03 September 2020

Russian diplomacy with mercenaries’ support

Sergiu Medar

“Wagner” is the biggest and most influential private military company in the world. In Africa, it has extended its activities in the security and diplomacy fields. By being present in some African states, Russia has access to the updated local situation reports, as well as to contacts of the policy makers in these countries. This course of action is, currently, applied by Russia in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Madagascar. Thus, US’s interest for the African continents has decreased, this way China and Russia’s actions have intensified.

Image source: Profimedia

The big powers competition is currently dominating the international relations. This concept has overcome, long ago, the economic and financial fields and it is developed also in the paramilitary, diplomatic and political fields.

In terms of diplomacy, the course of action, which involves the support of private military companies (PMC) is increasingly applied by Russia, however, it is not the only state that uses these methods. By using PMC, Russia is taking part to the establishment of a new global order, without directly confronting the US.

These companies, often called contractors, are using a global legislative vacuum, which is not stopping the military local assistance to different states. For the Russian PMC, the areas they often work in are the Middle East and North Africa. These are aligning and support the Russian foreign objectives wherefore the two areas are political, economic and security priorities. Within the big powers competition, US seem to lack interest in these regions, while China is becoming more and more interest in it. It is worth mentioning that the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, where the two big leaders were assuring each other that they will not act one against the other so that to not affect their interests, even some of these are competing. So far, none has backed out of the promise.

Among the Russian PMC, “Wagner” is the biggest mercenary company in Russia, only acting in behalf of Kremlin’s interests or for private interests, when the governmental ones do not work. It is specialized in preparing the military and security personnel from different countries, usually those from possibly conflicting areas, providing the security of some perimeters, selling weapons, participating to high-intensity military operations and, lately, mediating and joining diplomatic negotiations and high-level official visits.

The founder of Wagner Company is Dmitri Valerievici Utkin, who was initially a Ukrainian citizen. Before 2013, he was a lieutenant colonel and commander of a special force brigade (Spetsnaz), belonging to the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). He retired and got hired at the security company “Moran Security Group”, founded by military veterans. The company executed security and personnel assistance missions in different parts of the world, gaining experience in terms of anti-piracy fight. “Moran” founded “Slavonic Corps”, headquartered in Hong Kong, a security company specialized in protecting the oil fields and pipelines in Syria. Then, the company closed, after being accused of illegal mercenary activities.

In 2014, Utkin founded “Wagner”, the name being actually the pseudonym he was using in his operative missions, suggesting his appreciation for the third Reich. According to open sources, in 2017, Utkin was decorated by president Putin, a picture with the two being also available.

The interference of the “Wagner” company in states from Africa followed, with small adaptations in terms of the local culture and situation, the same model. It all starts with a visit in Moscow and some meetings with policy makers. Russia offers to provide local assistance, in fields wherein it has information that the African country is in need. This is the door that opens the entry for the PMC to give a hand in, for example, the extraction of natural resources and securing these exploitations. This activity is included in international practices, having no illegal effect. The following logical step is asking the local governmental structures to make military visits to the forces that are going to train the troops of the African state in question. During these trainings, it emerges “the necessity” to create an airport or a port for the Russian fleet and aviation. This scenario was used by Wagner in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Madagascar.

In Libya, this scenario was applied starting with 2016, when Russia started to develop relations with both Libyan leadership structures: the one recognized by the UN, the National Accord Government in Tripoli and the Libyan National Army from Tobruk, led by general Khalifa Haftar. After paying a visit to Moscow, in June 2016, where Haftar met with several Russian officials, including with the defence minister, Serghei Shoigu, it started the development of the relations with the Libyan general, at the expense of the relation with the governmental army. Between 2017 and 2018, the ISIS groups in Libya executed attacks in east of this country, in the area controlled by Haftar. The decisive fight back of the Libyan National Army was supported by the “Wagner Group” troops. Utkin’s contractors started the mine clearance operations in East of Libya, on the territory that Haftar’s people freed from ISIS.

In the second part of 2019, the troops of the “Wagner” group started the intensive training of the Libyan fighters, Haftar’s people that they equipped with modern weapons and joined them in fight. After this support, Russia started the talks for the construction of a naval base in Libya.

The Central African Republic is another example for the diplomatic steps done by Russia with the support of the “Wagner” company. In October 2017, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Russia, Sergey Shoigu, went to the Central African Republic, in an official visit. When talking about the problems they are facing, President Faustin- Archange Touadera has underlined the need of a military support in his fight against the almost 20 rival militias. To that end, after 5 months, the “Wagner” contractor had immediately started to train the African military and mining the territories in the requested field, as well as to export the Russian weapons. It is noteworthy that the Central African Republic was already getting French weapons, but these were rejected by the Russian instructors.

Concurrently with this mission, some Russian private military companies started extraction operations of the natural resources and build an airport to ease the operations of the “Wagner” contractors.

Madagascar is a country that has great gold, cobalt, nickel and uranium resources. After the visits of high Russian officials, the cooperation between the two countries started. Based on it, Russia got the permission to exploit the mineral resources. The Russian company “Ferrum Mining”, whose owner was Evgheni Prigozin, former cooker for Putin, who eventually became a business man, started great exploitation works there. In order to provide the perimetric security and that of the personnel of the company, it called on the Wagner Company, the private military company funded by Kremlin through Prigozin.

After the visit of the Russian fight vessel “Severomorsk”, from October 2018, a year later, Russia and Madagascar have signed a military cooperation agreement, largely opening the access of the Wagner Company in the African country. The provision of modern weapons was also facilitated by the same company.

In March 2018, Putin met with president of Sudan, who asked for his support to fight against “US’s aggressive actions”. After this meeting, the Russian mining company M Invest got privileged access to the gold mines in Sudan. In July, the same year, after signing a military cooperation agreement, the Wagner company signed security contract of mining exploitations but also contracts to train the Sudanese military.

One of the basic objectives of the Russian presence in the African states was to get the approval of these countries to build air or naval military bases there. Therefore, soon, Russia will have bases in Libya, Sudan, Egypt, the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Madagascar. In fact, in Sudan, Russian SU-35 fight aircrafts are already showing up there. The air and naval bases will allow the development of huge commercial activities and weapons delivery.

The US does not seem interested in entering in a competition with Russia and China on the African continent. Washington, when its interests will get affected, will impose sanctions against the African states. The two big competing powers will not feel obliged to follow the, instead, they will continue to follow their objectives.

However, Russia and China, will not affect each other’s interests and they will distribute their action areas. Their objectives are different when it comes to energy, but they have similar ones when it comes to the exploitation of rare metals. China was present in Africa long before Russia and, therefore, seems to have some advantages.

Russia is balancing the situation with the presence of the PMC Wagner, which is not only a deterrence element, but also one that trains the African states for diplomatic meetings with Russian representatives. China does not have, yet, such private military companies to compete with “Wagner” in the military, security or diplomatic field.

Translated by Andreea Soare