Analysts tracking Wagner have frequently speculated on the relationship between shadowy organisations conducting influence operations in the countries where Wagner operates. They all share some connections to Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s founder, but they are more oblique by design than a mercenary group could ever be.
This post is the fourth and final part of a series about the Russian PMCs. We focused on the main landscape of these private military companies in our first post. Then, in our second and third blog posts, we narrowed down to the Russian Wagner Group to spotlight its most important roles, particularly as a covert tool of the Kremlin and protection for its founder’s global enterprises. This final installment will focus on the unseen support team conducting influence operations in the countries Wagner journeys to support Russia’s local allies.
Our best information available on Prigozhin’s political operators has come from investigative outlets like the London-based Dossier Center and open-source counterparts including Bellingcat.
Still, there is much that is not known about these influence operations. Using our Digital Investigative Board, however, we have mapped openly available information to obtain useful insights into their role relative to Wagner’s.
The hybrid toolkit in Africa by Wagner
In our last article, we highlighted how Yevgeny Prigozhin’s presence in Africa followed a renewed interest in the continent from Moscow. This came after Putin’s predilection towards deputizing the pursuit of foreign policy goals to Russia’s elite to compensate for its official limitations.
Wagner performs several roles in Africa including training local forces, providing security to Prigozhin’s companies, and fighting in places like Libya where Russia backs the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Operating quietly alongside Wagner is a cadre of strategists and online agents who work to influence local politics in favour of Russia. They have worked to support clients Moscow has favorable relationships with and directed propaganda against foes who can undermine these arrangements.
Russia's seekings of friends in Africa
Russia made a splash when it announced a summit of leaders from across Africa in late 2018, a signal that Moscow planned to return to the continent after decades of absence. Using available data, we previously mapped major Wagner operations in Africa in four countries primarily: Sudan, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Madagascar.
If Prigozhin was said to be running his own foreign policy in Africa, the Wagner Group would naturally fill the role of the hard power provider but the soft power component would not come without the political strategists.
Known as technologists in Russian parlance, these operatives are dispersed throughout nations where Prigozhin and Wagner operate. Below, we show where we could identify the work of these technologists and who they are based on available open-source material.
The largest most detailed operation of political support to an African leader has been in Madagascar. There Wagner was allegedly deployed as a security force to an obscure St. Petersburg firm called Ferrum Mining. The company operated a joint venture with Malagasy firm Kraoma Mining and maintained contact with Prigozhin’s technologists.
Thanks to reporting by the Russian investigative outlet called The Project, we know some Russian advisors travelled to the island nation in 2018. They provided the country’s former president Erie Rajaonarimampianina with advice on campaigning, polling and media strategy. They also created events that assured activists critical of the West, notably France, have platforms for expression.
We touched on Sudan in our previous pieces, concentrating on Prigozhin’s assets in the country, namely a mining company M-Invest.
According to documents obtained by The Dossier Center, this firm played a secondary role in the lead-up to former President Omar al-Bashir’s ouster. These included advice on how to slander regime opponents as well as a suggestion to forcefully crush protesters.
Amplify friends, discredit foes
In Libya and the CAR where Wagner was supporting leaders friendly with Moscow, other similar operations were taking place. According to documents provided to Stanford University by the Dossier Center, Prigozhin’s operatives disseminated propaganda to support its clients in Africa.
To do this, they created online content to promote the leaders of their preference such as Faustin Toudeira in the CAR and the Sovereign Council in Sudan. What's not surprising is that both these countries are friendly to Russia and permit Prigozhin-linked companies, including Wagner, to operate on their territory.
In Libya, though, we can highlight a significantly higher level of investment. Prigozhin has some involvement in the Kremlin policy in Libya given Wagner’s support for Khalifa Haftar. That is also combined with the Russian hopes of renewing numerous commercial contracts left unfulfilled following the fall of Muammar al-Gadhaffi in 2011.
Here Prigozhin’s efforts evolved with the needs of Moscow. Initially, his technologists worked to boost Gadhaffi’s son Saif by giving him political advice. They also arranged positive coverage provided by a pair of former regime-friendly media that received an investment from Prigozhin.
Over time, however, support for Saif dissipated in favour of Haftar, as his forces besieged Tripoli through 2019. The same channels that once supported the younger Gadhaffi soon switched to positively portraying Haftar while he was attacking the U.N. recognized Government of National Accords (GNA).
These shifts mirrored on-ground changes in Libya and preference alterations in Moscow. Haftar seemed poised to take Tripoli with Wagner’s help until the start of 2020 when Gadhaffi-related doubts from Russian advisors led to some hedging by the Kremlin.
Prigozhin's imperfect venture
Prigozhin’s efforts to influence African politics have not been exactly flawless successes. Whether this has to do with misunderstandings of the operating environment or shoddy work, there have been plenty of setbacks.
Despite significant investment, none of Prigozhin’s candidates in Madagascar fared well. None of them managed to win even 10% in the last election including Rajaonarimampianina. Military and commercial deals continued in the country in spite of these influence operations.
In Sudan, Russia’s ally Omar al-Bashir was toppled by protesters despite Prigozhin’s informal support. And in 2018 in Libya, authorities arrested Prigozhin’s technologists for their work.
An effort was placed into masking any Russian involvement in the propaganda arm of these operations, but these two have suffered setbacks.
After Stanford published its analysis of Dossier Center material, Facebook took down Russian bot accounts across Africa in October 2019. Even before this, their Libyan content was ridiculed and doubted online for their overzealous support for Haftar.
What we can effectively show at the end of our series on Wagner speaks as much about its utility to Russia as a fighting tool as it does to the decentralized foreign policy it pursues today.
Thanks to his ties to the Kremlin, Prigozhin’s empire provides Russia all the tools used by a nation-state. To push Russian interests, he provides a covert fighting force to meet military needs abroad, a self-sustaining network of commercial ventures, and an influence machine to drive its preferred narrative.
All of these activities have been ongoing for a better part of a decade. We owe a debt of gratitude to this diligent community of analysts, researchers, and journalists in Russia and the West who produced data for this visualization project.
In return, we look to help communicate these findings effectively through our mapping of the nodes in the Prigozhin-Wagner machine that continues pursuing Russian objectives globally.
*This investigation and all accompanying visualizations were made with the help of reKnowledge Digital Investigative Board. Click here to learn more.