grappled with defining the group and its actions, especially since, according to Kimberley Marten, Wagner “doesn’t fit well [into] any existing [PSMC] category or template in the literature”[27] and ultimately falls “outside widely used definitions…despite performing some similar functions.”[28] If anything, Marten suggests that Wagner should be conceptualized as a “semi-state informal security organisation,”[29] since it is not a true commercial entity which operates in a global marketplace, and neither is it a legally registered company in Russia, with the Russian criminal code directly outlawing the participation of mercenaries in armed conflicts or hostilities.[30] This ambiguous theoretical and legalistic existence, however, is at the core of why the Kremlin extensively relies on Wagner as a key “vehicle” to “recruit, train, and deploy mercenaries” either to fight wars, such as the ongoing one in Ukraine, or to “provide security and training to friendly regimes,” which can be seen in its activities in Africa and beyond.[31]

It is important to note that this obscurity also lies at the heart of the Group’s origins. It is claimed that Wagner was established by Dmitry Utkin, a retired colonel of the GRU, that is Russia’s military intelligence agency, and has, since 2013, expanded rapidly under the patronship of the Russian General Staff, seeing its first engagement during Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.[32] Consequently, Prigozhin was recruited to become the Group’s “patron,” having previously served as the caterer for Kremlin events, whilst also having headed the infamous Internet Research Agency (IRA), a so-called “troll factory” which sought to influence online political debates and “trash the reputation of internal critics.”[33] Under new leadership, Wagner began to bolster its operations in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, notoriously playing a key role as part of the Kremlin’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War, by “seizing and defending oil and gas assets” as well as “fighting alongside pro-Assad forces.”[34]

The PSMC’s opaque nature is further reflected by the inability to correctly assess “who its members are, their total number, and…capabilities.”[35] If anything, press reports from three years ago indicate that the Group is composed of around 3,600 to 5,000 fighters, a number which has, arguably, augmented following the initiation of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ vis-à-vis Ukraine.[36] Furthermore, a self-identified Wagner mercenary noted, in 2017, that, as a rule, Wagner’s members were “former cops, convicts, and soldiers,” with about “40 percent of them having [served] in prison.”[37] As such, the prospect of high salaries has been viewed as one of the “major attractions” in joining the Group, with some fighters also espousing patriotism and the need to “serve Russia” as key motivations.[38] In addition, the material supply of the PSMC has also lacked transparency, more recently coming to the fore in light of the spat between Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry over the supposed unwillingness of top armed forces officials to supply the mercenaries with ammunition for their operations around Bakhmut.[39] Although having been arguably resolved, the tensions indicate the continued dependence of Wagner on the Russian state, even despite the Group’s extensive oligarchic backbone provided by their leader.[40]

Accordingly, Wagner’s hybrid nature as a “mercenary outfit” makes it an effective tool at avoiding loss aversion and the attribution of coercion, since, according to Putin himself, Russian PSMCs are perfect “instruments for the realisation of national interests where the state itself does not have to be involved,” tools by which the Russian establishment can effectively offer “covert international assistance to allied regimes” while simultaneously avoiding the well-known “body bag effect.”[41] This nebulous existence is further reflected by the fact that Wagner straddles private and state interests, being both a cost-effective tool used by the Kremlin in order to achieve its policy objectives and advance Russian national security interests across the globe,[42] while at the same time serving the private interests of Putin’s close confidante Prigozhin. Wagner’s head actively profits from natural resources present in areas where the Group operates, thus enriching himself and, in turn, financing the respective group’s continued paramilitary, combat, intelligence, and protective operations.[43]

This symbiotic “blurring” of national and private interests[44] ultimately is a direct reflection of Wagner’s opportunistic and “reactive” nature.[45] The Group actively attempts to “fill vacuums where the West is absent,” with an “eye toward” exporting Russia’s coercive and hierarchical security resources. Such an approach gains particular traction in “weak or isolated states” which, by their nature, become highly susceptible to the Kremlin’s illiberal conflict management approach.[46] Furthermore, the recent fighting in Ukraine has indicated a transformation of the Group from a “shadowy” organization into a more “trusted, or at least necessary” auxiliary force in the trenches.[47] This dynamic, in turn, could potentially lead to the PSMC becoming a “more overt and institutionalized instrument” of Moscow’s hard power, a process which may further evolve as the conflict in Ukraine languishes on.[48]

PSMCs and their Relationship with the State

The impact of employing PSMCs on the physiognomy of the state has been a subject of considerable academic debate. Except for the Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI) dispatched to Croatia in the 1990s, academic analysis regarding PSMCs has progressively shifted geographical focus toward the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. The latter, where PSMCs have been frequently deployed to address violent inter-state conflicts, has provided compelling case studies on how the market for force has influenced the construction, and performance, of the state.[49] Looking at the African context, Deborah Avant has proposed that the effects of resorting to PSMCs depend on the capabilities of the state in which they are deployed: a weak state will be much more vulnerable to the risks entailed by privatization than a well-performing and legitimate one.[50] Along the same line, research on the privatization of security in weak states has identified a discrepancy between the immediate positive achievements of private contractors and their longer-term effects on state legitimacy and performance. In general, the research suggests that PSMCs usually accomplish positive results in swiftly re-establishing order and security in war-torn countries.[51] Evidence from Sierra Leone, for example, suggests that the highly-trained and well-equipped nature of PSMCs allows them to outmaneuver the often-disorganized rebel groups threatening the central government.[52]

However, while the immediate benefits provided by market forces in violence are evident, experts warn against the adverse, long-term effects that PSMCs have on the state. The first critical issue arises with respect to the control of the use of force. By involving other force providers, the state’s monopoly over the means of violence becomes ipso facto inevitably compromised.[53] On the one hand, this represents a viable path for those contexts where state armies are so corrupt and inefficient that they cannot perform even the most basic functions anyway. On the other hand, blurring the line between who is entitled to exercise legitimate force within state borders invariably increases the potential sources of violence and, in turn, the likelihood of emergent instability.[54] PSMCs can easily overstep legal boundaries—most notably international humanitarian law and human rights provisions—that otherwise normally restrain the government’s use of force, while even developing conflictual relationships with the state military.[55] Moreover, as highlighted by the Sierra Leone example, local militias trained by PSMCs can become a source of instability and act as spoilers to the peace process.[56]

The dispersion of authority over the use of force can also have serious implications for the broader performance of the state, especially when the entity financing the PSMCs is an external actor. Through the establishment of a market for force in weak countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the enjoyment of security can become tightly linked to the financial capabilities of the multiple actors present in the territory, such as foreign states, transnational corporations, international organizations, and the state itself. As pointed out by Anna Leander, a condition of “Swiss cheese” security coverage can emerge: with the ability to turn to the market, “the [state’s] need to recruit/conscript [...] diminishes, and with it the need to make concessions in terms of security coverage.”[57] Consequently, financially-weaker segments of the population are left uncovered by state protection, whereas those who can afford the PSMCs’ services contribute to the militarization of the area. Additionally, these phenomena often display a surprisingly obvious spatial configuration: players concerned with assets located on the state territory, be they resources or strategic infrastructure, will ensure the safety of that specific portion of land.[58] This is epitomized by the relative degree of stability characterizing mining areas in many African countries, achieved through the employment of PSCMs either on behalf of the foreign companies owning the mines or by the PSCMs themselves for their own personal interest.

Multiple researchers have highlighted how this growing presence of “corporate mercenaries” has fostered the militarization of African countries.[59] Nonetheless, this is not the only negative outcome of resorting to the market for force. By virtue of their expertise and efficiency, in contrast with many African states’ security forces, the role of PSMCs often risks expanding beyond their initial objective, namely fighting rebels, training the military, and providing technical assistance.[60] These actors strive to assert themselves as “security experts shaping understandings of and decisions about security,” contributing to the “securitization of a variety of issues.”[61] This condition translates into the increasing weight exercised by PSMCs on the government’s decision-making process, leaving unanswered the question of whether this influence is channeled to achieve what is best for the state, for the companies, or for the external actors financing them.

Case Studies

Far from taking for granted the alarmist tones which have often distinguished Western discourse around the relationship between African actors and Russia, it is still necessary to underscore how this cooperation has affected recipient countries. Therefore, by focusing on the actions of the Wagner Group in the Central African Republic and Mali, the following section will attempt to pinpoint the effects of Russia’s illiberal conflict management approach on the stability, performance, and shape of these two states. To do so, this analysis will first provide a brief overview of each of the existing conflicts before applying the theoretical lenses highlighted in the previous section to Wagner’s subsequent responses.

Central African Republic (CAR)


The Central African Republic (CAR) was a crucial interlocutor of Moscow throughout the Cold War, albeit losing much of its influence with the fall of Bokassa in 1977.[62] During the following decades, the relationship between CAR and the international community was characterized by its proximity to France, which continued exercising political influence on the country as confirmed by the multiple military interventions, the last of which was in 2012. However, after President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s seizure of power, the growing anti-French sentiment that had been accumulating over the years found momentum, resulting in the rapid deterioration of the relationship between the two countries. This, in turn, opened the gate to the increasing Russian involvement in CAR. Indeed, since his rise to power in 2016, Touadéra has engaged in conspicuous and diversified economic and diplomatic relations with Moscow, which in turn has seized the opportunity to extend its longa manus on Bangui and the region.[63] The current comeback in the diplomatic and strategic relationships between the two countries is crucially connected to the instability shrouding CAR. After independence, the CAR government struggled to establish “a centralised administration capable of exercising power over the entire state’s territory.”[64] Internecine violence and the continuous challenges posed to the central government by rebel groups have undermined the country’s stability since its origins. Wagner has been instrumental in securing Touadera’s regime from external threats, primarily the complex network of rebel groups that have repeatedly attempted to gain control of the country.[65] In 2020, when the situation worsened and the rebels entered Bangui, Wagner crucially assisted the government in repelling the enemy and later re-acquiring significant portions of the country. The group has grown to be an efficient and fundamental component of Touadéra’s war effort to crush the rebels and assert his rule on the rebel-held areas of the country. The deployment of PSMCs to CAR should therefore be understood within the context of the religious and ethnic tensions continuously shrouding the country.

At the same time, this involvement has generated significant controversy: journalists, NGOs, and the UN, among others, have repeatedly drawn attention to the human rights abuses and widespread episodes of brutality associated with Wagner’s actions in CAR.[66] Despite the gravity of the allegations, Touadéra and his administration have maintained strong ties to the Kremlin. Since 2020, Wagner has become increasingly embedded in the institutional and political architecture of the Republic: not only does the president’s personal security rely on Russian personnel, but even his security advisor, Valery Zakharov, is reportedly linked to Prigozhin and Wagner.[67] As many have observed, Zakharov’s role encapsulates the growing influence played by Moscow in CAR’s political system and decision-making processes.[68] From a technical perspective, Wagner has also started training the country’s military and civilians to integrate the state forces.


The engagement of Wagner in CAR provides compelling insights into the intersection between PSMCs’ impact on the stability and performance of the state and the Russian illiberal peace-building model. Coherent with previous analysis, employing PSMCs in CAR has been decisive in achieving immediate stability and restoring Touadéra’s control over critical portions of the territory.[69] This is not surprising, considering that the Russian illiberal peace-building model focuses on quickly re-establishing stability and achieving “short term goals of conflict-management.”[70] Nonetheless, this modus operandi is starting to present its disadvantages. Building on Avant’s research, it can be argued that the involvement of Wagner has increased the sources of violence in CAR. For instance, Russian mercenaries have trained local militias to integrate the state army and work as self-defense forces in specific districts.[71] However, these forces started acting violently and autonomously from the government, engaging in human rights violations against the civilian population.[72] In January 2022, dozens of civilians in the Ouaka district were killed, including a Bambari mayor, raising frustration among the population towards the militias and the Russian troops.[73] This is not the first time this pattern has emerged: in Sierra Leone during the 1990s, private security companies trained the Kamajors population, eventually giving rise to another violent player involved in the local conflict there.[74]

Not only has the presence of Wagner led to a multiplication of violent actors, it has also contributed to the further militarization of the region. As evidenced by a United Nations report, Wagner’s attacks against the rebels have caused rebel forces to increase their imports of weapons.[75] The escalation of violence in CAR can also be traced back to the very nature of the Kremlin’s peace-building model. Indeed, in order to quickly stabilize the area, the actions perpetrated by Wagner are pursued with a general disregard for human rights.[76] This dynamic is corroborated by other researchers, who suggest that PSMCs might display an enhanced inclination towards operating outside legal boundaries.[77] In CAR, Wagner is accused of many violations and abuses against the civilian population.[78] These actions have significantly targeted Muslim minorities, such as the Fulani, accused of hosting and helping the rebel groups, which is likely to foster hostility towards the government and bring new manpower in support of the rebels.[79]

Wagner appears to be contributing to the exacerbation of local grievances in CAR, rather than addressing the issues at the root of the conflict. On the one hand, the Kremlin has worked to achieve greater popular consensus toward its presence and actions in CAR through multiple propaganda tools. One example is “Tourist,” a propaganda movie recently distributed in CAR where Russian mercenaries are glorified as saviors fighting off the rebels.[80] On the other hand, affirming that Russia has gathered stable and substantial popular support appears highly unlikely.[81] The relationship with Russia has certainly benefited from the growing anti-French sentiment pervading the country. However, frustration towards the involvement of Russian mercenaries has already emerged on multiple occasions, with the local population criticizing the government for resorting to violent foreign actors to fight the rebels.[82] As much as the pragmatic approach employed by Moscow might bring immediate stability to certain areas, it is unlikely to achieve security and peace in the longer term. Ultimately, as previously highlighted, Moscow has never hidden its fundamental disinterest in solving the underlying causes of conflict or identifying durable solutions to end violence.

At the same time, Wagner has displayed a strong appetite for the natural resources present in the country, which speaks to the interplay between “Pax Rossica” and the repercussions that resorting to PSMCs has on the state. To understand how the presence of Russian mercenaries in CAR has reproduced the “Swiss cheese” dynamic in security provision, it is necessary to review the competition for the country’s natural resources. Since the beginning of Wagner’s involvement, the government has used vast deposits of diamonds, gold, and uranium to pay for the services provided by Russian mercenaries. Not surprisingly, Wagner’s military action has often targeted those areas where these deposits are located. Where it has been able to drive out the rebels, Wagner has often worked to safeguard mines and the surrounding territory. Strangely, it has at times also engaged in the provision of services and security by building hospitals and training local police.[83] In other instances, however, the mercenaries have killed civilians and burned villages in order to secure resource-rich territories.[84] In both cases, the government has decided to cede control of parts of these territories directly to Wagner.

The Group’s focus on pursuing specific interests has resulted in a situation where the provision of security is unevenly distributed on the state territory and concentrated in areas containing resources. Touadéra has even been accused of directing military operations toward resource-rich areas in order to secure rewards for the group.[85] The situation has been further complicated by the recent decision taken by Wagner to autonomously negotiate with the rebels and expand its control over other mines.[86] This choice aggravates the security fragmentation in CAR and reinforces the perception that the involvement of Wagner is producing a fragmenting of security provision. Natural resources have become the currency of security and protection in the country, with the poorer portions of the population suffering the abuses perpetrated by the rebels, Wagner, and the state itself.



The Malian state is, arguably, the newest Sub-Saharan recipient of Moscow’s “pragmatic” and “asymmetric” approach,[87] one which, just like in the case of the Central African Republic, is based on the logic of “financial and mineral concessions” in exchange for protection, and in particular for the Malian case, the “coup-proofing” of the junta regime.[88] Wagner’s arrival to the country, beginning in December 2021, has come at a time of increased instability of the Malian central government, which has been extensively plagued by a long-term insurgency against Islamic fundamentalist groups, specifically the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).[89] A military-led coup in May 2021, headed by Assimi Goita, has further destabilized the central government. This has been the third coup in a decade, and the second within just a nine-month time period.[90]

It is important to note that Mali’s counterinsurgency operations have long been tied to the lingering presence of France in the country. Even after Mali’s independence in June 1960, the former colonial power maintained its “preeminent [position]... as the [main] international partner” of Bamako, a reality that, up until recently, mirrored that of CAR.[91] This postcolonial security relationship saw Paris actively intervene in the country with Operation Serval in January 2013 and again with Operation Barkhane in August 2014. Both interventions were directed towards countering the metastasizing Islamist threat, as by that time it had essentially hijacked and capitalized upon a local insurgency led by the Malian Tuareg minority.[92] Nevertheless, France’s counterinsurgency operations, which occurred alongside the peacekeeping efforts of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), ultimately failed to quell the insurgency or bring about a political settlement between the central government and the Tuaregs.[93] Furthermore, Goita’s junta has sought to exploit the public’s growing perception of renewed French neocolonialism and “unilateral action,”[94] seeking, in turn, to displace the nation’s French ties with an illiberal security partner. Russia, it was believed, would not “demand respect [for] human rights” or a “democratic power-sharing arrangement” in Mali, instead being satisfied with opportunistic economic and power projection gains.[95]

Starting from early December 2021, the so-called “[semi-private] creature of the Russian state”[96] began to deploy its mercenaries within the Sub-Saharan country, constructing a camp just outside of Bamako’s Modibo Keita International Airport before expanding into the central regions of the country. This included the towns of Segou and Timbuktu, the latter having previously served as the former logistical base for France’s Operation Barkhane.[97] It has been estimated that as part of Moscow’s “security export” model,[98] approximately 1,000 Wagner troops have been sent into Mali to train local security forces, protect senior junta leaders, and conduct counterinsurgency operations, all for a monthly price tag of around $10.8 million.[99] In exchange, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), the military umbrella organization responsible for the wave of coups in the country,[100] has provided the Russian mercenaries with access to mineral locations in Mali’s Sikasso and Koulikoro regions. Both are known for extensive gold deposits, providing an exchange which clearly mirrors similar natural resource deals in CAR, as well as a similar arrangement in Sudan.[101]


Applying these theoretical frameworks to the the Wagner Group’s involvement in Mali makes evident that the Kremlin’s ambiguous, and at the same time militarily- and hierarchically-coercive, security engagements within the country are inherently “paradoxical.” They entail both “collaborative and disruptive modalities,” ones that ring true of Moscow’s illiberal conflict management approach and the undermining nature of PSMCs vis-à-vis the stability and longevity of the state, and the country, as a whole.[102] Although Wagner’s reported mission in Mali arguably appears “benign” on the surface, in that the group publicly argues that its relations with Bamako are based on the need to bring about much-needed peace and security to the fraught country, its actions are inherently opportunistic in nature.

Undeniably, Russia’s focus on coercive and military force, exemplified by the counterinsurgency operations conducted against both the JNIM and ISGS groups, has been able to bring about a certain element of swift stability to the Malian junta-led state.[103] Nevertheless, such so-called “stability” lacks the needed long-term goals of conflict resolution,[104] is highly reactive in nature,[105] and, if anything, is solely geared towards Wagner’s capacity to temporarily control the mineral and natural resources of the country.[106] Furthermore, the PSMC inherently feeds off, and actively seeks, a certain level of state and societal “instability” in order to justify Moscow’s greater involvement in the country and in the Sahel region in general.[107]

As previously noted, the Kremlin is not interested in “solving insecurity” within the Sub-Saharan nation, but rather is focused on “coup-proofing” Goita’s unconstitutional regime in exchange for influence and economic resources.[108] Vincennes Lamijon has noted that if Russia was indeed concerned with the jihadist threat in Mali, then it would be deploying its forces in the north of the country, rather than seeking to gain small symbolic victories in the central regions.[109] Similarly, Russian expert Sergey Sukhanin has highlighted the fact that Russia’s opportunistic tendencies have also meant that there has been no evidence, as of yet, of Wagner’s “decisive military successes” against the Islamists, and, most importantly, it is highly doubtful that a single PSMC will be able to “destroy the backbone of insurgencies across Sub-Saharan Africa.”[110] The case of Mozambique illustrates precisely this dilemma, in that in the battle against the terrorist threat within the Cabo-Delgado region, Russia’s expediency trumped any attempts to comprehend “local customs, traditions or … surroundings” while suffering from its hierarchical coercive strategy, which did not even attempt to find “[any] common ground with the local [population] … or the local government forces.”[111]

As such, although Moscow has, to an extent, successfully implemented its illiberal conflict management approach in Mali in the short-term, the Kremlin’s use of its hybrid PSMC within the country has left a lot of longterm security and societal externalities that are, by their nature, bound to weaken Malian state institutions even further. Although Moscow has adhered to its principle of eliminating the West, and in this case France, as a potential “problem” to its operations,[112] there is a high possibility that the newly-created power vacuum will lead to a further “metastasization” of the jihadist insurgency within Mali and among other West African coastal states,[113] a dynamic which has been presaged by a recent expansion of terrorist activities within land-locked Burkina Faso and Chad.[114] This reality has also been exacerbated by Goita’s “unstable” and unaccountable authoritarian regime, which has been emboldened by Moscow to “renege” on its pledges to restore civilian democratic rule to the nation by February 2022,[115] instead relying on the international, and diplomatic, protection afforded by the Kremlin to “hold onto power, without [the prospect of democratic] elections until at least 2026.”[116]

Furthermore, this problem has further been exacerbated by the fact that one of Wagner’s greatest appeals to the Malian junta has been the mercenaries’ known “tolerance [of] human rights abuses” and lack of “accountability requirements from host nations,”[117] a dynamic which reflects Moscow’s adherence to the “moral” prioritization of “order over justice” by any means necessary.[118] Human Rights Watch has noted that Wagner has essentially made civilian harm “part and parcel” of its operations in Mali, with civilian fatalities spiking in the first quarter of 2022, compared to the entirety of the previous year.[119] One of the most notorious massacres recorded so far has been the killing of more than 300 civilians in the central Malian town of Moura in late March 2022, which the Malian Armed Forces, and the Russian mercenaries, justified as an expected by-product of their coercive counter-terrorist operation within the region.[120]

This dynamic, in turn, has prompted experts from the UN Human Rights Council to call for an investigation into Wagner’s activities in January 2023, noting that they shared a set of “allegations” with the Malian authorities, while stopping short of saying how many people have fallen victim to human rights abuses.[121] Nevertheless, despite Moscow’s proclaimed tough approach, multiple experts, including Alexander Thurston, have noted that such widespread violence against the local population has been inherently feeding into the “endogenous dynamics” of instability and conflict within the region.[122] The cycle of violence has intrinsically “worsened Mali’s broader conflict ecosystem” by stripping the civilians of any sense of safety, and, in turn, pushing them to “look elsewhere … such as towards communal militias and jihadists” for protection and basic social services.[123]


Moscow’s engagements on the African continent are not new: they have a complex and extensive legacy, one which dates back to the Soviet Union’s desire to bring the newly decolonized African nations into the socialist fold.[124] Although Russia stumbled greatly in the 1990s, this piece has highlighted the resurgence of the Kremlin’s “pragmatic” and “asymmetric” approach towards nations such as the Central African Republic and Mali, a “security export model” shown to be extensively based on Moscow’s interpretation of “Pax Rossica” while at the same time heavily reliant on the use of the so-called “secret arm of the state”—that is, PSMCs such as the Wagner Group.[125]

This article has argued that ultimately Moscow’s engagements with both Bangui and Bamako have been based on a formula of mutual opportunism and “reactivity,” one which, although providing temporary security and stability against Islamist insurgents and opposition rebels, is not sustainable in the long-term and can be expected to further exacerbate the cycles of violence in both contexts.[126] The Wagner Group’s hierarchical empowerment of autocratic elites, resort to extensive force, and complete lack of accountability in the face of various human rights violations have all been shown to inherently subvert the tenure and stability of the state and, concurrently, state institutions in both CAR and Mali.

The interplay, and complexity, of these aforementioned dynamics are further brought to light when one begins to consider Wagner’s activities in Sub-Saharan Africa with the Ukrainian context in mind, especially in light of Moscow’s extensive use of the Group in its military engagements against Kyiv. As noted prior, the PSMC’s highly active and visible involvement in the conflict, coupled with Prigozhin’s desire to seek a “more prominent role as a public [political] figure,”[127] may result in a potentially similar shift in the Group’s operations in Africa, perhaps defined by a move away from “shadowy” to more “showy intervention modalities.”[128] Conversely, certain dynamics visible during Wagner’s involvement on the continent might also hint at future developments with regard to its conduct in Ukraine. An example concerns the PSMC’s recent exploits in Soledar: multiple observers have claimed that Prigozhin’s interest in capturing the town extended beyond its mere strategic value and was further motivated by a desire to gain control over the town’s vast salt and gypsum mines.[129] If that were the case, the situation would not differ from the Group’s conduct in CAR and Mali where, as noted prior, it has engaged in seizing local natural resources as a form of “war bounty” and payment for its services.[130]

This research, in turn, lends itself well to further explorations of the continuously evolving nature of Russia’s influence and presence on the African continent—and wherever else Wagner’s services are being employed. Sukhanin has speculated that global power shifts may soon give birth to a configuration of forces in Africa reflected by the formula “China—money, Russia—muscles,” a notion that rings particularly true considering growing reports that Moscow’s ‘security model’ has found new partners on the continent, notably Burkina Faso.[131]

Furthermore, in light of the Kremlin’s growing isolation on the global stage following the February 24th announcement of its “special military operation,” African nations are increasingly being viewed by Moscow as “attractive allies,” not only because of their ability to field diplomatic votes in major international organizations but also as agents that could help mold, and promote, Russia’s “anti-liberal,” statist normative framework.[132] As such, the upcoming Russia-Africa Summit of July 2023 may ultimately emerge as a primary vehicle of cooperation between the two sides, paving the way for further expansion of Moscow’s asymmetric, illiberal, and mercenary-led framework across the continent—and potentially beyond.

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[3] Deborah Avant, “Dilemmas in State Regulation of Private Security Exports,” in The Market for Force (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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[103] Leander, “The Market,” 11.

[104] Lewis, “Contesting Liberal Peace ,” 654-655.

[105] Sukhankin, Russian Private Military Contractors in Sub-Saharan Africa, 27-28.

[106] Bermudez, Doxsee, and Thompson, “Tracking the Arrival,” Center for Strategic & International Studies.

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