Pressure on Russia’s private military company Wagner has been increasing from Western countries over the past few years. Although the group’s first appearance was in 2014 when it backed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. It has been involved in conflict zones including in Syria, Sudan, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic. But significant concerns about the mysterious company, with which the Kremlin denies involvement, began with the announcement by Mali’s defense minister last year. Western countries have found that talks with Wagner to form the Malian armed forces pose a threat to interests they hold in their former colonies. According to Agence France-Presse.
With tensions between NATO and Russia rising over news that Moscow had massed troops on Ukraine’s borders and then started the war there, the EU moved on December 10, 2021, to impose a major sanctions package in response to what it considered the “destabilizing actions” of the Wagner Group. These include visa bans and asset freezes in the European Union against individuals and entities linked to the Wagner Group.
The sanctions against the company came for its activities in Ukraine, Libya, and Syria as well as for human rights violations, according to 40 pages of draft documents. ” It was a comprehensive response to the actions of a country that harbors Wagner.” a European diplomat said.
On January 26, 2023, in the greatest action taken to date, the United States tightened sanctions on the Russian Wagner Group and its associated entities, describing the Russian mercenary company as a “transnational criminal organization” responsible for widespread human rights violations.
Why does the West move against Wagner?
Western moves against Wagner have been initiated due to French concern over the deployment of Wagner fighters in Mali, after the ruling military council in Bamako signaled the possibility of using the Russian private company services, which reports confirming its proximity to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Relations between France and Mali have deteriorated over the past year, following two military coups in Bamako. In June 2021, Paris began reorganizing its military deployment in the Sahel, notably by leaving its three bases in northern Mali to focus on the Gao and Ménaka regions near the Niger and Burkina Faso borders.
France’s plan calls for reducing its troop numbers from the current 5,000 to around 2,500-3,000 by 2023. Tensions between Paris and Bamako escalated when Mali’s transitional prime minister, Chugal Maïga, accused France of abandoning his country in the middle of the road.
On November 12th, Paris warned Moscow during a ministerial meeting in the French capital that the deployment of mercenaries from the Russian private company Wagner in the Sahel and Sahara region would be “unacceptable,” according to a statement by the French Foreign Ministry, according to Reuters. France has warned Mali that it will lose “the support of the international community” and give up all elements of its sovereignty if it turns to Russia’s controversial Wagner Group.
“Since news emerged in September that the Malian government was negotiating a contract with the private Russian military company “Wagner Group”, France and other European countries have made this issue a focus of their diplomatic activity.” policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Affairs, Andrew Leibovich says, according to the EU Foreign Service report.
Up to 1,000 Russian mercenaries, who are supposed to conduct training and counter-terrorism operations, will be brought in through concessions to the Wagner Group or related companies in several mines, for a minimum of 10 million euros per month. despite the actual cost, they could be much higher, according to what was quoted by the Czech eubulletin website on December 11, 2021.
In addition, Western countries have a strong argument to work to besiege Wagner’s activity, especially in the human rights file, and its ability to evade accountability for the violations it is believed to have carried out. A number of NGOs and journalists argue that Russia is using the Wagner Group and its mercenaries to serve Moscow’s interests abroad. This is something the Kremlin denies. “The Wagner Group and other Russian-run security companies should be considered to be acting on behalf of the Russian state.” European MPs say according to multiple reports.
Wagner’s danger is that it has no “legitimate presence” in Russia, because paramilitary companies are banned, but this has not prevented it from documenting its presence in Syria, where it provides support to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, in Libya with fighters of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and in the Central African Republic, where some of its operatives carry out “training” missions.
Amnesty International and other international human rights organizations, such as the International Federation for the Protection of Human Rights and the Russian Organization Memorial, accuse Wagner of torture, repression, and rape against civilians in conflict zones. it was first sued by three NGOs in Russia, including the International Federation for the Protection of Human Rights, for “torture and beheading a soldier suspected of fleeing the Syrian army in 2017”.
A video published in 2018 by the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta showed several Russian-speaking men beating their victim with a hammer to dismember him. Then they sprayed him with diesel and set him on fire while his head hung on top of a pole. The newspaper “Novaya Gazeta” has received several threats since it revealed this incident, while those involved in this act have not been prosecuted.
Putin’s foreign legion is a clear victory for the Kremlin, secretly contracting high-risk, experimental operations in fragile states with the Wagner Group, thereby gaining the ability to deny what the Wagner Group is doing and avoiding public scrutiny of combat losses.
The Kremlin has sought to downplay the loss of many Wagner fighters, thereby removing responsibility towards families of Wagner soldiers killed abroad. Because private security companies are illegal in Russia, Wagner escapes accountability for atrocities that may have been committed by the group’s agents, as victims do not know who to prosecute. According to the British newspaper )Sunday Guardian( on November 20, 2021.
Evidence has recently mounted pointing to the Kremlin’s ties to this group, bearing in mind that some of its men pose a threat to security in Europe, as they are involved in crimes, and can obtain false passports that enable them to carry out operations against European interests. Reports indicate that Wagner forces continue to use Russian military transport infrastructure to fly to hotspots around the world. They are treated and rehabilitated when injured in Russian military hospitals.
Wagner employees use passports issued by a special passport office in Moscow (the Central Migration Office Unit) that supplies passports exclusively to those associated with the Russian Defense Ministry. Bellingcat, the highly respected investigative organization, recently reported. According to the Sunday Guardian on November 20, 2021.
The role Wagner is playing in the war in Ukraine appears to be the decisive factor in Western moves against it. Wagner fighters are reportedly fighting for control of the towns of Pakhmot and Solidar in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. Where Western and Ukrainian officials have said it is using convicts to sacrifice them in battle.
Putin is increasingly utilizing Wagner for military support. The United States estimates that Wagner has about 50,000 individuals deployed in Ukraine, including 40,000 convicts recruited from Russian prisons, according to Washington. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
The Wagner paramilitary group has begun building a defense line consisting of concrete blocks and anti-tank trenches in eastern Ukraine, which Russian media has presented as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s secret weapon, and the line of defense on which Ukrainian tanks will crash. The French Newspaper Le Parisien said.
In late February 2022, following the start of the war in Ukraine, reports revealed that elements of the Wagner Group were increasingly involved in the war on behalf of Russian forces. The company was founded in 2014 and in the same year was publicly assigned its first assignment in Crimea, where its uniformed mercenaries helped Russian-backed separatist forces take control of Crimea. With the outbreak of the Russian war in Ukraine, Wagner mercenaries were mobilized at the beginning of the war to reinforce Russian forces stationed on the front lines, but as the war continued, reliance on Wagner elements increased increasingly in decisive battles, especially on the Bakhmout and Solidar fronts.
The strategic conflict between the West and Russia
It can be argued that the competition between the West and Russia is not limited to Ukraine and the war going on there. Moscow has regularly sought to increase its influence in Africa with more traditional economic and diplomatic campaigns, as well as using more means such as the Wagner Group, as it seeks to increase its share of the continent’s precious natural resource reserves, to impose its influence and achieve the Kremlin’s vision of a multipolar world. This worries Europe and the United States as well. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Nov. 20 warned Russia’s Wagner Group against interfering with efforts to promote democracy in Mali, the Associated Press reported.
Reports indicate that in the Central African Republic, about 450 of its fighters are protecting President Touadéra from rebel groups, which control nearly two-thirds of the country.
In Libya, the conflict quickly turned into a proxy war as many countries seized the opportunity to advance their interests by providing military assistance to the main factions: The Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA).
Russia withheld its participation by sending about 1,500 Wagner mercenaries to support the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar. This allowed Putin to present himself as a mediator for a final settlement, focusing on reducing Libyan oil revenues now guarded by Wagner mercenaries, and plans to establish a naval base and two air bases, which would threaten the southern flank of NATO, according to the British newspaper (Sunday Guardian) on November 20, 2021.
On the other hand, European-American meetings on the situation in Syria have shown a split over how to deal with Russia. Representatives of France, Germany, and other countries criticized Washington’s insistence on dialogue with Moscow on the Syrian file without direct coordination with European allies, referring to private meetings between President Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden’s envoys in Geneva and their agreement on a draft humanitarian aid resolution last July. As reported by Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on December 11, 2021. U.S. officials have certainly met the criticism by sticking to sanctions on Syria and offering only humanitarian exemptions. Ignoring European interests, Europe feels it must rely on itself on security issues and act alone to stop Russian infiltration into its traditional spheres of influence.
The Russian military company Wagner existed years before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, and was composed of a few thousand mercenaries, most of whom are believed to be veterans and former members of elite military units, who were well-trained. But as Russia’s losses in the Ukraine war mounted, the company’s owner “Yevgeny Prigozhin” one of Russia’s most prominent oligarchs known as “Putin’s chef” began expanding the group by recruiting Russian prisoners and Russian and foreign civilian agents.
Prigozhin appeared in a video last September speaking to prisoners in the courtyard of a Russian prison and promising them that if they travel to Ukraine to fight for six months, their sentences will be reduced. It is estimated that twenty thousand members of the Wagner Group are currently fighting in Ukraine. Despite their increasing involvement in the war, the effectiveness of Wagner elements on the battlefields cannot be determined conclusively.
Is the West exaggerating its stand on Wagner’s activities?
Reports coming from Bamako and European capitals confirm that Wagner delegations are already in Mali, and that they have surveyed potential areas of operation and mining sites that they can exploit as part of their compensation. Wagner is not Russia’s only private military company, there are others who may be interested in or involved in Mali and the Sahel, supported by various parts of the Russian government and businessmen.
However, Mali is not as permissive to Wagner as the Central African Republic, for several reasons, including that the control of the existing Malian government means that mineral mines are subject to laws and regulations that may not be easily overcome by pressure from private companies. For example, the Coordination Organization of Azawad Movements, a coalition of armed groups and a signatory to the 2015 peace agreements signed in Algiers, has expressed its opposition to the arrival of Russian mercenaries.
It was likely concerned that the Malian government might use Wagner mercenaries to target it instead of jihadist forces. Moreover, Western diplomats in Bamako point out that production from mines examined by Wagner’s envoys proved insufficient to pay for the group’s services. Russia is also unlikely to seek to replace the extensive European-backed security and development infrastructure in the Sahel.
A sharp international stance is required to respond to the comprehensive foreign policy goals of Russia, which wants to cause more tension and disagreement between France, the European Union, and the Mali government. But at the same time, this reaction allows Russia to present itself as a stable partner for Mali, militarily, economically, and politically. This may help reinforce the Malian prime minister’s populist criticism of France, at a time when the transitional government seeks to delay promised elections and secure its position against an increasingly hostile regional and international community. According to observers for the website (European Council on Foreign Relations) on December 2, 2021
Another risk that comes from overestimating Russia’s potential influence in the Sahel is the failure to see other problems in the region: Although Russian influence and support for anti-French movements seem obvious, it would also be a mistake to underestimate the rise in anti-French sentiment in the Sahel, attributing it only to Russian agitation.
Experts advise that Europeans should better explain their reasons and policies in the Sahel to its citizens directly, and use evidence of Russian abuses against civilians and religious leaders in countries such as the Central African Republic to show the seriousness of the Wagner Group or similar entities in Mali or Burkina Faso.
There may not be a coherent Russian strategy toward Africa in Mali as some outside observers believe, as Russian foreign policy is sometimes reactive, aimed at providing short-term advantages where possible, and seeking to disrupt adversaries even temporarily.
Moreover, the EU cannot treat Russia and the Wagner Group as a single body, representing diverse and sometimes competing interests within the Russian state. So according to the website (European Council on Foreign Relations) on December 2, 2021
Several European countries, led by France and Germany, warned that an agreement between Bamako and Wagner would call into question their military presence in Mali. But in fact, there are differences at the European level, according to the French magazine “Le Point”, which adds that officially, European countries cannot work with the Russians, but on the other hand, Russian participation in the fight against terrorism also means controlling the waves of migration. This aspect concerns many European countries that are in dire need of keeping migrants across the Mediterranean. There is undoubtedly a much broader political debate where positions are more nuanced than what appears in speeches and public statements.
European diplomats are generally opposed to the prospect of Wagner being in Mali, but some felt that France’s aggressive response backfired, playing a role in supporting populist calls for “sovereignty” against France’s continued influence as a former colonial power, according to a report published by the Czech website Eubulletin on December 11, 2021.
Russia is not the only country in the world that owns private military companies, there are the United States, South Africa, Iraq, and Colombia, as these countries have private military companies operating inside and outside them. But the danger that the West is concerned about is Wagner’s close relationship with the Russian government, as well as its large scope of deployment, in addition to the use of fighters from the Middle East, especially from Syria, which has enabled it to obtain soldiers at a lower financial cost with combat experience as a result of the involvement of many of them in the Syrian war that lasted for more than a decade.
While other private military companies provide security services, Wagner operatives have been involved in major missions in conflicts and civil wars, and their reputation has been damaged by their members’ adoption of far-right ideas.
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