Thursday, February 22, 2024

From election interference to gold smuggling, Russians are pulling strings across this continent

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With the West’s eyes on Russia’s strategy, manoeuvres and human rights abuses in Ukraine, is it missing what the country is up to on another continent?

In the last few months, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has visited a list of African countries: Angola, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Eritrea, Mali, Mauritania, South Africa and Sudan.

With Cold War-like lines hardening around the world, Lavrov used the visits to push Russia’s narrative on Ukraine and slam the West.

“Despite the anti-Russian orgy orchestrated by Washington, London and Brussels, we are strengthening good neighbourly relations in the widest sense of this concept with the international majority,” he said in February after an Africa trip.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been stepping up engagement with Africa.(Reuters)

But behind the photo ops and handshakes, Russia is playing a much deeper and far less public role there.

Julia Stanyard, a senior analyst with the non-government organisation Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), says Russia’s most significant presence in Africa is not the Russian state, but a shadowy Russian private company.

“[The Wagner Group] has become the most influential Russian actor in Africa,” a new report co-authored by Stanyard states.

This Kremlin-backed group is doing the dirty work of the Russian state across Africa and getting rich along the way.

It’s now “an extension or a low-cost outsourcing of Russia’s military and diplomatic engagement in the continent”, Stanyard tells ABC RN’s Sunday Extra.

More than mercenaries

Since the start of the Ukraine conflict, the Russian private company Wagner Group has been making headlines for deploying its mercenaries there.

As the GI-TOC report puts it: “Controlled by a historically close ally of Vladimir Putin, [oligarch] Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner has a seemingly mutually beneficial relationship with the Russian state”.

Or as Stanyard says: “In sanctions designations by Western countries … [Wagner] is often described as a proxy of the Russian state. And in many ways, that is true”.

Two men stand over Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as he is about to start a meal.
Yevgeny Prigozhin (L) assists Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a dinner in 2011.(Reuters)

The Wagner Group is best known as a mercenary business, with troops in countries around the world, supporting Russian state interests.

But that’s not all they do. Far from it. Stanyard portrays Wagner as a sophisticated “ecosystem” or “a network of organisations and companies” out for political and economic gain, particularly in Africa.

First up, politics. The group has “engaged politically in a greater number of countries in Africa than it has militarily”.

Through its connected “political strategy organisations”, Wagner has the ears of African leaders, interferes with elections and runs anti-Western, pro-Russian disinformation campaigns. Stanyard goes as far as calling it a “political entity” on the continent.

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