The Wagner Group could target British interests across Africa, prompting further instability and allowing terrorism to spread further across the region, experts have said.
Sierra Leone, Somalia and Kenya are among the countries across the continent where Britain has geopolitical, strategic and security interests that Wagner is most likely to target, according to experts.
It comes after the UK officially proscribed the Russian mercenary group as a terrorist organisation earlier this month, along with the likes of Hamas, Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State. The proscription last Friday means it is a criminal offence to be a member or support the group in the UK.
“It shows that the British Government shares the view that Wagner isn’t going away and it might indeed further its reach and presence in Africa to directly challenge British interests, as it is already doing with France in Mali and Niger,” according to Dr Martin Smith, senior lecturer in defence and international affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
This move will enable “co-ordinated sanctions and restricts the group’s global business operations, deterring others from supporting them”, according to Munira Mustaffa, executive director of Chasseur Group, and non-resident fellow at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy. “Symbolically, it sends a strong message about the UK’s stance against such entities,” she added.
The Russian mercenary group has become one of Russia’s strongest and most notorious foreign policy tools, helping with strategic influence while exploiting natural resources. In Africa, where they are estimated to have around 5,000 members, the group’s footprint is rapidly growing, leaving a trail of chaos, destruction and war crimes in its wake.
Wagner is known to be active in the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Mali, Mozambique, and Sudan where its forces provide security services, paramilitary assistance, as well as misinformation campaigns for regimes – particularly those with colonial legacies. In return, it receives diplomatic support and free rein to plunder lucrative natural resources, including gold, oil, natural gas, diamonds and timber.
The group has also been accused of committing severe human rights violations and atrocities, including torture, rape and executions.
The warning that Wagner could turn its attention to British interests comes despite the very public carving up of the mercenary group after an attempted coup against Russian military leadership led by its former leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in June, followed by his death in a plane crash near Moscow two months later.
Britain still maintains a military presence in several countries in Africa, training troops from their armed forces, as well as spearheading efforts to tackle Islamist terrorism by groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Boko Haram that have secured footholds across the region.
Experts fear that Wagner could now target British interests in countries where Wagner has not previously operated, fomenting further insecurity in favour of Russia in states where democracy is still weak.
“It’s a question of Wagner having the potential to stir up trouble and cause further instability in already fragile states and regions where the UK has political and security interests,” Dr Smith told i.
Sierra Leone in the west remains a fragile state that could prove ripe for interference by Wagner after being ravaged by a decade-long civil war ending in 2002, Dr Smith added.
“Helping end that conflict is regarded as an important and enduring British foreign policy achievement and the UK still maintains an ongoing military training programme with the Sierra Leone national army,” he said.
Somalia in the east is also “ripe for exploitation by warlords and mercenary groups”, said Dr Smith.
The UK supports a Somali-led counterterrorism strategy against the Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab, which represents the most significant security challenge in the country.
At present, there are more than 70 British troops stationed in Somalia, where UK personnel have trained nearly 1,000 Somali soldiers and instructors.
The instability in Somalia has also spilled over into neighbouring Kenya, where an attack on a military base housing US troops killed three American soldiers in 2020.
Wagner would likely try to “foment tensions and instabilities” within these countries, usually via social media rather than outright violence, before aligning with them using an “anti-colonial” message, Dr Smith suggested.
“Although much remains murky, there is some evidence that this approach played a role in creating the conditions that led to the coup in Niger in July,” he added, referring to the Russian flags on display at demonstrations in support of that coup.
For now, though, the Wagner Group is very likely going through some restructuring, according to Ms Mustaffa.
“Given that the organisation has lost its leadership, the likeliest outcome is that it may be undergoing a transformation, possibly being taken over or integrated by the Russian state,” she said.
The mercenary group’s presence in Africa, however, does not look like it will be weakened, Dr Smith warned.
“In [Africa] the Wagner presence is probably stronger and more powerful than that of the Russian state itself,” he said.
“It is an important force multiplier for Russia per se and this gives its African commanders bargaining power with the Putin government.”