How Russia uses shadowy private military contractors to expand its influence in Africa
Russia is utilizing private military companies (PMCs), notably the Wagner Group, to isolate and control at-risk African countries. The use of PMCs is a facet of Russia’s reflex control strategy which applies soft power to influence and destabilize a nation before wielding direct control. U.S. national security is threatened both by its loss of regional control in Africa and by the overall strategic threats that Russian PMCs pose. The U.S. must immediately begin bolder measures of subversion, including directly countering PMCs in Africa.
The History of PMC Development
Russian expansionism is characterized by its commitment to use reflex control to subvert and dominate, covertly securing a country’s support before stepping in with the use of hard power to solidify control. The reelection of Vladimir Putin in 2012 catalyzed a new era in international Russian aggression through asymmetric warfare. He is explicit in his desire to inaugurate a “post-liberal international order that validates governance models other than democracy.” 
Russia began expanding and strengthening its diplomatic ties in Africa after annexing Crimea in 2014 and being sanctioned by the EU, U.S., and Canada.  Between 2014 and 2018, Russia signed at least 19 military collaboration agreements with sub-Saharan African governments. 
Russia finds the use of PMCs particularly useful in its expansion of power. PMCs have never technically been legalized by the Russian government, and mercenaries were outlawed in March 2019 in Article 359 of the criminal code.   However, PMCs are foundational to Russia’s “hybrid warfare” strategy because they allow the Kremlin to push Russian expansion through entities not technically sponsored by the state, allowing Moscow some measure of deniability for PMC brutality.  Ten years ago, PMCs only occupied two countries; today, they are active in at least 27. 
There are four main driving factors behind the development of PMCs. First, post-USSR tensions intensified regional conflicts in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Tajikstan, Chechnya, and the Balkans, creating war-hardened nationalist fighters who were later grafted into PMCs.  Second, small private armies emerged to protect the oligarchy after the growth of organized crime in Russian society in the 1990s.  Third, the end of the Cold War renewed the use of private security companies (PSCs)—the predecessors of PMCs (for instance, the Moran Security Group was foundational to the Slavonic Corp Limited PMC, the predecessor of the extremely influential Wagner Group).  Fourth, patterns of confrontation beginning in Ukraine in 2014, Syria and Libya in 2015, and Latin American and sub-Saharan Africa in 2017, established PMCs as an effective tool for covert Russian expansionism. 
The Wagner Group is currently the most active of the Kremlin’s PMCs and is led by Russian financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch and member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.  The Wagner Group is skilled at implementing hallmark Russian tactics of destabilization, including running disinformation campaigns, exporting arms, and propping up unaccountable leaders. 
Why Russia is Targeting Africa
Of critical importance is Russia’s increasing use of the Wagner Group to control Africa, where they currently operate in 16 different countries.  “Africa is an attractive target of Russia’s strategy for creating a post-liberal international order, in which unconventional tactics undermine democratic governance and expand Moscow’s global influence.”  As of late, Russia has likely seen a bigger increase in its influence in Africa than any other foreign country. 
The Wagner Group operates by offering to help struggling African governments’ counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts.  As payment, Russia asks for natural resources, commercial contracts, and access to strategic locations like airbases and ports.  Russia thus isolates vulnerable African leaders, making them beholden to the Russian government.  The success of their influence was apparent when, in December 2019, African countries “contributed 30 of the 79 votes supporting a successful Russia-backed resolution at the United Nations calling for a new global anti-cybercrime treaty that rights groups argue could place a chilling effect on free speech and access to information.” 
How PMCs Use Soft Power
PMCs are successful because they do not begin expansion through the use of hard power. Rather, they inflate Russia’s international perception as a Great Power and wait to seek direct control until after Russia is both accepted and feared by African leaders. This is a revival of an old KGB strategy and included in the Gerasimov Doctrine which made disinformation an official tool of the Russian government.  “Kremlin uses a complex set of narratives, systematic and coordinated attacks at the same time with a less professional and more interest-enforcing intention.” 
The use of disinformation by the Wagner Group and other PMCs is pervasive. In October 2019, Facebook removed 3 Russian-linked accounts operating in eight African countries including the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, and Madagascar.  Over 18 months, these networks created 73 fake pages which distributed 48,000 carefully crafted pieces of Russian propaganda, generating 1.7 million likes from individual users and 9.7 million interactions.  In December 2020, analysts discovered that PMCs were using WhatsApp to link fake news stories deriding American-made vaccines and promoting clinically untested Russian vaccines like Sputnik V. 
Disinformation propagandists such as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) “seek to ignite social conflict within societies and undermine support for democracy,” even attempting to manipulate Madagascar’s 2018 presidential election.  Unsurprisingly, the IRA is reportedly bankrolled by Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group.  Sometimes the propaganda efforts are less overt, like the two action films set in the Central African Republic and Mozambique which portray “Russian mercenaries as heroic fighters against evil rebels”—films also reportedly financed by Prigozhin companies. 
PMCs in Mali: A Case Study
The Wagner Group and Russian government’s success in progressing from soft power expansionism to hard power directives is being played out in Mali. For several years, Russia has sought to expand its influence in Mali, using disinformation campaigns to prepare for an increased presence.  In 2019, Russian disinformation campaigns were key factors in inciting unrest and protests that led to the overthrow of the democratically elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) in August 2020.  Mali endured two coups d’état in less than a year. The fears of the struggling Malian government were compounded by France’s withdrawal of troops from its bases in northern Mali.  Though France pledged to continue supporting the government, their withdrawal pushed Mali’s leaders to search for an additional source of stability.
While France was withdrawing troops, Russia was curating a positive perception in Mali through disinformation campaigns. A poll conducted in Bamako, the capital of Mali, in October 2021 found that: 90% of the residents had a favorable opinion of Russia, 79% had a favorable opinion of the Wagner Group, and only 8% had a favorable opinion of France.  Comparatively, polls from the same year conducted in 17 Western and South Pacific countries with advanced economies found that the median positive confidence rating in Putin was 22%, and a similar poll conducted with 14 of the same countries found that the median percentage for international respect for Russia was 29%.
In the words of Moussa Troure, who was attempting to justify a demonstration in Bamako calling for Russian intervention, “We did it because we believe the army means well for Mali and deserves the support of every Malian… Russia loves us.”  This demonstration was initiated in May 2021 by another disinformation campaign on the part of Russia and featured “hundreds of pro-military demonstrators marched from the central square to the Russian embassy while waving Russian flags and holding anti-French signs.” 
As reported by Reuters on 13 September 2021, Mali agreed to let in at least 1,000 mercenaries from the Wagner Group, although they denied this following charges by 15 Western countries.   In recent weeks, the mercenaries arrived, some of them even occupying abandoned French bases.  The Wagner Group mercenaries are reportedly receiving $10 million USD each month from Mali’s military junta which has since asked France to immediately withdraw its remaining troops.  The field is clearing for Russia’s use of hard power in Mali, and the Malians are inviting them in.
The Dangers Posed by PMCs
The Wagner Group’s recent actions in the Central African Republic (CAR) demonstrates the sort of destruction that the PMC inflicts on countries it occupies. UN human rights expert Yan Agbetse detailed the testimony he received of the atrocities perpetrated against CAR civilians by around 3,000 Wagner Group mercenaries, including destruction of homes, sexual violence, torture, racketeering, and mass executions.  There are reports of at least 240,000 CAR civilians fleeing their homes because of the PMC’s sharp escalation in violence.  One wonders how long it will take for these atrocities to extend to Mali.
The West will also acutely feel the loss of Mali. On 17 February 2022, France announced its complete withdrawal from the country since “the political, operational and legal conditions were no longer met.”  IBK was an “essential ally for the West — particularly France — in the fight against jihadis in the Sahel.”  Bakary Sambe, director of the African Center for Peace Studies at the Timbuktu Institute commented, “Russia has been able, for the time being, to win the battle of communication in this war of positioning and influence in the region.” 
What the West will feel even more acutely than the loss of Mali is Russia’s perfecting of the use of PMCs to gain strategic advantages in foreign policy, military, intelligence collection, economics, politics, and in informational and ideological warfare. 
If the United States hopes to counter Russia, it must directly confront the threats posed by Russian-backed PMCs. Foreign direct investment and trade with Africa are not enough, as the U.S. already out-spends and out-trades Russia in Africa.
The U.S. might begin its approach in three ways. First, the U.S. must increase its own local reporting efforts in African countries and allow for communication with Western news sources. Second, the U.S. must detail and condemn the efforts of Russian sponsored PMCs, informing the African public especially. Third, the U.S. must work with Europe to ensure that the West has a strong and unified front against both external threats like Russia and internal African threats such as terrorists. The West cannot continue its trend of creating power vacuums for threatening “peace-keeping” actors to fill. The West will not successfully combat subversive Russian reflex control tactics until it understands the nature of ideological warfare and takes definitive steps to counteract it.
 Kyle Hiebert, “Russian Disinformation Is Taking Hold in Africa,” Centre for International Governance Innovation, 17 November 2021, www.cigionline.org/articles/russian-disinformation-is-taking-hold-in-africa/.
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Picture: The coup has left one of the Sahel’s most strategic nations with a leadership void © John Kalapo/Getty Images | www.politico.eu/article/mali-coup-explained/