Analysts say Wagner exit unlikely because Russia remains keen on maintaining influence in Africa.
For years, the Wagner Group, which declared a mutiny and briefly rebelled against President Vladimir Putin in June, has played a key role in extending Russia’s influence in Africa.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Wagner operates in roughly 30 countries, with its fighters mainly hired in African nations grappling with insecurity, including Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Libya and Sudan.
In the Central African Republic, Wagner fighters have helped keep President Faustin-Archange Touadera in power, the CSIS said.
Besides the financial gains, the Washington-based think tank said Russia has used Wagner to help expand Moscow’s footprint in Africa and the Middle East, forging security cooperation deals with military juntas and other governments.
In Mali, some 1,000 Wagner fighters replaced French troops deployed as part of a counter-insurgency force in the Sahel region, fighting militants affiliated with the Daesh/ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorist organizations.
However, after the death of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in the Aug. 23 plane crash north of Moscow, questions have risen over the future of the group’s operations in Africa.
According to analysts, Putin is still keen on expanding Russia’s influence in Africa so he will be looking to keep Wagner forces on the continent.
“Change or no change will depend on Russia’s assessment and choice, considering the threat caused by Prigozhin’s mutiny in June and the need to maintain influence through military interventions and safeguarding commercial business interests,” Ladislas Ngendahimana, a Rwandan analyst, told Anadolu.
The US accuses Wagner of committing widespread human rights abuses and exploiting natural resources in the Central African Republic, Mali and elsewhere.
Washington also accuses the Kremlin of using Mali for arms shipments to Russian forces in Ukraine, a charge the Malian government denies.
In May, the US imposed sanctions on Ivan Maslov, said to be the local head of Wagner troops in Mali.
Ngendahimana emphasized that there is a leadership gap in Wagner after Prigozhin’s death.
The Wagner chief’s power was based on his personal loyalty and connections with Putin, he said.
Freddie David Egesa, a security analyst based in Uganda’s capital Kampala, said Wagner’s high command has been significantly weakened, particularly since Prigozhin’s right-hand man Dmitry Utkin and top deputy Valery Chekalov also died in the plane crash.
“Still, the countries where they have contracts may not be affected since the deployments have the goodwill of Russia,” he said.
However, he added that the “wave of political upheavals” within the group will affect Wagner’s operations.
For Ngendahimana, Prigozhin had been running a “one-man show” in Wagner’s dealings with African nations.
However, it is clear that the Russian government shall “define its cooperation and support it as part of its foreign policy,” he added.
The analysts said the group is not likely to be split up, but Moscow will consider restructuring to ensure efficiency and control to minimize the threat of another rebellion.
However, Viktor Sobolev, a lawmaker in the Russian State Duma, this week sharply criticized Wagner, describing it as “an illegal army that will cease to exist.”
“These terrorists will be able to return to civilian life or sign a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense. There should be no armed people in the state who are not subordinate to the state,” he said.
“This led to a rebellion … only those who did not participate in the Prigozhin rebellion will be able to sign the contract.”
Russian interests and fight against West
For African countries dependent on Wagner forces, how things play out will depend on Russia’s foreign policy objectives, said Ngendahimana.
“Everything is possible at this time, considering the uncertain future of Wagner. However, I doubt Russia would afford to lose the gains from Wagner – economic and political – simply because Prigozhin is dead,” he said.
“Russia still needs Wagner, or something like it, to consolidate its influence and achieve its foreign policy aims.”
He said the countries who have contracts with Wagner will engage directly with the Russian government.
Russia has been supplying and funding Wagner operations, meaning the cooperation was not limited to Prigozhin, he said.
In June, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said security assistance to African countries will continue, specifically naming the Central African Republic and Mali, where he said Russian government officials had maintained contact with leaders during the brief Wagner rebellion.
Ngendahimana also ruled out that Wagner mercenaries could leave African countries.
“Russia’s foreign interests and influence are at stake, particularly at this time when Russia is confronting the West in Ukraine and beyond,” he said.
“Undoubtedly, Wagner has efficiently served Russia’s foreign policy interests in Africa, particularly in its fight against the West.”