How Does the Conflict in Sudan Affect Russia and the Wagner Group?
Over the past year, the world has closely watched the Wagner Group—a private military company closely linked to the Russian government and led by Yevgeny Prigozhin—as it fights on the front lines in Ukraine, but less attention has been given to the roughly 30 other countries where Wagner is active. This oversight leaves policymakers and security analysts at a disadvantage as they work to understand and respond to Wagner’s motives, opportunities, and vulnerabilities in the context of local crises, as evidenced by the current conflict in Sudan. The U.S. government should more comprehensively and transparently collect, analyze, and—when possible—publicize evidence of Wagner’s global activities in order to hold it accountable and undermine the advantage it gains from secrecy.
The violent power struggle in Sudan between General Mohammad Fattah al-Burhan’s Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo’s (Hemedti’s) Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is deeply rooted in Sudanese domestic politics. Even so, it creates opportunities for foreign actors—including Russia, through Wagner—to intervene to shape a political future conducive to their own interests.
Wagner, which routinely advances Moscow’s political, military, and economic goals, deployed to Sudan in December 2017 to provide political and military support to then-president Omar al-Bashir. The previous month, Moscow negotiated a series of economic and security deals with al-Bashir to facilitate this partnership—agreements that most notably included a set of gold mining concessions for M-Invest, a Russian firm linked to Prigozhin and Wagner.
Wagner’s activities in Sudan continued even after the April 2019 coup d'état that removed al-Bashir from power. Rather than inextricably tying itself to the fortunes of the governing administration, Wagner remained adaptable and opportunistic under the transition government. It then supported the 2021 military coup, which introduced a government more interested in continuing to strengthen ties with Russia.
Most of all, Wagner (and by extension, Russia) has prioritized its two main interests in Sudan:
- Gold mining: Building from the initial negotiations between Moscow and Khartoum, Meroe Gold—a subsidiary of M-Invest that operates locally as the Sudanese front company al-Solag—has built a network of gold mining and smuggling operations in Sudan. In addition to funding Wagner operations and generating profit, this gold smuggling has also helped to soften the blow of international sanctions against key Russian actors, particularly in the aftermath of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s primary interest in Sudan is to preserve these operations and network.
- A Red Sea naval base: Russia has long desired basing access on the Red Sea. In late 2020, Moscow and Khartoum reached an agreement to establish a Russian naval base at Port Sudan. Per the agreement, the prospective base would host a naval logistics center and repair yard, up to 300 personnel, and four naval ships, including nuclear-powered vessels. The Sudanese transitional government paused plans to establish the naval base in April 2021, in part due to U.S. pressure. Even after the 2021 coup, the military government remained reluctant to revive the deal. Russia remains interested in establishing Red Sea access and likely hopes for a political outcome in which the ruling faction may allow basing plans to proceed.
The outcome of the ongoing power struggle in Sudan will impact the future of both of these key interests, and as a result, Wagner will likely try to shape the outcome in its own favor. Wagner maintains disinformation and security capabilities in Sudan that could be called into action, and further logistical support is likely to come from—or at least transit through—its other regional strongholds, notably its bases in Libya and the Central African Republic. Already, reports indicate that Khalifa Haftar—Wagner’s Libyan partner—has provided support to the RSF, amid rumors that Hemedti has called on Wagner for assistance. Pairing Wagner logistical support for the RSF with Haftar’s aid is an option that could allow Wagner to put a thumb on the scale while maintaining a layer of deniability.
Absent evidence to the contrary, Western analysts should not misconstrue Wagner as ideologically bound to either faction or as a root cause of the conflict. The U.S. government has prioritized minimizing the involvement of external actors in Sudan. This should include Wagner and others linked to Russia. However, strict ultimatums are unlikely to help—the narrative that Western nations force African states to choose between them and Russia in pursuit of Western power already drives a significant portion of Russian propaganda campaigns on the continent and is amplified by negative attitudes toward former colonial powers such as France.
Policymakers and defense analysts should closely monitor Wagner’s potential supporting role and evolving interests in Sudan and should publicize as much open-source or declassified material as possible. Regardless of which faction emerges victorious, full documentation of any Wagner activities—especially any human rights abuses or other illegal activities its troops conduct—will increase awareness of the problems that result from Wagner’s operations and accountability for any harms they cause. If Wagner hedges its bets by splitting its support between factions or by maintaining some level of deniability while supporting one side, a full account of its actions may also help to undermine long-term support for Russian interests in Sudan—particularly the probability of ever finalizing basing rights. Moreover, understanding how Wagner responds to the local conflict in Sudan will better enable decisionmakers to understand risks and opportunities the next time a similar crisis arises.
Catrina Doxsee is an associate director and associate fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
The author thanks Emily Harding and Seth Jones for their feedback on an early draft, and Rayna Salam for her assistance throughout the editing and publication process.