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Global update

The Russian mercenaries reshaping Africa

Vladimir Putin looming large in Burkina Faso. Olympia de Maismon/AFP/Getty

One of the big winners of the war in Ukraine is the Wagner group, says Colin Clarke in The New York Times. Stories of the Kremlin-backed mercenary outfit employing freed criminals and fighting when conventional Russian troops flee the battlefield have made it a household name. But it’s the private military contractors’ activities in Africa that require closer attention. In recent years the group has deployed fighters to Libya, Mali, Mozambique and elsewhere, often replacing the forces of a withdrawing Western army. And they are quickly “destabilising poorly governed regions”, like the Sahel, through “wanton human rights abuses”, rapacious resource extraction and political meddling.

In Sudan, Wagner operatives advised the genocidal strongman Omar al-Bashir on how to run social media campaigns to discredit protesters. In a memo, they advised publicly executing a few troublemakers to “send a message to others”. Their fingerprints are all over recent elections in Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and they may soon be on their way to Burkina Faso, where the government is said to have offered a lucrative mining contract in exchange for Wagner’s services. This kind of “security-for-resources” deal has become central to the Russian mercenaries’ operations – dodgy regimes increasingly seem to prefer their no-strings-attached arrangements to the complex “security agreements” on offer from Western powers. But the Wagner group’s shock tactics are also terrifying local populations and driving young men in lawless lands into the arms of ISIS and co. “Ungoverned spaces anywhere are a threat to security everywhere.”