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Putin Weaker? Nyet
July 31, 2023
Last week, mutineer and “traitor” Yevgeny Prigozhin of the Wagner Group mercenary army, showed up at Vladimir Putin’s lavish summit with African leaders in St. Petersburg. There was speculation as to why he was invited, but he didn’t need an invitation. He owns the palatial hotel where the summit was staged and knows more African leaders than does Putin. He came to drum up more business for Wagner by meeting with existing and potential African customers. To some, his attendance was audacious, given that last month he marched soldiers toward Moscow to protest against Putin’s military leaders, caused a run on the ruble, and killed 13 Russians along the way. But Putin treats Prigozhin with kid gloves, not out of weakness but because they are partners. Wagner makes billions a year conducting clandestine warfare and statecraft around the world to advance Russia’s influence. In fact, the day the summit began, a democratic regime in Niger was overthrown with help from Wagner operatives following others recently in Mali, Burkina Faso, and the Central African Republic. Prigozhin is the biggest producer in Putin’s criminal enterprise and has the full respect of its Boss.
Since 2014, Wagner has been a key player in Putin’s undeclared War against Europe. That year it sent special forces to seize Crimea and invade Eastern Ukraine. In 2015, it began conducting operations in Syria for Russia’s intelligence agency and military. The Kremlin has always denied any connection which is why Wagner’s activities are cloaked in secrecy. Since then, Wagner has grown exponentially, landing “gigs” in Libya, Azerbaijan, Venezuela, and many other countries. In 2022, it became involved in the second Ukrainian invasion and fought alongside Russian army regulars. It fared badly and Prigozhin alleged that Putin’s two generals, Shoigu and Gerimasov who are also oligarchs, was sabotaging Wagner’s efforts by withholding ammunition. An estimated 22,000 Wagner soldiers were killed, 40,000 wounded, and only 25,000 survived. This was why Prigozhin staged his mutinous protest last month, but the importance of Wagner is why Putin asked Wagner to relocate to Belarus and has kept the generals in charge.
For years, Putin has waged a “War against Europe” involving cyber attacks, political corruption, and interference. Following Wagner’s success in 2014 in Ukraine, Putin and Prigozhin decided to spread the War to Europe’s former colonies. Now it is a huge and lucrative business with as many 200,000 reservists available and thousands more stationed in a dozen countries. It earns enormous fees from the Kremlin to do its dirty work — it was paid $1 billion each year to fight in Ukraine. Besides that, Prigozhin, and likely Putin, owns a commercial catering business that also makes a billion a year feeding Russia’s regular armed forces.
Wagner is as entrepreneurial and opportunistic as its founder. The company is paid to fight but also loots and pillages for profit, often preferring payment in assets, such as diamonds, gold, oil fields, mines, or land. Wagner also provides more than regime-change services for tyrants. Its side businesses include security protection for individuals, operations, and corporations, and human trafficking services out of war-torn countries in Africa or the Middle East to Europe, designed to destabilize the European Union. It also helps Russia bypass sanctions.
Wagner was likely behind the flood in 2021 of thousands of Africans and Middle Easterners who paid to be flown to Belarus and escorted to its border so they could cross into Poland and Lithuania in order to claim asylum. Poland responded by building miles of fences and posting troops along its perimeter. But last week, Poland warned that the relocation of Wagner to Belarus will likely result in more human smuggling and other hybrid warfare assaults such as incursions by Wagner saboteurs. Poland has doubled its border patrols and Belarus’ three neighboring NATO countries may shut their borders completely. “Now the situation becomes even more dangerous…“this is certainly a step towards a further hybrid attack on Polish territory” Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters.
But Wagner has mostly become embedded in the affairs of former European colonies. While the United States, Europe, and China are busy handing out funds or building infrastructure for African nations, Russia provides Wagner which offers everything from weapons to military training, boots on the ground, equipment, propaganda services, and support for aspiring tyrants. "Wagner will continue to be a tool of expeditionary Russian statecraft in the global South," commented a Washington observer. "It provides an important lever of security assistance, political and information warfare, as well as, if necessary, kinetic war fighting capability."
Putin highlighted Africa’s importance at last week’s summit. “We are witnessing the African continent becoming a new center of power. Its political and economic role has been growing exponentially, and everybody will have to reckon with this objective reality.” He also announced that Russia would provide thousands of tons of free grain to six of the continent’s most impoverished nations (which are, ironically, unable to afford food because of skyrocketing prices caused by Putin’s war and his blockade of Ukrainian grain exports.) He also portrayed Russia’s African activities as liberating but Wagner’s efforts merely represent another version of European-based colonialism and tyranny.
In June, an investigative organization called The Sentry published a comprehensive report which describes how Wagner undertakes “state capture”. It wrote: “Under the explicit authority of the Kremlin, Russian commanders have forged blunt deals with several national leaders under which they will secure these leaders in power in return for rights to vast natural resources. The methods that the Wagner Group deploys include massacres, routine rape, destruction of homes, and the terrorizing of national military troops so that they perpetrate extensive horrendous crimes under the direction of Wagner’s commanders.”
In essence, Wagner is a trans-national extension of Russia’s criminal network and also spreads Moscow’s sphere of influence. Gaining control is simple: Foment unrest and chaos in a target nation, provide security and money to a favored candidate, harass or frighten opponents, discredit the UN or other agencies to destroy their influence, organize a coup or a rigged vote, and gain power. Each vassal state then becomes a staging ground for crimes such as human trafficking, blackmail and ransom, drug and weapons smuggling, bribery, corrupt practices, money laundering, confiscation of resources, trade fraud, financial fraud, terrorist attacks, and exploitation of the populace or resource base.
Wagner also controls or owns media outlets across Africa that conduct an aggressive infowar against the West and Europe’s former colonial masters. Its tentacles are everywhere and Africa provides easy cover for its other nefarious actions. Reports dribble out that many of these countries (Mali and Uganda plus others) are heavily involved in workarounds to avoid sanctions and oil trade smuggling. And huge shipments of gold bullion, diamonds, and timber from Africa are bought then converted into cash to help the Russian government financially. Wagner is Russia’s most successful multinational and de facto “subsidiary” of the most successful kleptocracy in history. The war may be faltering, and must be won by Ukraine and the West. But Putin remains the Godfather and Prigozhin is the oligarch of oligarchs, second only to his friend and partner Putin.