The Expansion of Russian Private Military Companies in Africa

By Brian Katz, Seth G. Jones, Catrina Doxsee, Nicholas Harrington, September 2020, Source: CSIS

AFRICA: DATE OF ARRIVAL: 2014

АФРИКА

Though Russian Para-Military Companies [PMCs] first appeared in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as early as 2014, Russia significantly expanded the geographic scope and missions of PMCs in Sub-Saharan Africa following its interventions in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya. Russia has primarily used PMCs to target resource-rich countries with weak governance, such as Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Madagascar. Though PMC tasks have varied from case to case to meet local needs, in each of these countries Russia exchanged military and security support for economic gains and political influence.

Libya PMC: DATE OF ARRIVAL: 2015

Paramilitary

PMC personnel trained LNA forces on ground warfare tactics and weapons systems, including tanks, artillery, attack aircraft, and UAVs.

Combat

Hundreds of forward-deployed PMC fighters took on direct combat roles in the Tripoli offensive, including snipers, anti-tank guided missiles, precision artillery, and surface-to-air missiles.

Intelligence

PMC operatives directed ISR support to LNA operations while cultivating and bolstering pro-Russian Libyan officials, particularly former Gaddafists.

Site Security

PMC personnel from RSB Group and Wagner have deployed at key oil, gas, infrastructure, and port facilities, including Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, and Sirte, to provide security.

Propaganda and Disinformation

Supplementing RT and Sputnik Arabic, PMC-run media companies have acquired regional media outlets and conducted social media influence operations to propagate pro-Haftar and Qaddafi propaganda and anti-GNA, Turkey, and U.S. disinformation.

With lessons learned from supporting the Assad regime in Syria, Russia deployed PMCs to Libya’s civil war to bolster General Khalifa Haftar, his Libyan National Army (LNA), and the eastern-based government in Tobruk. Since 2017, PMCs such as Wagner Group have been at the vanguard of Russian efforts, advising and enabling Haftar’s LNA offensive into western Syria and assault on the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli in 2019. Moscow deployed up to 800-1,200 PMC personnel, primarily from Wagner Group, to multiple training sites, forward bases, and key energy and infrastructure facilities as of early 2020, conducting a variety of missions vital to Haftar’s offensive and to Russian interests.

TRANSLATION

1,600 Russian “Wagner” PMC militants left the west of Libya after the defeat and flight of the Russian-Haftar troops. View original tweet.

One of Russia’s primary deployment sites has been Al Jufra Air Base in central Libya, which has served as the launching pad for Wagner Group forces and Russian air support to the Tripoli campaign. A close examination of Russia’s deployment at Al Jufra Airbase reveals an expansion of Russian air and ground forces. In particular, satellite imagery shows a growth in the presence of the Russian PMC Wagner Group, a core component of Russia’s intervention in Libya.

Full airbase shot, June 6, 2020.

The arrival of a large contingent of Russian artillery and PMC Wagner Group forces, May 28, 2020.

A Russian Su-24 attack aircraft taxiing on an Al Jufra runway, demonstrating continued Russian military activity, June 8, 2020.

PMCs have been Moscow’s spearhead for advancing its foreign policy, military, and economic interests in Libya. With the Libyan civil war, Russia saw a power vacuum and chance to exploit the instability to expand Russian influence, using PMCs to bolster Haftar, tip the conflict in their favor, and reap the rewards. In exchange, Moscow sought economic and military concessions, deploying PMCs to key oil and gas facilities and Mediterranean ports as those areas fell to the LNA. Russia also used Libya to strengthen ties to traditionally U.S. partners, namely UAE and Egypt. Since 2017, Russian PMCs have deployed to Egypt’s Sidi Barrani airfield to direct joint Russian-Egyptian military support to Haftar. Newly acquired CSIS imagery shows the deployment of Russian equipment at Sidi Barrani in March 2017.

Left: A recently arrived Il-76 transport aircraft in March 2017 at Sidi Barrani. Russian special operations forces and private military contractors deployed to Sidi Barrani as part of a bid to support Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar.

Right: Vehicles on the aircraft apron at Sidi Barrani in March 2017.

Russia’s deployment of PMCs to Libya has strengthened its geostrategic position and diplomatic influence in the country, ensuring Moscow’s role in any resolution of the conflict and an end-state amenable to Russian interests. However, there were also limits to Moscow’s use of PMCs. Despite assistance from PMCs, the LNA was unable to seize Tripoli and even triggered an expanding intervention from Turkey to bolster the GNA. Wagner Group alone has lost hundreds of fighters and key weapons systems in Tripoli’s heavy ground fighting and from Turkish drone strikes. Nonetheless, through its PMC-led intervention, Moscow has gained a new strategic foothold and geostrategic position on the Mediterranean, as well as a bridgehead into the rest of the African continent.

Sudan: DATE OF ARRIVAL: 2017

In Sudan, Russia used Wagner Group to provide military and political support to President Omar al-Bashir in exchange for gold mining concessions. Russia also had a strategic motive to seek basing rights in the Red Sea. In November 2017, Moscow facilitated a mining operations agreement for M Invest, a Russian company tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin. PMC troops, who arrived the following month, provided training and military assistance to local forces. In addition, PMCs orchestrated a disinformation campaign to discredit protesters through many of the same techniques the Internet Research Agency, linked to Prigozhin, used in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Central African Republic: DATE OF ARRIVAL: 2018

Russia has followed a similar model in the Central African Republic, where the Wagner Group and Patriot—another Russian PMC—have reportedly been active. Beginning in January 2018, Russia exchanged military training and security—primarily for President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and mining operations—for access to gold, uranium, and diamonds. New CSIS imagery sheds light on the training camp these troops established southwest of Bangui in the ruins of the Palace of Berengo.

Wagner PMC Base in Berengo Progress

Following their arrival in 2018, PMC troops established a training camp in the ruins of former-emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s palace at Berengo, southwest of Bangui. Troops repaired existing facilities and constructed new housing, storage structures, and training areas—including firing ranges and revetments. The imagery below shows the year-by-year development of the main base on the palace grounds and the two adjacent training areas, beginning with the conditions in 2017 before PMCs arrived.

BASETRAINING AREAFIRING RANGE

PMCs Arrive 2017

Madagascar: DATE OF ARRIVAL: 2018

In early spring 2018, Wagner Group sent a small group of political analysts to Madagascar to support incumbent President Hery Rajaonarimampianina’s reelection bid in exchange for economic agreements on mining (chromite and gold), oil, agriculture, and the port of Toamasina. In April, additional troops arrived to provide security and military training, allegedly with the assistance of Federal Security Service and GRU officers. Though Rajaonarimampianina lost the election, he facilitated the promised agreements prior to leaving office. Ferrum Mining, a Russian company involved in one such deal, began operations on the island in October 2018 but soon paused due to strikes.

Mozambique: DATE OF ARRIVAL: 2019

In Mozambique, Russia traded Wagner’s military support against Islamist insurgents in Cabo Delgado province for access to natural gas. Wagner troops arrived in early September 2019 but were unprepared for the mission. They had little experience conducting operations in the brush and difficulty coordinating with local forces. After significant losses, Wagner troops retreated south to Nacala in November 2019 to regroup. Despite sending additional equipment and troops in February and March 2020, Wagner was replaced in April by the Dyck Advisory Group, a South African PMC. It is unclear whether any Wagner troops remain in the country.