After Prigozhin, Russia Still Needs Wagner—but Putin Doesn’t Want … – Foreign Policy

On July 26, the Nigerien presidential guard surrounded the palace of democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum, and two days later Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani announced himself as head of a military junta, the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP). The immediate reasons behind the Niger coup that ousted Bazoum appear intra-elite: Tchiani, head of the presidential guard, may have been about to lose his job, which was both lucrative and prestigious.

Whether Tchiani acted alone or on behalf of others, such as former president Mahamadou Issoufou, remains unclear. And while images both deceive and reveal, the public’s reaction to the coup, at least outwardly, shows proximate structural causes—poverty, corruption, frustration in the military—shouldn’t be ignored.

Nonetheless, geopolitics devoured local context. Indeed, the actors who fueled the “great power competition” discourse in Africa have lost their ability to control it, and even after the apparent death of Wagner Group’s founders, Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, the narrative still threatens to draw regional governments, France, the United States, and even Russia into Niger, despite clear reasons to stay away.

The West has already warned that events in Niger present an opportunity for Russia and its private military company (PMC) the Wagner Group. It is likely that Wagner’s operations in Africa will survive its founders. The PMC portion of Wagner has a well-established hierarchical structure with its own mechanism for maintaining efficiency in the event of top officials’ death. The businesses associated with Wagner in Africa also cement the structure’s life cycle. As one top official in Wagner told Foreign Policy: “Changes were inevitable, but now a new configuration may be born.”

That new configuration, especially in Africa, may take time to work its way through Russia’s bureaucracy. Many of the key figures representing Wagner in Africa, especially in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, will remain at their posts, not least because they have the network and institutional knowledge that keeps operations going. “Our work continues,” a Wagner commander in Africa said to Foreign Policy, and “we go where ordered.”

For Moscow, the African continent as a whole has increased in importance as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government seeks to avoid geopolitical isolation and strengthen Moscow’s teetering position as a great power in a multipolar world. Amid a new phase of decolonization, African governments have found in Russia a useful, albeit often rhetorical, alternative to the West that holds a more neutral position on internal affairs.

Moscow’s popularity in Francophone Africa has come at the expense of France, whose institutions and military in Africa, out of sight from the French electorate, have stubbornly stuck to old attitudes. Paris’s bumbling response to Russia’s presence only fuels the current wave of anti-French sentiment in Africa, which itself has become a force for local political entrepreneurs to mobilize at the grassroots level. This mobilization now constrains Sahelian military regimes’ ability to work with the former colonial power.

Russia has little to offer Africa in trade or investment. Even in security terms Russia’s presence in Africa pales in comparison to the United States and Europe. But Russians, especially PMC Wagner, are the beneficiaries of a unique structural moment in the international system, which ensures Wagner will survive.

African governments seek to balance outside powers—namely the United States, European Union, China, and Russia—while retaining the ability to work with each. The problem for African governments, however, is that there are few security providers outside the West. China provides much-needed investment but is a reluctant security partner. Turkey tends to stick to exporting arms and hardware, while Gulf states intervene through financial networks and mercenaries. For African governments, Russia is the only alternative security partner with a United Nations veto and the ability to put boots on the ground.

But even then, Moscow is constrained to outsourcing military training and other security provisions to contractors. Nonetheless, Russia’s reentry into the African security space, through Wagner, has rekindled the claustrophobic Cold War binaries that characterized Africa’s first phase of decolonization.

The real-life lack of alternative security providers reinforces the great power competition narrative. All actors, of course, have contributed to the discourse—not least Western journalists and non-governmental organizations. Prigozhin was at the forefront of shaping the narrative and creating Russia’s interests in Africa. At the same time, Wagner’s detractors have tapped into older narratives of communist and jihadist threats to advocate for the PMC’s containment.

The discourse is especially useful for African political entrepreneurs to frame their political ambitions; governments position themselves as a bulwark against Wagner or threaten to partner with the PMC to gain political concessions from the West. Political opposition and armed groups fighting Wagner-backed governments lobby the West for arms and equipment to “counter” Russia.

For Western government officials, pundits, and journalists—in the United States and France, especially—the Wagner threat in Africa has proven a useful means to avoid defining Washington or Paris’s own interests in Africa. Of course, some interests are clear; Niger’s uranium exports to France cannot be dismissed. But even then, France’s dependence on Nigerien uranium is often overstated. Arguably more important is the role Francophone Africa plays in France’s self-perception as a great power, and the role Niger played within Paris’s new counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel region following the end of Operation Barkhane in Mali.

According to the logic of containment, Niger became the last bastion of Western influence in the Sahel. When the junta ousted Bazoum, calls from journalists and pundits to do something were inevitable. That the West’s praise for Niger as a success story in the region—with Bazoum’s democratic election and lower levels of violence compared to Russia-friendly neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso—was at odds with many Nigerien citizens’ realities put Western officials in a vulnerable position.

But Western partners are not alone. The Russian government has also become hostage to its own African narrative. Moscow has positioned itself as a cheerleader of African decolonization. And following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the July 2023 Russia-Africa Summit took on new meaning. Russian state media was keen to show its country was hardly isolated, but rather a key player in African affairs.

The coup in Niger was certainly in participants’ minds during the July summit, and a key talking point fell into Russian officials’ laps given Bazoum’s failure to attend the event in St. Petersburg, Russia. And while the Russian government had nothing to do with the coup, Nigerien opposition groups, such as the M62 movement, took advantage of Bazoum’s ouster to push their own political platform: a French military withdrawal from Niger. Protesters displayed Russian flags, which over time in West and Central Africa have become more a symbol of dissatisfaction with the status quo—often manifested as anti-French sentiment—than of any specific pro-Russian views.

Russia lacked specific informational programs for Niger. But Moscow has increased its reach though pro-Russian social media influencers, such as Kemi Seba and Nathalie Yamb. The pan-Africanist activists have gained a considerable following and enjoy close relations with several Russian institutions and personalities, including Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. But Seba and Yamb have become, in many respects, more Putinist than the Putin they embrace. Their ambitions outpace the Kremlin’s. In Niger, the feedback loop has closed. Russian bloggers and media pick up on Russian flags in Niamey’s streets and use the images as a justification for the Kremlin to enter the fray.

This puts Russian officials in a difficult position reminiscent of the early days of the 2014 war in Ukraine when, following the annexation of Crimea, ultranationalist citizens and hawkish elements of the Russian security services successfully drew the Kremlin into the Donbas region. The Russian state has far less interest to intervene in Niger. Such an intervention would upset the regional balance and could further fuel jihadist insurgencies. A French and U.S. departure would leave Russia as the sole outside guarantor of security in the Sahel, a position Moscow can hardly afford.

For these reasons, Russia’s top diplomat Sergey Lavrov condemned the coup and a potential intervention from the regional power bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The problem for Lavrov and the Kremlin, however, is that declining a request from the CNSP to intervene, or shunning efforts from Mali and Burkina Faso to intervene on the CNSP’s behalf, would call into question Moscow’s credibility as an alternative security partner for Africa.

The problem for Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) is that sending Russian military to Africa is impossible. Other PMCs, like Redut, have morphed from a facility protection in Syria to a vehicle for volunteer mobilization for the front in Ukraine. Redut, and others like PMC Convoy, lack the experience and capacity to engage in counterinsurgency or offensive operations.

Thus, the death of Prigozhin does not rule out a Wagner deployment to Niger. Given the MoD will have difficulty replacing Wagner in the near term, the Russian state, to the greatest extent possible, will try to project stability with regards to its relationship with Wagner and partner governments in Africa. Expansion could prove a useful cover for tensions under the surface.

If the Russian government decides to deploy Wagner to Niger, the PMC risks credibility and future business in Africa, something certain in officials in Moscow may not be opposed to. Moreover, a Wagner deployment to Niger could be disastrous given the other actors potentially preparing to intervene. The economics don’t account for the risks.

Were Wagner to intervene, Niger has little cash to pay for its services. This means the Russian state would have to pay the upfront costs of an intervention. For the MoD, including Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, diverting resources to Wagner commanders would be a bitter pill to swallow.

Even if Shoigu begrudgingly fronts the initial investment, the MoD would inevitably push Wagner to find alternative sources of funding for continued operations. In the context of Niger this means the exploitation of minerals such as gold or the resale of licenses linked to concessions. The case of Mali shows the difficulties of exploiting concessions quickly and any attempts by Wagner to exploit uranium could lead to an even greater crisis with France and the United States.

Even before all these internal rivalries are reactivated, Wagner will likely try to stall until the intentions of ECOWAS are clearer. An ECOWAS intervention is almost certain to be disastrous for Niger, with the potential to draw Mali and Burkina Faso in on the side of the junta as well. ECOWAS couldn’t field an intervention without support from France or the United States, which would only further exacerbate Nigeriens’ disapproval of the intervention and undermine ECOWAS credibility.

A direct confrontation between the Wagner Group and Nigerian, Senegalese, or other West African forces would be a disaster for Moscow’s Africa policy. Moreover, such a confrontation would require personnel and equipment reminiscent of Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s 2019 to 2020 offensive on Tripoli, where Wagner fielded fighter jets. Moscow is hardly in a state to provide such hardware this time. And if something went wrong, Wagner commanders would be on their own.

ECOWAS would also face a tough enemy. The Nigerien army, which would likely choose to fight on behalf of Tchiani, is battle hardened after years of jihadist insurgency. While Nigeria can also claim this experience, the Senegalese and Ivorian armies cannot.

In chess, zugzwang is a position in which a player is at a disadvantage for having to make the next move. No outside government has serious incentives to intervene in Niger. Even for France, the worst that can happen is more wounded pride and a higher price for Nigerien uranium. And yet, the escalating rhetoric means someone may make a move—and no one, including Russia, would benefit.

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