Russia is setting up a new 20,000-strong fighting group placed directly under the Ministry of Defense’s control for operations in at least five Russia-friendly African nations by mid-2024, as reported by Bloomberg.
The new group, named African Corps, would likely operate in Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic and Niger after a wave of military juntas ousted the civilian governments and eventually led to the withdrawal of French troops.
It would also take over private military company (PMC) Wagner’s operations in Africa following the group’s demise when its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, died in a potential assassination in August 2023.
While Wagner remained in operation under new management – and they have been spotted slowly returning to the Ukrainian front, it is believed that most Wagner fighters were incorporated into various fighting forces under Russia’s Ministry of Defense’s command.
In November, three months after Prigozhin’s death, Ukrainian special forces could be seen engaging Wagner mercenaries in Sudan in an exclusive Kyiv Post report.
But in Mali, Wagner contractors were reported to be slowly replaced by regular army troops.
Prior to its demise, Wagner had a lucrative business network in Africa with controls over numerous mining operations, and taking over those operations could provide Moscow with the much-needed resources to finance its war in Ukraine.
However, placing it directly under the government’s control – likely a precautionary move following Wagner’s failed coup in June – could complicate the situation by denying Moscow plausible deniability against war crime allegations.
There were known cases of Russian PMC troops committing war crimes in Africa, including a case where 500 were slaughtered in a Mali village in 2022.
“There is a downside for the Russians as well, which is that you no longer have deniability. If you rebrand those forces as part of the army, you now own that problem,” said J. Peter Pham, a former senior US diplomat.
Fulfilling the target of 20,000 might not be easy either. At its peak, Wagner’s operations in Africa only consisted of several thousand personnel. It is believed that Russia plans to enlist former Wagner contractors and fresh recruits to staff the African Corps.
It’s believed the African troops would have a new regional headquarters in the Central African Republic (CAR), where Moscow’s military presence has been integral in the nation’s security structure and received diamonds and gold in return.
The new Russian base is confirmed by a CAR official.
“The military base will be built. We have a lot of men and many Russians here. It’s necessary to provide them with a base,” Patrick Bida Kouyagbele, a senior adviser to CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera, told Bloomberg.
The ramp-up of Russian presence in Africa could also indicate a significant geo-political change in the continent, where former colonial powers like France have long dominated.
“It’s a recognition on the part of the Kremlin that there’s an opportunity to exploit,” said former senior US diplomat Pham.
“If it’s formalized, especially with the French withdrawal, it’s certainly going to be a much more significant and potentially lasting shift in geopolitical and diplomatic alignments.”
The Kremlin’s propaganda also proved to be extremely effective in Africa, in part due to the population’s longstanding discontent towards former colonial powers, whose lingering effects on the continent are still deeply felt among the population.
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