The afterlife of Wagner Group: How Kremlin reinvented mercenary forces in Africa

In June 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin was the world's most feared and famous mercenary. His Wagner Group controlled billions of dollars worth of companies and projects, while his fighters were part of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

Then, he decided to march on Moscow, calling for the removal of the defence minister and head of the general staff, a move that threatened President Vladimir Putin's power vertical.  

Within weeks, Prigozhin died in a highly suspicious plane crash, along with much of the Wagner leadership. For a while, the group's fate was the biggest "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma", as Winston Churchill would say. 

Under direct control by GRU

The first signals showed that the security apparatus took over all the group's activity. 

The confirmation came in February when its new leader said that Wagner Group had been replaced by a new entity known as Russia's Africa Corps across its key strongholds in the Sahel region. 

The paramilitary contractor has an established presence in several politically unstable African nations, including the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and Sudan, and is consolidating its foothold in Burkina Faso, which has been ruled by a military junta since a January 2022 coup.

"We continue to work on the African continent and in Belarus. We continue to work for the good of Russia," new leader and Wagner veteran Anton Yelizarov said in a video, according to CNBC.

Internal Russian government documents, seen by the BBC, show that Moscow offers African governments a "regime survival package" in exchange for access to strategically important natural resources. 

Russia is working to change mining laws in West Africa, aiming to dislodge Western companies from an area of strategic importance. This is part of the process of the Russian government taking over the businesses of the Wagner mercenary group. 

According to BBC, the Moscow coordinator is probably Gen. Andrey Averyanov, head of Unit 29155 of the military intelligence service GRU. This secretive unit specialises in targeted killings and destabilizing foreign governments. 

Military protection for the military juntas

Analysts at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw say that the Africa Corps consists of mercenaries and volunteers and does not form part of the Russian Armed Forces.

"It began recruiting in December 2023, and has also included job offers for former Wagner Group mercenaries; it may also recruit local residents. The formation of the Africa Corps under the umbrella of the Russian defence ministry indicates that an effort is underway to put things back in order after the dismantling of the Wagner Group, as the Corps is set to take over its operations," the report said. 

"The military juntas that have seized power in many countries of the Sahel region in recent years see Russia as a protector in both the domestic and international arenas, and are keen to cooperate with it in the field of defence." 

"While the Africa Corps' stated aim is to provide assistance in the fight against jihadism, its presence on the continent will primarily serve to expand the Kremlin's military, political and economic footprint."

Russia's Strategic Maneuvering in Africa

The Africa Corps publicly declared that it had deployed 100 personnel to Burkina Faso to aid current leader Ibrahim Traoré in repelling Islamist insurgencies in the Sahel region.

The new entity has been subsuming operations in Mali and Libya for several months, and negotiations to establish a Russian military base in the CAR are reportedly underway.

The situation in Niger is still developing. The ruling junta in Niamey requested last year the departure of the 1,500 French troops stationed in Niger, the last of whom left the territory at the end of December 2023. Now, the American troops are packing up, according to a report by Le Monde. 

The United States maintained a force of some 1,100 service members at two bases in Niger, the larger of which, at Agadez in the north of the country, served as a regional hub for drones in the fight against terrorism. Created six years ago at a cost of $110 million, this base had been essentially inactive since the July 2023 coup d'état that overthrew the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum. The French ambassador and military were expelled from Niger after the putsch, but the Americans hoped to be able to continue operating there. In March, the US government learned through the media that Niger was terminating the cooperation agreement linking the two countries. The fate of the American base in Agadez has not yet been clarified, nor that of the several hundred German and Italian soldiers still on site. But the signal given in April by the arrival in Niamey of around a hundred Russian "instructors" from the Africa Corps was clear enough: The new military authorities who took power thanks to coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and then Niger are one after the other pledging their allegiance to Moscow and driving the West out of the Sahel. 

Amid a deteriorating security situation across the Sahel, the juntas ruling Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have formed the "Alliance of Sahel States" and announced their unilateral withdrawal from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a move many analysts saw as paving the way for greater security cooperation with Moscow.

The junta in Mali ordered the French forces to leave, and the country is now largely dependent on Wagner for its internal security. This change is having an immediate impact on ordinary Malians.

Russian modus operandi

In every country in which it operates, Wagner was reported to have secured valuable natural resources using these to not only cover costs but also extract significant revenue. Russia has extracted $2.5bn (£2bn) worth of gold from Africa in the past two years, which is likely to have helped fund its war in Ukraine, according to the Blood Gold Report, quoted by the BBC.

In February, Russian fighters - formerly Wagner mercenaries - took control of Mali's Intahaka gold mine, close to the border with Burkina Faso. The artisanal mine, the largest in northern Mali, had been disputed for many years by various armed groups active in the region.

In Mali, the mining code was rewritten to give the junta greater control over natural resources. That process has already seen an Australian lithium mine suspend trading on its shares, citing uncertainty over the implementation of the code.

The Blood Gold Report report details internal Russian memos focussed on trying to achieve in Niger what was done in Mali. If Russia managed to gain control of West Africa's uranium mines, Europe could be left exposed once again to what has often been called Russian "energy blackmail".