Sunday, September 24, 2023

The “Al Qaeda-ization” of the Wagner Group

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By Mr. Kung Chan

In late June of this year, the world was shocked by the Wagner Group’s mutiny that erupted in Russia. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, which had been engaged in frontline fighting in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, publicly declared the group’s decision to march towards Moscow to “reform” the decayed and corrupt Russian military leadership. This decision was prompted by a significant number of casualties among Wagner’s personnel due to armed attacks from the Russian Defense Forces.

However, timely intervention and active dissuasion by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and others led to the rapid resolution of the incident. Prigozhin ordered his military personnel to return to their relevant military bases and gradually handed over heavy weaponry to the Russian defense forces. Subsequently, both Prigozhin and his military personnel traveled to Belarus and expressed their intention to continue Wagner’s activities there. Lukashenko also revealed that Wagner personnel had initiated military training activities with the Belarusian defense forces.

The outbreak of this incident revealed internal contradictions and vulnerabilities within the Russian ruling group. Although the astonishing speed of its resolution drew worldwide amazement, the profound impact of it on Russia and the world at large remains far from dissipating. After the incident was quelled, one aspect that attracted considerable attention was the future course of the Wagner Group.

Wagner was originally an international private military company (PMC) that operated independently worldwide and possessed its well-trained military force and network, with the support of the Russian government. After a period of operation, Wagner established significant footholds in Africa and the Middle East, leveraging its ties with Russian intelligence agencies and special forces. It adopted a successful operational model characterized by the integration of national resources, military capabilities, and mineral rights, effectively engaging in “commercialized warfare” (Kung Chan, 2019).

Especially in Africa, Wagner Group has gained considerable regional influence by providing security services, establishing its own bases, and cultivating unique networks of relationships. The group offers security protection and military training to politicians and government officials in the West-Central African region as part of commercial deals, thereby gaining control over significant sources of important raw materials, such as mines and forest areas. Furthermore, due to its close ties with the Russian government, the Wagner Group serves as a vital informal channel for Russia to expand its influence in Africa.

After the halt of the Wagner Group’s advancement towards Moscow, certain analysts speculate that the group will persist as a crucial instrument for Russia’s expansion into Africa, serving their national interests. Prigozhin himself openly stated that Africa would be the upcoming focus of Wagner’s operations when he was in Belarus. Noteworthy is his public appearance during the Russia-Africa Summit in late July, where he warmly greeted Freddy Mapouka, the Ambassador of the Central African Republic to Russia, indicating that Wagner Group appears to be returning to its initial trajectory.

However, the issue may not be that simple. The current Russia that is deeply embroiled in the Ukrainian battlefield is no longer the Russia of the past, and the Wagner that had staged the march toward Moscow is unlikely to remain the same either. Predictably, its survival and evolution could possibly transform into a Russian version of “Bin Laden” and an organization with a Russian background resembling a network of bases.

Firstly, in terms of its legitimacy and resource support, Wagner Group will find it challenging to receive genuine endorsement from the Russian authorities. The group’s emergence, development, and expansion in the past were strongly facilitated by the support of the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin. Disclosed information indicates that Wagner Group’s establishment received significant backing from the Russian military intelligence agency (GRU), with the majority of its early members directly originating from the Russian military and special forces. Wagner’s military training and operations within Russian territory also received substantial official support.

After the mutiny erupted, Putin himself openly explained and acknowledged that Wagner’s activities in the past had comprehensive and robust backing from the Russian authorities. Between May 2022 and May 2023, the Russian government provided financial assistance amounting to USD 1 billion. Dmitry Kiselyov, a prominent Russian media figure closely connected to Putin, stated that the total amount of security contracts and financial support given to Wagner Group by the Russian authorities reached around USD 10 billion, and when including additional support to Prigozhin’s “Concord Group”, the total sum would reach USD 20 billion.

After the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, the Russian authorities further accelerated Prigozhin’s “militarization” by granting him authority to recruit from prisons. However, all of this came to naught with Wagner’s “march” towards Moscow and the de facto “mutiny”. This has left the Russian ruling elite in disarray, with Putin even fleeing Moscow for St. Petersburg on a private jet overnight. The weakness and chaos among the Russian leadership were undeniably exposed. For a political strongman like Putin, this was a direct humiliation, leading to the complete dissolution of the close relationship between Prigozhin and Putin. At the same time, it is widely known that Wagner Group’s relationship with the Russian Ministry of Defense had been severely deteriorating for quite some time. Even figures within the military hierarchy closely associated with Wagner Group, such as Sergei Shoigu, have been purged. The anti-Wagner forces, including Shoigu, have largely eliminated Wagner’s sympathizers and supporters within the military-political circles, leaving Wagner and Prigozhin with few genuine allies there.

Although Wagner Group is temporarily sheltered in Belarus, it is a country highly reliant on Russia. Recently, Russia officially deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, indicating a further expansion of Russia’s influence in the country. For the Wagner Group, Belarus can only serve as a temporary refuge, but the strong influence of anti-Wagner forces in Belarus means that this temporary shelter is not safe. It is almost certain that the Belarusian authorities will not provide Wagner Group with genuine official endorsement or support in its operations. Therefore, lacking official endorsement and resource support from major countries, the Wagner Group may have no choice but to shift toward banditry.

Furthermore, the deep-rooted confrontation and hostility between Wagner and the West are unlikely to undergo fundamental changes, making it virtually impossible for the group to align itself with the West. Existing research has shown that far-right nationalist ideologies are prevalent among the leadership of the Wagner Group, and these ideologies are closely intertwined with the Russian Imperial Movement. One prominent characteristic of this ideology is staunch opposition to Western liberal democracy and universalism. The ideological confrontation inherently makes it challenging for the Wagner Group to gain recognition from the West, a recognition that the group and Prigozhin himself are not interested in pursuing.

In fact, since 2016, the United States and the European Union have imposed a series of sanctions on the Wagner Group and its leadership. Following the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, countries like Switzerland, Japan, Canada, and Australia also swiftly imposed sanctions on it and its leaders. In 2023, the U.S. explicitly declared its intention to designate Wagner Group as a “significant transnational criminal group”, laying the groundwork for further escalation of sanctions in the future. Additionally, the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE officially defined the group as a terrorist organization in July of this year. Even after the mutiny, there is no sign that the West would lift the sanctions against the Wagner Group. Shortly after the coup, the U.S. government stated that it would not reduce the sanctions on the Wagner Group. In late July, the U.S. even sanctioned three Malian officials who supported the Wagner Group. Moreover, Wagner’s influence in Africa is primarily concentrated in Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, where the governments exhibit a clear hostile stance toward Western countries. The geopolitical confrontations further affirm that the West will continue to intensify pressure on the Wagner Group’s operational space.

Thirdly, considering the political landscape in Africa, the Wagner Group can only thrive or even survive when there is turmoil. Therefore, it is likely to emulate the decentralized network organization of Osama bin Laden, gradually showcasing its independence and challenging the global security order.

After the end of the Cold War, Western capital withdrew from Africa en masse. The suppressed ethnic and religious conflicts during the Cold War era became increasingly pronounced, especially in the region south of the Sahara, into long-term turmoil and unrest. The Wagner Group took advantage of this to intervene in Africa, gradually expanding its influence by providing security and military training, thereby gaining control over significant natural resources.

The situation in Africa was one of the main reasons for Wagner’s rise. Wagner’s four main strongholds are still plagued by tribal and religious disputes. The security services provided by Wagner mainly cater to favored tribal warlord groups. As Wagner progressively acquired vast natural resources, it also became a military force in the region.

Despite Wagner’s entry and consolidation in Africa, it has not brought true internal stability to African countries. Central African Republic and Sudan, among others, continue to face serious internal conflicts. Nevertheless, in recent years, Western countries have been increasing their focus on Africa. The U.S. and the EU have introduced infrastructure support programs and penetration plans for African civil society, aiming to change the backward social structures and inefficient governance in Africa, especially in the region south of the Sahara. Once these transformation plans take effect and African countries gain modern governance and security capabilities, they will no longer rely on Wagner’s security protection and will seek to regain control over the mineral and forest resources pledged to Wagner. This will inevitably limit Wagner’s survival and operations.

In the latest turn of the event, there have been reports that in the face of a looming military intervention threat, the junta in Niger has sought assistance from the Wagner Group. Unconfirmed reports suggest that a Russian transport plane was found landing in Niger’s capital, Niamey.

For Wagner, it might be essential to maintain a considerable level of turmoil within its strongholds to preserve its survival space. Concurrently, the group will exploit existing turmoil factors in various African countries. For instance, it may strengthen ties and provide support to terrorist organizations like Boko Haram, spreading chaos further across the entire African continent. This is to hinder effective Western transformation efforts in Africa and sustain its existence. Wagner relies on turmoil for its foothold, to secure its position, and to plan its survival. When it comes to this stage, the Wagner Group is no longer just a private security firm; it has transformed into a fully-fledged terrorist organization.

Final analysis conclusion:

Considering all these factors, the Wagner Group appears to have lost its firm footing in its homeland and is simultaneously facing increasing Western pressure. Under these two significant factors, the group has essentially ceased to be a purely private security firm in the conventional sense. Deprived of its national background, the Wagner Group is likely to adopt a fundamental survival strategy based on fomenting turmoil. This inevitably implies that it will continue to sow discord, conflict, and unrest across the African continent, posing a considerable challenge to global security. At the same time, this also signifies that the Wagner Group has effectively transformed into an internationally akin terrorist organization, similar to Al-Qaeda, making it a great threat to regional and international security and stability.

About the author:

Chan Kung

Mr. Kung Chan is the founder of ANBOUND Think Tank, Kung Chan is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of his academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.

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