Between June 23 and 24th, the Wagner Group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, captured the attention of the global public through a daring mutiny against the Russian war effort in Ukraine. In a 36-hour period, Prigozhin held critical Russian infrastructure, occupying the city center of the military hub Rostov-on-Don and marching uncontested to Moscow before an abrupt about-face, calling off the mutiny through an uneasy peace facilitated by Belarus’s Lukashenko¹.
These events demonstrated to the Western public the crucial importance Prigozhin and his mercenary army plays within the balance of power between the Russian military, the Wagner group, and Putin himself². And while the West may focus its attention on the repercussions of this past weekend’s events on the war effort in Ukraine, Wagner’s mutiny has farther-reaching implications, notably, in Africa and the Middle East.
Wagner’s Foreign Policy Presence
The Wagner Group has fulfilled many of Russia’s foreign policy goals in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, acting as effective counterinsurgency agents in a diverse range of conflicts since 2014³. In recent years, the primary route of expansion for Wagner Group has been in the increasingly authoritarian Sahel region. In a dramatic series of events, troops from Russia and Wagner descended into Mali following a 2021 coup4. Since 2021 over 1,000 Wagner Group troops have deployed to Mali and are the principal force training and aiding Malian forces to fight the overwhelming insurgency in the country. Other countries within the region, such as Burkina Faso, have followed suit, strengthening their security partnerships with Wagner.
As a result, some of the most attentive audiences of last week’s events in Russia were Russia’s partners in Africa and the Middle East. Especially in Africa, much of the public are familiar with Russian mercenary groups. ORB’s data, in Figure 1, collected over a series of surveys, geographically demonstrates awareness of Russian mercenary groups like Wagner in Mali, Chad, Libya, and others.
This figure demonstrates awareness of Russian Mercenary groups across Africa. Red triangles indicate where news-media sources have reported Wagner Group to be supposedly active amongst countries ORB collected data.
The importance of this audience is not lost on Russia. Quickly after the mutiny occurred, Russian top diplomats assured their partners that they would continue to maintain their security relationships in the fallout of the mutiny. Top diplomats personally visited key partner nations like Mali and Syria5. Despite these assurances, the post-Wagner shape of Russian security partnerships has yet to be fully detailed by Moscow.
In the short term, it is unlikely that Russian partnerships with countries like Mali, the Central African Republic, or Syria will be affected by the mutiny. These countries have developed deep ties with Russia and Wagner Group that cannot be easily replicated6. A mass exodus of Wagner troops and thus Russia would not only be disastrous for Russia but also be an existential threat to these countries that rely nearly totally on Wagner Group for their expertise in the face of powerful insurgencies.
However, in countries which have not yet developed extensive, or exclusive, security partnerships with Russia, a dangerous mutiny that came within 125 miles of Moscow and managed to repulse Russian aircraft offenses could weaken already cautious relationships. In recent surveys conducted by ORB, there is evidence that some countries already tend to see Russian mercenaries as destabilizing (See Figure 2).
Figure 2 shows that in Sudan and Libya there is a perception that Russian mercenaries are destabilizing forces in their country.
Last week’s events could thus further affect Russia’s gains or strategy in skeptical countries; the mutiny signals that Russian security may not be able to provide the stability necessary in such complex, insurgent environments. These events have left the stability of Russian security partnerships as an open question for the first time in years, which may provide ample opportunity for other security partners to make their move.