This series of articles have explored the activity of the Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner in Africa. Links between subsidiary companies, Wagner management, and links to GRU & Ministry of Defence (MOD) has been established. Despite reports of Russian PMC activity in several African states and what that indicates – at this point there is not enough conclusive open-source material available to establish physical Wagner presence in other African states. Instead, this article will further explore Wagner’s origins which will reinforce its state connection.
The Legacy of Executive Outcomes
Executive Outcomes (EO) was a PMC established in 1989 in South Africa. It was founded by Eeben Barlow and Simon Mann – Both of which from special forces background. The PMC operated over a 10-year period, in which it claimed to provide military and strategic advice, comprehensive training packs for armed forces, and equipment advice and training. Within that timeframe, EO landed contracts with the governments of Angola and Sierra Leone, officially. However, the group was reported to be working in Uganda, Botswana, Zambia, Ethiopia, Namibia, Lesotho, and South Africa as well for private enterprises. In addition to its military consulting services, it is well documented that EO was operating tens of other companies with various areas of interest, some of which involved in mining and natural resources. Evidently, a business model with striking similarities to that of Wagner.
From Idea to Africa
Eeben Barlow visited Russia in 2010 when he attended the St Petersburg economic forum. In addition to his presentation at the forum, he gave a closed presentation to a delegation from the General Staff. Reportedly, in the closed presentation, Barlow explained the model for establishing a PMC and added Russian-specific adaptations. The Russian bureaucracy experienced huge changes in the next years in Putin returning for President, the retirement of the head of the General Staff, and the resignation of the Defence Minister.
According to sources affiliated with MOD, it was at this point that Prigozhin was chosen to establish, fund, and operate the PMC. Likely because he had Putin’s trust after hosting international leaders visits to Russia since the early 2000s, and because of his management and establishment of the ‘troll factory’ that was successful in the anti-opposition propaganda campaign in 2011. Prigozhin started landing big government contracts with his catering business, first of which was Russian school lunches. By the end of 2012 Prigozhin’s contracts were valued at more than 90 billion Rubles (approximately GBP 1M). These contracts are likely to have been awarded to Prigozhin for the very purpose of establishing the ‘troll factory’ and Wagner. After the Slavonic Corps failure in Syria in 2013, it became evident that the deployment was premature. In 2014, Utkin and other mercenaries from Slavonic Corps started appearing in Crimea and southeast Ukraine. Their presence there was limited, and their role was a supporting one, allowing the PMC to test its capabilities close to home. Evidently, the group proved themselves useful.
In 2015, Prigozhin started landing MOD contracts for providing services like food, cleaning, and construction for the Russian military in addition to hospital contracts and more school contracts. That money was allegedly used to establish the Wagner camp in Molkino, recruit more personnel, and generally improve training and equipment to prepare for Syria. Wagner’s Syria deployment peaked at the recapture of Palmyra in which Utkin and three other presumed Wagner commanders were awarded medals at a Kremlin ceremony. After Palmyra, the deal was made between the Syrian regime and Evro Polis and demonstrated a first step towards self-sufficiency.
By now, Wagner operates in several African states. Similar to Barlow’s EO, Prigozhin’s Wagner is just one of several companies under the umbrella. Where they differ is in that Prigozhin receives directions from MOD, and Wagner receives operational support from MOD. This approach provides Moscow with plausible deniability which enables them to pursue foreign policy ambitions with less risk and without the same restrictions. Russia’s return to Africa is likely to continue and expand due to Russia’s identity in which it considers itself a major power and intends to establish itself as a major power in a multipolar world, as an equal to the US and China.
Image: Image: Twitter / @warsmonitoring (link)
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