July 18, 2023 - 1:00pm

Several hundred Wagner Group troops have this week arrived in the Central African Republic (CAR), ahead of a key referendum at the end of this month. The vote, proposed by President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, concerns whether he can override CAR’s constitutional ban on running for a third term. Should he get his way, either Wagner or a Wagner-like entity will remain in CAR to provide security to his regime, a coup-proofing strategy followed by other African governments, including the military junta in Mali. Should Touadéra lose, it could mark the end for Wagner’s time in this restive African country.

The militia first arrived in CAR in 2018, deployed to help prop up the country’s regime. But following the aborted mutiny engineered by Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin at the end of last month, there are doubts about the group’s continued presence abroad, including in countries like CAR.

While some have described Wagner’s involvement in CAR as an example of “state capture”, wherein a small circle of individuals gain control over the organs of a country for criminal gain, the truth is that the relationship is one of co-dependence. Wagner needs CAR just as CAR needs Wagner. 

The mining contracts secured in the African country are far too valuable for the Kremlin to simply cut its losses and walk away. Putin has used Wagner as part of Russia’s sanctions management strategy, relying on the transnational conglomerate to engage in extracting resources, bringing in heavy machinery to assist with plundering lucrative assets such as gold and timber. Through its vast network of shell companies and front organisations disguised as subsidiaries, Wagner even has the capacity to launder these ill-gotten gains, which are funnelled back to Moscow.

Going forward, none of the options available to Russia are attractive. Putin can disband Wagner, but would then have to replace it, an effort that would take time and money, two things the Kremlin currently lacks. Moscow could seek to integrate Wagner fighters into the conventional Russian armed forces, re-flagging their mercenaries under the banner of the Ministry of Defence, but this decision might have complicated second-order effects given the war crimes of which the group stands accused.

While Wagner has used conscripted felons and prison inmates as cannon fodder on the battlefields of Ukraine, its expeditionary operations have been slicker. At the time of Prigozhin’s uprising, the group was in the process of expanding its presence into even more African countries, seeking to gain further influence in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Cameroon, and Zimbabwe, among others.  

And while many analysts speculated that Prigozhin’s days were numbered following the coup attempt, especially after he was publicly named as a traitor, Putin reportedly met with the Wagner boss in the days following the incident. That meeting suggests that Putin recognises how dependent Russia has become on Wagner.

As the militia moves towards strengthening its hold on the heart of Africa, the Kremlin will see what it can learn from this complex multinational empire. French President Emmanuel Macron has previously referred to Touadéra as Wagner’s “hostage”; Putin will not want many more foreign leaders under duress at Prigozhin’s hands.

Dr. Colin P. Clarke is Director of Research at The Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consulting firm based in New York City. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at The Soufan Center, where he focuses on geopolitics, conflict, and international security.