This week, the European Union imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization accused of committing human rights violations in the Central African Republic and elsewhere. The EU said in a statement that Wagner had recruited, trained and sent independent military operatives to war zones around the world, fueling violence, as well as illegally stealing natural resources and intimidating civilians. In August, the United Nations reported more than 500 incidents as of July 2020. Among those documented are extrajudicial killings, torture and sexual violence. As a result, the EU, one of the region’s main humanitarian donors, suspended its mission to help train Central African forces. This was due to concerns that Wagner’s mercenaries were commanding units that the EU had assembled.
EU spokesperson Nabila Massrali said Brussels was increasingly concerned about the activities of the Wagner Group. In addition to the problems in CAR, the UN says the group has committed war crimes in Libya. “[T]their legal status is vague, as is their modus operandi, goals and targets, ”Massrali said, explaining the difficulty of imposing accountability for human rights violations with“ such ambiguity ”.
Still, the slippery nature of the group has a solid foundation. Despite Russia’s denials, the EU insists on Wagner’s ties to the Kremlin. One of the parties sanctioned by the EU was Valery Zakharov, a former member of the Russian state security service and security adviser to Central African President Touadéra. According to the EU, Zakharov is “a key figure in … the command structure of the Wagner group” and maintains “close ties with the Russian authorities”. The group is also reportedly funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy financier with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Prigozhin has always denied any connection to Wagner.
The group’s main goals are further in line with the Kremlin’s foreign policy: the suppression of pro-democracy protests, as well as the extraction of natural resources like metals and diamonds. Candace Rondeaux, senior member of the Center on the Future of War, told Foreign Policy: “[I]It is extremely problematic that we continue to call them the Wagner Group because it makes them look like these ghostly operators who cannot be traced, and that is simply not the case.
Wagner rose to fame in 2014, when he fought alongside pro-Russian separatists in the annexation of Crimea. Since then, the group has gained influence in the Middle East, as well as in Central and Southern Africa. The mercenaries now remain in CAR, a country plagued by civil unrest since the overthrow of President François Bozizé in 2013, to support outgoing President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in the fight against the rebels still controlling much of the country. In 2017, after the UN Security Council approved a Russian training mission in CAR and lifted the 2013 arms embargo, President Touadéra signed a number of security agreements with the Kremlin. These included a petition for military support, in return for access to the CAR’s large reserves of diamonds, gold and uranium.
Besides Libya, the EU has also drawn attention to Wagner’s mercenary operations in Sudan and Mozambique. In the first, they would have been involved in training, as well as in the protection of officials and mining sites. In Mozambique, Wagner supported the army in its fight against the Islamist insurgency. More recently, Mali, on paper a Western ally, announced that it wanted to employ around 1,000 Wagner agents to help provide security, as international interventions failed to force the country to consider alternatives. Wagner’s potential entry into Mali is a reminder to many commentators of how the group began operating in CAR. And while the attention of the West remains fixed on the Russian dispute on the Ukrainian border, the African presence of the Wagner group seems to be symbolic of the subtle influence that Russia nevertheless has beyond its own borders.