Prigozhin’s Uncertain Future Could Help United States Dislodge Wagner Group in Africa
The crisis in Russia is over for now, but the fight to control the Wagner Group has only just begun, creating an opening for the United States and its allies to dislodge Russian influence in places such as Africa. The standoff between Yevgeny Prigozhin and Vladimir Putin has left Wagner’s African clients confused about the future of their most important security partnerships. U.S. and allied decisionmakers have a fleeting opportunity to present such nations with alternative, stable forms of assistance and, in doing so, counter Moscow’s growing footprint on the continent.
Having achieved—at high cost—the existential goal of securing partial Wagner autonomy ahead of the July 1 deadline for Wagner troops to sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense, Prigozhin will likely focus on safeguarding control of the rest of his business empire. Despite recent focus on its role in Ukraine, the bulk of Wagner’s operations are centered in Africa in countries such as Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, and Madagascar. There, Wagner routinely exchanges paramilitary services for access to natural resources such as gold and gemstones.
Yet Moscow is unlikely to let Wagner go that easily. Wagner's paramilitary activities are a cornerstone of Russia's efforts to expand its geopolitical and military power on the African continent, and the exploitation of natural resources allows Moscow to lessen the impact of international sanctions. Although Wagner is not the only Russian private military company, the alternatives cannot yet rival Wagner’s connections and name recognition.
There is tremendous uncertainty regarding the future of Wagner, Prigozhin, and perhaps even Putin. Although Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed Monday that Wagner would continue to operate in Africa, it is unclear what “Wagner” will mean. Assuming Prigozhin survives, Wagner and the various shell companies linked to Prigozhin could split into two or more factions, with Prigozhin retaining control of one faction and one or more either absorbed into the Russian military or subordinated to new leadership while remaining a quasi-independent entity. It is also possible that Wagner entities could be merged with another private military company such as Convoy, a relatively new group led by Sergey Aksyonov, the pro-Russia leader of Crimea, and Konstantin Pikalov, who formerly worked closely with Prigozhin and oversaw much of Wagner’s activity in Africa.
Without clear indication of the leadership, structure, or intentions of their Wagner partners, African host states are left vulnerable and with minimal agency regarding the future of their most important security agreements. Although autocratic leaders have preferred Russian partnership over Western aid, the uncertainty could prove particularly disastrous for the military regimes that rely on Wagner chiefly for their own self-preservation, or “coup-proofing.” Amid this chaos, clear and viable alternative partnerships from the United States or its allies may look more appealing than ever to Wagner’s clients—and the chance to disrupt Russia’s growing influence in Africa may not come again.
Catrina Doxsee is associate director and associate fellow for the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
The author thanks Rayna Salam, Paige Montfort, and Alexander Kisling for their publication support.