Russia is “destabilising the West” by pouring secretive mercenaries into fragile states in Africa as part of a new front in the battle for global supremacy, defence chiefs have warned.
With the world’s eyes locked on Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian war, the Wagner Group of Kremlin-linked guns for hire is carrying out shadowy operations to exploit the Sahel region in a bid to widen Moscow’s sphere of influence.“It’s very much an exploitative environment about seeing weakness, pouncing, manipulating, and extracting leaving places poorer, weaker and less secure,” a US State Department official told the Telegraph just before the war broke out.
Since the President Vladimir Putin ordered his army to invade Ukraine on February 24 there have been unconfirmed reports indicating that hundreds of Russian mercenaries may have left countries they’re operating in like the Central African Republic for Ukraine.Reportedly, two different groups of mercenaries have been sent to kill Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky. Mr Zelensky is said to have survived multiple assassination attempts in the past week. It is thought that the Ukrainian security forces have inflicted heavy losses on the Wagner group and “eliminated” a number of operatives.
Wagner operatives are understood to be involved in more than 20 countries and have played a key role in most of the world’s major conflicts, most recently during the Syrian civil war, before being dispatched to support the Russian-backed Libyan National Army.
Intelligence experts have also accused the Russian mercenary group of being behind serious breaches of human rights in many of the countries they operate in including murders, rapes and kidnapping.
Western security officials now fear Wagner, run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of President Putin, is being used as a proxy army in Africa on behalf of the Russian leader, to further his imperialist ambitions.
“For Russia this is a good tool in terms of all the hybrid tools, including disinformation,” an EU official said. “Using a proxy, which can stimulate unrest or advance Russian interests in the battlegrounds for influence.”
Brussels and Moscow have sparred over the Wagner Group’s presence in West Africa, leading to EU sanctions on the firm and its associates.
Tensions are at their highest in Mali, where the Russian mercenaries are being paid by the country’s military junta in the wake of two recent coups and a decision to delay elections.
The US official said: “They extract that cost in real time, in the case of Mali $10 million a month, but also in terms of longer term access to resources, particularly mining resources.
“When countries are unable to pay, Wagner doesn’t stick around for very long.”
Last month, France was withdrawing all of its forces from Mali, who have been serving there on a counter jihadist mission, because of their disagreements with the countries new military junta. It is understood that France and its European allies cannot tolerate operating alongside the Russian guns for hire.
Wagner’s strategy in the Sahel mirrors that in the Central African Republic, where the country’s leadership pays for its operations with lucrative mining contracts.
France on Thursday announced that it will pull its anti-terror mission out of Mali, blaming “multiple obstructions” by its ruling military junta for the withdrawal.
Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, said the withdrawal will be conducted in a “coordinated manner” with Mali’s army and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country.
France’s withdrawal from Mali could throw the region into more turmoil. In 2013, France intervened in Mali to beat back jihadists who had conquered the northern part of the country.
At first, the French were welcomed as heroes but their presence has grown increasingly controversial as the conflict has spread across into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
And those conditions are expected to improve any time soon, with western officials highly sceptical of Colonel Assimi Goita, the man who has overthrown two Malian governments, including one he put into power with a coup in 2020.
The country’s 39-year-old interim president is seen as amateurish and naive, seen as a key reason for calling in Wagner to help secure his country post-coup.
Russian mercenaries are said to have leapt at the chance, as part of operations to scupper western counter terror missions in the region, to ensure it remains destabilised.
“They’re Kremlin-linked forces that are going in and destabilising and taking advantage of environments where there are relatively fewer options, and to back efforts that will be at odds with Western values, whether it’s authoritarian environments or human rights abuses, it further entrenches the environment that Wagner can exploit,” the US official said.
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