Putin has just become even more dangerous

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 25 August 2023. © Richard Kemp

Those predicting the decline of Russian influence in Africa after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s suspected assassination could not be more wrong. Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, is right to think that, under Putin’s direct control, Wagner will become even more effective – and more dangerous. He was talking about the threat in Eastern Europe, but the same applies elsewhere in the world, especially Africa where Wagner has fuelled instability, bolstered authoritarian regimes and plundered natural resources.

We don’t yet know how Wagner will be restructured or led in the post-Prigozhin world, but those are second order questions. The most important fact is that the group’s malignant political, military and economic activities will undoubtedly endure. They are far too valuable for Moscow to allow them to wither, given the group’s ability to insert itself in key strategic regions and fuel anti-Western sentiment. To see how effective this has been, just look at the influence they have over the government of Mali.

As commercial contractors, Wagner fighters are able to project Russian military force where its open use would be politically impossible. Economically, too, the group is crucial, generating huge revenues for the Kremlin war chest from gold, diamonds and other minerals, often smuggled out of Africa to evade Western sanctions.

As the war wears on, Moscow will need not only to maintain these activities but also expand them, and getting rid of Prigozhin may have helped to enable that. It removes a man who had become too powerful and allows Putin to secure greater loyalty from African governments that he maintains in power with the help of Russian mercenary services. That Prigozhin, even after the aborted coup, was allowed to meet national leaders and diplomats at last month’s Africa-Russia summit in St Petersburg is a testament how seriously the Kremlin takes this matter.

In many cases, African leaders are firmly locked in to their proxy relationships with Russia, whoever is in charge. An adviser to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic, which is heavily dependent on Wagner, made clear that relations with Russian contractors would not change after Prigozhin’s demise. ‘They will find another chief,’ he said.

Indeed, working relationships will be maintained by Wagner’s country managers, who are likely to remain in place despite their boss’s death; their allegiance to their own pay cheques surpassing all else.

Wagner fighters are no strangers to such changes. The group has continually morphed from one structure to another as circumstances dictate, with an impenetrable web of subgroups, partnerships, and political and financial beneficiaries.

It might possibly retain the identity that has become familiar to the leaders who hire its guns, although it might also be convenient to do a rebrand, obfuscating its actions and helping to evade sanctions. Many of its components can easily be absorbed into some other Kremlin-controlled entity such as Redut, a mercenary group affiliated to Russian military intelligence, the GRU.

If anything, Russian mercenary operations on the African continent will become even more effective as Wagner funds become virtually unlimited. This growing threat is a dangerous part of a much bigger problem for the West as Russia and China race ahead in Africa while doing all they can to drive out Western influence and economic leverage.

In Britain we have been far too slow to recognise and counter the strategic threat from Wagner and other Russian private armies. Sanctions have been imposed, but the Government has been dithering for months over whether or not to designate it a terrorist organisation. Now Western democracies must urgently find a way to fight fire with fire in Russia’s new form of warfare.

Image: Wikimedia Commons