The Russian government is creating its own mercenary group to operate in Africa, taking advantage of the vacuum left after the death of the former Wagner group chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Bloomberg reported on Jan. 30, citing sources.
Russia's illicit activities and ties to authoritarian regimes in Africa have been under the public eye for years. Russian mercenaries on the continent, including the Wagner Group, whose operations help to fill Moscow's coffers, have been repeatedly accused of human rights abuses against local populations.
Wagner suffered a significant blow following its short-lived mutiny and subsequent death of Prigozhin and other top leaders in a plane crash in August 2023, widely believed to have been orchestrated by the Russian government in response to the rebellion. The group was technically disbanded, and its fighters in Ukraine were largely incorporated into the regular Russian army, although it remained active in Africa.
With much of Wagner's network and business interests still in place in Africa, the Russian government has sought to capitalize on existing relationships with countries in the Sahel.
The new mercenary group, dubbed the Africa Corps, shares the name of Nazi Germany's military forces operating on the continent in the 1940s. It is unclear if the coincidence is intended or inadvertent.
According to the group's Telegram account and sources close to Russia's Defense Ministry, Africa Corps seeks to recruit at least 20,000 soldiers to serve in five countries across the Sahel.
At the height of Wagner's presence in Africa, there were a few thousand mercenaries on the ground, so it is not immediately apparent how Africa Corps intends to dramatically increase the number, especially considering the ongoing need to send soldiers to fight in Ukraine.
Africa Corps would be under the command of Russia's Defense Ministry and is reportedly planned to operate at several bases operated by the ministry. Such a shift would remove any plausible deniability of war crimes or looting that existed when Russia's presence in the Sahel was centered around the Wagner group.
So far, only about 100 soldiers have arrived in Africa, the group said on Telegram. The soldiers were posted in Burkina Faso to provide security for the military government of Ibrahim Traore, who took power in a coup in 2022.
At the same time, the Russian military presence in the Central African Republic has doubled since Prigozhin's death, increasing to some 2,000 men.
Western officials told Bloomberg that regular Russian troops are slowly replacing Wagner fighters. One of the main goals is expected to be a continuation and potential expansion of Wagner's previous natural resource extraction tactics, characterized by some in the West as government-sponsored looting on a massive scale.
Profits are expected to be redirected to Russia's war effort in Ukraine.
"It may be a rebranding exercise so far but it’s already a great result for the Russians," an analyst for an organization monitoring Wagner's activities told Bloomberg.