Russia in Niger – A Military Junta Walks Away from the West

Andrew McGregor

Eurasia Daily Monitor 21 (56), April 11, 2024

Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC

Executive Summary

  • Russia is actively expanding ties with Niger’s military junta to consolidate control over resource-rich assets and to push out Western influence.
  • Moscow has now signed multiple agreements to provide security guarantees to Abdourahamane Tchiani and potentially take over the rights to several Nigerien gold mines.
  • Kremlin propaganda relies on “anti-colonial” narratives that have played a role in pushing the French and US military presence out of the country.

Nigerien president Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown by his own Garde Présidentielle on July 26, 2023. The Army backed the coup a day later, enabling former Garde leader Brigadier General Abdourahamane Tchiani to proclaim himself Niger’s new head-of-state. Bazoum was detained and coup supporters flooded the streets of the capital, Niamey, many of them waving Russian flags. The display raised suspicions of Russian/Wagner involvement in the coup.

Brigadier General Abdourahamane Tchiani (Reuters)

President Bazoum was known for his support of Ukraine at the UN and joined a diplomatic initiative to return rule of Crimea to Ukraine, though there were other factors at work in the coup besides pro-Russian sentiment in the military, including Bazoum’s Arab ethnicity in a Hausa-majority country (Arabs form less than 1% of the population) (AfricaNews, February 19, 2021). A stagnant economy, growing insecurity and the presence of Western troops were other factors, but the spark for the coup appears to have been Bazoum’s intention to shake up the ineffective military leadership. Like many other regional coup leaders, General Tchiani (a Hausa) and his armed forces chief-of-staff General Moussa Salaou Barmou received American military training.

Ukraine insisted Russia was behind the coup as part of its “scenario for provoking instability to undermine the global security order”​​​​​​​ (Anadolu Agency, August 1, 2023). Perhaps putting a damper on the idea that Russia had orchestrated the coup was Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s initial condemnation of the putsch as “an anti-constitutional undertaking” (Vedomosti, January 17).

Protesters in Niger’s capital Niamey hold a Russian flag and banner with images of coup leaders in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea (AFP)

Moscow nonetheless came to the defense of the junta when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) indicated it was planning a military intervention to restore President Bazoum (BBC, August 11, 2023). The military dictatorships of Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea (all ECOWAS members) signalled their intent to oppose any ECOWAS action against Niger and its new rulers, the Conseil Supérieur pour la Sauvegarde de la Patrie (CNSP – National Council for the Safeguarding of the Homeland).

With 1500 French troops in Niger, the French military was the junta’s first target with the cancellation on August 3, 2023 of all five military cooperation agreements with France (signed between 1977 and 2020). The French force was assisting in the struggle against Islamic State militants and jihadists of al-Qaeda-related Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimeen (JNIM) but was no longer having the impact it once did, providing fertile ground for anti-French Russian media manipulation. As ordered by the junta, French troops began evacuating Niger on October 10 (RIA Novosti, October 10, 2023). The last French troops left on December 22. Several weeks after their departure, Niger Defense Minister General Salifu Modi said the evacuations had already provided a “positive impact on our fight against terrorism” (RIA Novosti, January 17).

There were initial concerns that the coup in Niger might interrupt the flow of uranium to French nuclear reactors, but these concerns appear to have been overstated. Shortly after the coup, France’s Ministry of Energy Transition insisted: “The situation in Niger does not present any risk to France’s security of supply of natural uranium” (TV5Monde/AFP, July 31, 2023).. Niger is one of France’s top three uranium suppliers, supplying 20% of French needs  (TV5Monde/AFP, July 31, 2023). France maintains a strategic stockpile of strategic uranium equal to a two-year supply and is actively seeking to diversify its supply, including a long-term deal with Mongolia in October 2023 and the construction of a uranium recycling plant (Portail de l’IE [Paris], January 9; La Tribune [Paris], January 9).

A speaker believed to be Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin used a Wagner-associated Telegram channel to make a pitch to Niger’s new rulers to engage Wagner while employing the anti-colonial rhetoric now pervasive in West Africa: “What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their [French and American] colonizers… who are trying to foist their rules of life on them,,, and keep them in the state that Africa was in hundreds of years ago” (Meduza, July 28, 2023; al-Jazeera, July 31, 2023).

Following Prigozhin’s death last August and the subsequent reformation of the Wagner Group, Nigerien minister of state for defense Lieutenant General Salifou Modi joined Russian deputy minister of defense Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov in signing an agreement on December 4, 2023 providing for the deployment of Russia’s new GRU-directed Africa Corps in Niger (Izvestia, March 13).

Generals Yevkurov and Modi Sign a Defense Agreement (ANP)

According to General Modi, the cost would be significant: “A large part of our military budget will be allocated directly to our Russian partner.” Niger’s minister of mines added that some gold mines might be ceded to the Russians as well (Agence Nigérienne de Presse, December 4, 2023). In an interview a few days later, General Tchiani thanked Russia’s soldiers and mercenaries, but noted “we are paying them very dearly… Certainly, the security guarantees provided by Moscow have a high price and will require significant sacrifices, but it is a reliable partner” (Agence Nigérienne de Presse, December 10, 2023).

The tempo of reciprocal visits and meetings increased after this agreement, culminating in a March 26 phone call with President Putin in which General Tchiani expressed his gratitude for Moscow’s support and discussed stronger security cooperation (AFP, March 26).

A diplomatically disastrous visit to Niger by American officials in mid-March convinced the junta to cancel its “status of forces” agreement with the US on March 17 (ActuNiger, March 16; Al-Jazeera, March 17). The move forces the closure of a $100 million American drone facility and a separate CIA drone facility.

In another post-coup development, the junta repealed 2015 legislation outlawing migrant trafficking through Niger, claiming it had been implemented “under the influence of certain foreign powers” (AFP, January 23). Imprisoned traffickers were released and military escorts provided for migrant convoys. These measures were applauded both by traffickers and NGOs. The move raises the possibility of Russian manipulation of migrant flows to Europe.

Russia alone is unlikely to be able to provide all the assistance Niger needs in the economic, technical and financial fields. For these, Niger must be open to regional and international partnerships that might be jeopardized by an armed Russian presence following its own agenda. Niger has missed four debt payments in a row and is now $519 million in default (al-Jazeera, February 19).  With foreign aid accounting for half its budget, Niger can hardly afford to abandon all other partners in favor of Russia.

The junta will be taking a gamble with a relatively unknown partner like Russia, which has had few dealings with Niger since the Soviet era. On the other hand, Niger’s army has suffered numerous setbacks in trying to contain the jihadist insurgency and will require a new partner to replace the French.

This article was first published as “Niger Cozies Up to Russia and Walks Away From the West,” EDM, April 11, 2024.

Russian Military Intelligence Takes Over Wagner Operations in Libya

Andrew McGregor

Eurasia Daily Monitor

Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC

March 12, 2024

Executive Summary:

  • Moscow is consolidating the Wagner Group’s operations in Libya under the direct control of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU) and instituting the African Corps, run by Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister.
  • “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army is building connections with Russia to gain special forces training in exchange for further Russian presence in Libya while being warned against this by the United States.
  • Russia’s GRU is preparing important strategic plays in Libya through military operations that might shift the balance of power in the Mediterranean.

Libya’s broken government has offered a pathway to Russian influence in the oil-rich nation since 2018. With the death of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in August 2023, Moscow is consolidating the Wagner Group’s operations in Libya under the direct control of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU). It is a move with political as well as military implications. There are currently at least 800 Russian contractors in Libya, supported when necessary by up to 1000 Syrian militiamen based in Benghazi (Arab News, November 15, 2023; Al-Jazeera, February 25; Soufan Center Intel Brief, March 6).

Eastern Libya (Cyrenaïca) and southwest Libya (Fezzan) are currently under the authority of Libya’s parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR). The Tobruk-based HoR is dominated by “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA), which is more a collection of militias and mercenaries than a “national army.” Haftar, an American citizen and former CIA asset, is supported by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt (though Egypt’s support is ebbing due to Haftar’s backing of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces). Opposed to the HoR and the LNA is the internationally recognized Government of National Unity (GNU), based in Tripoli with the support of Qatar, Italy, and Türkiye. In the continuing absence of a national president, the functions of the head of state are carried out by the allied High Council of State.

Wagner backed Haftar’s failed 2020 attempt to take Tripoli. Many of the Wagner fighters were inexperienced and performed poorly on the front lines, creating tensions with LNA commanders and Haftar, who delayed payment to the group (Libya Observer, May 14, 2020). An October 2020 ceasefire allowed the redeployment of some Wagner personnel, including Syrian mercenaries, to Mali and Ukraine (Libya Observer, March 22, 2022).

Following the collapse of the LNA/Wagner offensive, Moscow informed Tripoli’s GNU that it now supports UN efforts to promote fair elections for a unity government (Libya al-Ahrar, December 7, 2023). Russia’s newly reopened embassy in Tripoli is headed by Ambassador Aydar Rashidovich Aganin, a Muslim Tatar (Libya Observer, February 22). A Russian consulate scheduled to open in Benghazi before the end of the year has been meeting GNU opposition (Libya al-Ahrar, February 10; Agenzia Nova, February 23).

General Yevkurov Greets Field Marshal Haftar in Moscow (AFP)

Though he was previously warned off by an American delegation that cited a Russian risk to public security, Haftar held talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in September 2023 (Asharq Al-Awsat, May 13, 2019; Sputnik, September 29, 2023; Libya Al-Ahrar, September 30, 2023). Unverified reports suggested that Hafter was seeking air-defense systems, pilot training, and special forces training in exchange for upgrades to airbases previously used by Wagner so they would be better suited for use by Russian military personnel (Libya Security Monitor, November 5, 2023; Libya Observer, November 11, 2023).

Docking rights for Russian warships at a Libyan port were also considered, though a source close to Haftar denied these were part of the talks (New Arab, October 9, 2023; Asharq al-Awsat, November 7, 2023). The most likely location for a Russian naval base would be the deep-water port of Tobruk, a significant improvement on Russia’s modest Mediterranean naval facilities at Tartus and Latakia in Syria (Libya Observer, January 31).

Haftar continues to meet with American military and state officials, even though this may only provide him leverage in his dealings with the Russians, who do not appear to oppose his plan to establish his family as a ruling dynasty. The meetings with American officials, however, may also raise suspicions in the Russian camp, which finds Haftar useful but not irreplaceable.

Russian military operations in Libya are being handed over to its new African Corps (AK) under the supervision of Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defense and former head of Ingushetia (2008-2019), Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (Vedomosti, December 22, 2023). Yevkurov is best known for leading the Russian task force that marched 300 miles from Bosnia to seize Kosovo’s Pristina International Airport ahead of NATO forces in 1999, a signal to the West that post-Soviet Russia was still a force in Europe.

Yevkurov and GRU General Andrei Averyanov have been visiting all their new partners in Africa, including Libya, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and the Central African Republic (CAR) (African Defense Forum, January 16). General Averyanov is the former head of the GRU’s Unit 29155, which was responsible for assassinations, sabotage, and destabilization operations. Yevkurov has made four visits to Libya in the last six months, the most recent in late January.

General Yevkurov with Russian and Libyan Officers in Benghazi (Libya al-Ahrar)

The Russian Ministry of Defense is offering former Wagner fighters new AK contracts (Vedomosti, December 22, 2023). In the pattern of colonial armies, African volunteers may be incorporated into the AK to bring it up to a projected 20,000 men under Russian command. Wagner’s security protection work is likely to be farmed out to other Russian private military companies (PMCs), like Redut and Convoy (Ukrainska Pravda, January 30; for a detailed analysis of Russian PMCs, see EDM, March 3).

Al-Jufra, Sirte, and Brak al-Shati airbases have already been integrated into a Russian air-supply route from Latakia to Bangui and the Sahel. Russian aircraft do not use Libyan bases with impunity. Two Ilyushin military transports were destroyed by drones of uncertain origin last year at al-Khadim and al-Jufra airbases (Libya al-Ahrar, December 21, 2023).

When the deployment of the AK is finished this summer, Libya will be an important staging post for Russian operations in Sudan, the CAR, and the new military Alliance of Sahel States, consisting of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

The GRU takeover of Russian forces in Libya raises several questions:

  • Wagner forces have been far from invincible on Libyan and African battlefields; if units of the new GRU-run AK run into trouble, will the GRU’s Spetsnaz (special forces) brigades intervene?
  • What role will GRU-controlled land forces and ships play in a hybrid-warfare manipulation of migrant flows through Libya to Europe?
  • The GRU was not intended to manage business operations. Will Wagner’s existing operations (including those of no strategic value, such as breweries) be absorbed to finance the GRU’s Africa Corps or hived of to other Russian interests (African Defense Forum, April 4, 2023)?
  • Russian nuclear submarines returned to the Mediterranean for the first time in 23 years with the 2022 visit of the K-560 Severodvinsk (Yasen class) and the K-157 Vepr (Akula-II class). There have been visits since by Kilo-class submarines, but durations are typically short due to a lack of suitable maintenance facilities (The Barents Observer, October 30, 2016; Majorca Daily Bulletin, October 18, 2023). Will a Russian naval base in Libya host a permanent Russian nuclear submarine force with its attendant atomic threat to Europe’s southern flank?

Using the multiple diversions presented by a US presidential election year and conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine, Russia’s GRU is busy preparing important strategic plays in Libya that might shift the balance of power in the Mediterranean.

Wagner’s Influence in Central African Republic Wanes as American PMC Enters the Scene

Eurasia Daily Monitor 21(19)

February 7, 2024

Andrew McGregor

Executive Summary:

  • President Faustin-Archange Touadéra (nicknamed “President Wagner”) of the Central African Republic (CAR) welcomed the Wagner Group in 2018 but is now in the process of diversifying the CAR’s relations.
  • Wagner’s influence in the CAR has waned following the Prigozhin mutiny despite assurances from Russian authorities of continued support. For example, Touadéra’s government last year approved a US competitor to Wagner to operate in the country.
  • The situation in the CAR and other countries where Russian private military companies operate is a test of Moscow’s ability to focus on any foreign issue beyond the Ukraine War.


Landlocked, desperately impoverished and development-free, the Central African Republic (CAR) hardly seems like a strategic prize, but it may soon be the focus of a new “Cold War” struggle for Africa and its resources. Like other former French colonies in Africa, the CAR has endured security challenges as French military forces withdrew and Russian “mercenaries” flowed in to replace them.

CAR President Faustin Archange Touadéra

Russia’s Wagner Group was initially welcomed to the CAR in 2018 by President Faustin Archange Touadéra, who carried out a January reshuffle of the government in which important posts were reallocated to cronies, militia leaders and mistresses of the president (Corbeau News [Bangui], January 14).

Last December, the CAR’s presidential spokesman announced that the nation, so closely intertwined with the Wagner Group, was now “in the process of diversifying its relations,” especially in the area of strengthening its armed units. Potential partners named included Russia, but not the United States, though the spokesman noted the president was fond of saying: “I have my arms open to work with everyone” (RFI, December 24, 2023).

“Everyone” appears to include Bancroft Global Development (BGD), an American NGO reputed to be a private military contractor (PMC). The Washington-based BGD claims a presence in Kenya, Somalia, Uganda and Libya, delivering “permanent solutions to the economic, environmental and societal harm cause by armed conflict and the hazardous remnants of war” (Bancroft Global Development website).

Since its arrival, Wagner has become deeply involved in the CAR’s diamond and gold sectors, timber extraction and alcohol production. Wagner also inserted advisors at top government levels and launched intensive propaganda efforts in Sango, the local lingua franca. Russian is taught at the local university, a Bangui restaurant serves Russian cuisine and the construction of a Russian Orthodox church is Bangui is accompanied by a drive to encourage conversions from the nation’s Roman Catholic majority (Izvestia, May 29, 2023). Russian arms and training have turned elements of the Forces Armées Centrafricaines (FACA) into armed auxiliaries of the Wagner Group.

Colonel Denis Pavlov, SVR (Alleyesonwagner)

After Wagner’s failed June 2023 mutiny and the subsequent death of Wagner strongman Prigozhin, some 450 to one thousand Wagner personnel left CAR without replacement (Radio Ndeke Luka [Bangui], July 7, 2023; AFP, July 7, 2023). Russian authorities traveled to Bangui last September to assure CAR officials that the Russian mission there would continue, but under the authority of the Russian Defense Ministry. Denis Vladimirovich Pavlov replaced Vitaly Perfilev (a former French Foreign Legionnaire) as security director, while Dmitry Sytii (victim of a 2022 parcel-bomb attack that both Prigozhin and the CAR blamed on France) was replaced as Maison Russe director but remained on to manage Wagner business interests (RFI, December 18, 2023). Pavlov is not a Wagner man, but is instead from the SVR, Russia’s external intelligence agency (, December 7, 2023; Radio Ndeke Luka [Bangui], December 17, 2022; Izvestia, May 29, 2023).

Last May, the CAR ambassador to Russia mentioned Bangui’s intention to establish a Russian military base “where there could be from five to ten thousand soldiers. Moreover, they could be used in other countries if necessary” (Izvestia, May 29, 2023). On January 26, Russian ambassador to the CAR Alexander Bikantov said that the size and location of the planned base had yet to be determined (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, January 26).

“Russia, the CAR is with you” (al-Jazeera)

Washington is alleged to have first broached the idea of American military training and humanitarian aid in exchange for a Wagner withdrawal within 12 months in a memo passed to the CAR president at the December 2022 United States-Africa conference. The existence of this memo was denied by the CAR’s foreign minister, though she did admit to the establishment of a “cooperative relationship” with the US (Radio Ndeke Luka [Bangui], March 3, 2023).

Rumors of the existence of the US memorandum led to protests against the departure of Wagner and a supposed American assault on CAR sovereignty Radio Ndeke Luka [Bangui], March 3, 2023; Corbeau News [Bangui], January 25). Russian reports echoed earlier French claims that BGD employees were seeking land near the capital for the operation of surveillance drones and the training of a CAR military unit that would protect American mining concessions (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, December 23, 2023; RFI, December 18, 2023). One newly formed pro-Russian civil society group described the “deployment of Bancroft mercenaries” as an “official declaration of war on the Central African people (RFI, January 26). Wagner’s propaganda machine in Bangui has warned of American plans to assassinate President Toudéra (RFI, December 18, 2023).

Michael Stock in Somalia (WSJ)

BGD founder, Michael Stock, and Franco-South African Richard Rouget, a former associate of French mercenary Bob Denard, visited the CAR last September. Contacts with BGD are reported to be handled by two close advisors to President Touadéra (RFI, December 18, 2023). Though BGD has been tight-lipped regarding its association with the CAR, confirmation of a deal with BGD was issued by a presidential spokesman on December 22 (Radio Ndeke Luka [Bangui], December 23, 2023).

Richard Rouget, a.k.a. “Colonel Sanders”

Perhaps sensing fissures in the regime’s stability, Touadera’s rule has been challenged in recent days by two former prime-ministers, Martin Ziguélé (2001-2003) and Henri-Marie Dondra (2021-2022) (Jeune Afrique, December 20, 2023; Jeune Afrique, January 5). They, like most other CAR opposition figures, must operate in exile following detentions and intimidation efforts by Wagner personnel. Nonetheless, most opposition leaders see the arrival of Bancroft as a means of preserving the power of the regime rather than the security of the people (Radio Ndeke Luka [Bangui], December 30, 2023).

There has been much talk of the CAR’s new “security diversification strategy,” though it is unrealistic to imagine Russian and American military personnel happily running parallel security and training operations in Bangui; there are limits to diversity. What will be tested in the coming days is the Russian Defense Ministry’s commitment to foreign adventures initiated by Prighozin’s free-booting Wagner Group.

Russia in the Red Sea (Part Three): Converging Wars Obstruct Russian Plans for Naval Port in Sudan

Eurasia Daily Monitor 20(176)

Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC

Andrew McGregor

November 14, 2023

The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 and the expanded war has pulled some of the Kremlin’s attention to the Middle East and North Africa. The conflict gives fresh impetus to Russia’s interest in establishing a stronger foothold in the Red Sea region. Russia’s war against Ukraine and the ongoing power struggle in Sudan have derailed Moscow’s efforts to establish a naval port in Sudan. The Wagner Group has allied with one side of the fight, which has hurt Russia’s prospects, especially if the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan prevail (see Terrorism Monitor, April 28, May 26, June 9). In addition, recent drone attacks in Khartoum, possibly of Ukrainian origin, suggest Kyiv may be trying to challenge Russia’s military contractors in Africa (The Moscow Times, September 20). The outcome of the fighting in Sudan will have important implications for the Kremlin’s efforts to establish a stronger military presence in the Red Sea region.

Before these geopolitical upheavals, Russia seemed well on its way to setting up its planned naval base. In 2017, an agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir called for the establishment of a Russian base at an unspecified location on Sudan’s Red Sea coast in return for arms and other military gear from Moscow. Operated by 300 Russian servicemen, the base would support as many as four Russian naval vessels at a time (see EDM, December 6, 2017).

Map showing location of Arakiyai (Abdul-Razak M Mohamed).

By 2021, the new Sudanese government began having second thoughts about the deal and sought new terms that included economic aid (The Arab Weekly, September 16, 2021). Initially, Moscow had hoped that the base would be established in Port Sudan, building on existing infrastructure there. Khartoum, however, suggested a new base be built from scratch at Arakiyai, a remote fishing village so small it does not appear on most maps (Radio Dabanga, December 7, 2021). Without supporting infrastructure or sufficient fresh water, the Arakiyai suggestion was meant to cool Russian designs on Sudanese waters.

Port of Suakin

The only other viable option would be the ancient Arab port of Suakin. Originally built to accommodate shallow draft dhows, the British moved operations from Suakin to Port Sudan when it became clear that Suakin could not accommodate deep-draft naval and commercial ships. Dredging has since improved access, but the construction of new facilities would take years (Middle East Eye, September 30, 2022).

The ancient coral city of Suakin, with the modern ‘Uthman Diqna port in the background.

In 2022, Sudan’s military rulers appeared ready to finalize a treaty authorizing the establishment of a Russian naval base at Port Sudan. The leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as “Hemetti”), took the lead in most of these negotiations. He arrived in Moscow on February 23, one day before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with a delegation that did not include any SAF representatives. Hemetti expressed surprise that anyone might find a Russian base in Sudan controversial (Africanews, March 3, 2022).

Port Sudan is a politically unstable city that serves as Sudan’s primary connection to international trade routes. The city is riddled with ethnic rivalries and tribal divisions that could threaten any foreign military presence there. Port Sudan is separated from the Nile Valley by 250 miles of sun-baked desert inhabited almost entirely by Arab and Beja nomads. This isolation makes port operations and onward transportation of goods vulnerable to any group that could block the intersection of roads and narrow-gauge rail connections with the Nile.

Such interruptions do happen as a result of tensions between three major ethnic groups in the region; the Beja, the Bani Amer and the Nuba. [1] Scores have been killed in clashes between these groups since 2018. Swords, spears and knives were the weapons of choice until firearms were introduced to these street-fights, increasing the death toll. At times, the RSF has been called in to restore order.

On September 18, the SAF clashed with a Beja militia in Port Sudan led by Shibah Dirar, former leader of the militant Eastern Front. Dirar claims to support the army but would prefer they stay out of eastern Sudan (Al-Jazeera, September 21). SAF units arrived after Dirar’s men set up a checkpoint for all traffic leaving the port, allegedly to prevent a “fifth column” from smuggling supplies to the RSF (Radio Dabanga, September 19). With much of the government’s administration currently operating from Port Sudan rather than Khartoum, panic spread as residents feared the gunfire announced an RSF attack (Sudan Tribune, September 18). It was the latest in a series of Beja interventions; most notably, the Supreme Council of Beja closed all operations at the port for six weeks in September-October 2021. Dirar tried to shut the port down again in December 2022, even as it was still trying to recover from the 2021 shutdown (Al-Taghyeer [Khartoum], December 9, 2022).

There is, however, no unanimity of opinion in the various tribal groups that make up the Beja people, which include separatists, Islamists, reformers and even supporters of the discredited al-Bashir regime. On May 4, the Port Sudan office of UN envoy Volker Perthes was stormed by protesters demanding his departure, many of them old regime supporters (Sudan Tribune, May 4).

The outbreak of fighting in and around Khartoum may squash any chances for the establishment of a Russian naval base in the near future. Videos circulating on X (formerly Twitter) on September 14 depicted a series of attacks by first-person view (FPV) kamikaze drones in Omdurman against RSF fighters and vehicles ( Noir, September 14; September 14). FPV drones are cheap and commercially available and can be easily modified to carry the warhead of a rocket-propelled grenade. The drone pilot, wearing video goggles, controls the low and fast flight of the explosive drones with the assistance of a spotter drone that selects targets and records the results.

Such capabilities could threaten a prospective Russian base should the fighting in Sudan continue over the long term. FPV drones have become commonplace in Ukraine, but this constituted their first appearance in an African conflict (both the SAF and RSF use other types of drones). The tactics seen in the videos resemble those used by Ukrainian forces, and parts of the videos appear to display Ukrainian text on the drone controller’s monitor. When questioned by journalists about the attacks, Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov simply said, “A year ago, I personally and openly said that all Russian war criminals who fought, are fighting, or plan to fight against Ukraine will be punished anywhere in the world” (, September 23).

Possible Ukrainian involvement in Sudan led to a flurry of diplomatic efforts by Moscow and Kyiv. On September 21, General al-Burhan spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York. Lavrov indicated Moscow’s support for al-Burhan and the SAF’s efforts to stabilize Sudan despite Wagner’s association with the RSF (TASS, September 21). Two days later, al-Burhan met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Defense Minister Rustem Umerov for “unscheduled” talks at Ireland’s Shannon Airport (Kyiv Independent; Sudan Tribune, September 23). Zelenskyy reported that the two leaders discussed the activity of illegal armed groups financed by Russia (i.e., Wagner). Afterward, Zelenskyy said he was “grateful for Sudan’s consistent support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” (Anadolu Agency, September 23). These developments point to Ukraine potentially pursuing a policy in Africa that will challenge Moscow’s Wagner gambit. According to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, “Our strategy is not to replace Russia but to free Africa from Russia’s grip” (Africanews, August 17).

Russian Navy frigate Admiral Grigorovich visits Port Sudan in 2021 (AFP).

Perhaps most troubling for the Kremlin is the inherent political instability of Sudan. Even before the current power struggle, regional insurgencies, tribal clashes, mass demonstrations, and coup attempts have characterized the country’s political process. The months-long struggle between Sudan’s two most powerful military commanders is reducing the national capital to rubble and has had a similar effect on Khartoum’s international commitments. A Russian deal with one military faction is unlikely to be honored by the other, leaving a possible Russian base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast in limbo. The SAF leadership is convinced that Moscow now controls the Wagner Group following Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny and death, with the mercenary group supplying the RSF with arms and munitions. As a result, a victorious SAF would be unlikely to approve a Russian naval base and official military presence in Sudan.

There is a possibility Sudan could be cut off from aid and grain supplies should the presence of Russian (or other foreign) forces in Port Sudan draw attacks from their present or future rivals. The risk seemed remote until recently, but if Ukrainian special forces are indeed operating drones in the Sudanese capital, the danger of hosting a foreign naval base in Sudan’s most strategic location begins to come into focus. The consequences for Sudan of any extended shutdown of Port Sudan would be catastrophic.


  1. Today’s Beja are the heavily Arabized descendants of a group who have lived in eastern Sudan for six to seven thousand years. Arabic is now the dominant language, but many still speak the original Beja language, To Bedawie. The Bani Amer are a confederation of local peoples, largely Tigrayan and Beja, first assembled under an Arab ruling caste. They speak Tigrayan, To Bedawie and Arabic. The Black African Nuba, Muslim and Christian, are relative newcomers to Port Sudan. Many were driven out of their homes in the Nuba Hills of Southern Kordofan during the severe government suppression of the Nuba in the 1980s and 1990s, finding work on Port Sudan’s docks and construction projects.
  2. The close ties between the RSF, Russia and the Wagner Group are examined in “Putin’s New Russian Empire is Suddenly on the Rocks: How the War in Ukraine Threatens Russian Interests in Sudan,” AIS Special Report on Ukraine No.3, March 24, 2022.

Russia in the Red Sea (Part Two): Port Options in Eritrea

Andrew McGregor

Eurasia Daily Monitor

Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC, November 6, 2023

As Russian military and financial resources are being ground down in Ukraine, Moscow has struggled to maintain progress in some of its wider foreign policy objectives.  Some of these are a revival of Soviet-era goals, including a greater military, political, and economic presence in Africa and the establishment of more warm-water ports along major maritime trade routes. In September, it was reported that Eritrea was keen on expanding military and economic ties with Russia, reiterating its potential openness to hosting a foreign base in the future (, September 5). A Russian base on the Red Sea would provide a southern complement to the small Russian Mediterranean naval facilities undergoing expansion at Tartus and Latakia in Syria. It would also place Russian warships within striking distance of both sides of the Suez Canal.

(UN Cartographic Section)

Control of the southern Red Sea and its trade routes have been highly sought after historically. Located at the north end of the Gulf of Zula, Massawa has a medium-sized, deep-water port that provides a maritime outlet for Asmara. During the rule of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie (1930–1974), Massawa was frequently visited by US warships bringing supplies to the Cold War military base at Kagnew. These visits came to an end with the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution and Mengistu Haile Mariam coming to power. Mengistu was open to the establishment of a Soviet naval base at Massawa, but Eritrean separatists in the area prevented the implementation of such plans. Eritrea’s 1991 victory in its war for independence and the Soviet collapse brought a temporary halt to Russian ambitions in the Red Sea region.

Moscow considers a strong naval presence in the Red Sea as vital to its economic interests in the region. Close to 15 percent of global trade, including Russian oil, passes through this narrow sea headed to or coming from the Suez Canal (Egypt Today, June 6, 2022). In February, Sudan was ready to offer a Red Sea port to Russia in exchange for arms and other considerations. Clashes broke out in April between factions of the Sudanese military, however, and the deal was put on hold indefinitely (Sudan Tribune, February 11).

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters)

Just south of Sudan, Eritrea’s position on the Red Sea provides Moscow with other options. Eritrea has not welcomed Wagner Group personnel on its territory, but its authoritarian dictatorship feels much closer to Russia than the West. The regime of President Isaias Afwerki, the nation’s only leader since independence in 1993, may believe that a Russian military presence on its soil could deter Western efforts at regime change. Eritrea has three primary areas of interest to Russian naval planners: the ports of Massawa and Assab and the offshore Dahlak Archipelago.

Port of Massawa

Vladimir Putin’s efforts to restore Soviet-style “greatness” to Russia has led to a recent revival of interest in Massawa and other potential naval ports on the Red Sea. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov began negotiations to establish a logistical base in Eritrea in August 2018 during Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh’s visit to Sochi (RIA Novosti, August 31, 2018). More recently, in January 2023, Lavrov relayed Moscow’s interest in the Massawa port and airport, insisting that “concrete steps” were needed to protect Russian-Eritrean cooperation from Western sanctions (Interfax, January 27; TASS, January 26). Earlier, the Eritrean ambassador to Russia, Petros Tseggai, had announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Massawa and the Russian naval port of Sevastopol (RIA Novosti, January 8).

The establishment of a Russian military presence in Eritrea is not without its difficulties. A Russian base in Massawa would place foreign military forces only 70 miles from Eritrea’s xenophobic regime in Asmara. As a result, both Eritrea and Russia might prefer setting up a base at Assab, 283 miles south of Massawa at the northern entrance of the Bab al-Mandeb strait. Assab would be attractive to the Russian side largely due to the massive improvements made to the harbor by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) between 2015 and 2019 (Madote, November 5).

Satellite photo of Assab after UAE military withdrawal, February 5, 2021(Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Eritrea agreed to host a UAE air and naval base at Assab in 2015. Asmara allowed for this due to the increased threats coming from Houthi insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists across the Bab al-Mandeb strait in Yemen. The Emiratis dredged a new channel, built a new pier, and lengthened the airstrip to 3,500 meters. In 2019, the UAE decided to wind down its participation in the Yemen war and began stripping everything out of the port at Asmara, even dismantling barracks and hangars. By February 2021, there was little trace of the UAE’s presence other than the improved port facilities, leaving a potential opening for other foreign powers to capitalize on the port’s modernized infrastructure (Arab Weekly, February 18, 2021).

Italian colonial prison at Nakuru, Dahlak Archipelago (

The Dahlak Archipelago may also be intriguing to Moscow based on its strategic location. The archipelago consists of two large and 124 smaller islands that sit 35 miles off Eritrea’s Red Sea coast. Only seven of the islands are inhabited and most are far too small to be of any military use. In 1982, US intelligence reported the presence of a Soviet naval facility at Nakuru (or Nocra), one of the archipelago’s largest islands. Other reports of foreign militaries using the archipelago have come out in more recent years. Both the Yemeni government-in-exile and Eritrean dissidents have claimed Asmara gave permission to Iran and Israel to operate military and intelligence facilities in the archipelago, though the Eritrean government has denied such allegations. An investigation of the islands in 2010 failed to find any trace of foreign troops or facilities on the larger islands of the archipelago (Gulf News, April 21, 2010). These allegations resurfaced in 2015 but suffered from a similar lack of evidence (Ahram Online, June 15, 2015). While this means the archipelago is effectively open to the development of port facilities, the Kremlin may shy away from such an expensive and intensive endeavor.

Russian efforts to gain a foothold in region have been hampered by its war against Ukraine and competition with other countries. For example, despite mutual pledges of a “no limits” partnership, Russia is competing with China for influence in the Horn of Africa and wider Red Sea region. Eritrea is growing closer to Beijing in developing numerous infrastructure projects, including improvements to the Port of Massawa (, May 15). China has operated a naval station in Djibouti since 2017, while France, the United States, and Japan also have military facilities in the small nation on Eritrea’s southern border (, November 5). The fighting in Ukraine and increased international competition for influence in Africa will likely stunt Moscow’s efforts to establish a warm-water port on the Red Sea in the near future, though that does not mean the Kremlin will give up on pursuing this goal altogether.

This article first appeared in the November 6, 2023 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Russia in the Red Sea: The Search for Warm-Water Ports (Part One)

Andrew McGregor

Eurasia Daily Monitor

September 11, 2023

In recent days, waves of Russian drones have attacked the Ukrainian port of Izmail, a major outlet for Ukraine’s grain (al-Jazeera, September 4). Such assaults on food infrastructure alarm the leadership of drought-suffering parts of Africa reliant on exports of Ukrainian grain and complicate the Kremlin’s efforts to expand Russian influence on the resource-rich continent.

Under the guidance of President Vladimir Putin, Moscow’s campaign is pitting Russian interests in the region against those of the West, a rivalry in some ways reminiscent of the Cold War competition over Africa, though the Kremlin has developed a new and less accountable approach by deploying the private Wagner network of security forces, opinion manipulators and resource development firms. The long-term success of Russian efforts in Africa will depend in large part upon the establishment of a secure Russian naval port, preferably on the African coast of the strategic Red Sea. To create such a port, Russia must address historic foreign policy failures.

When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, it created new strategic opportunities for European powers. Great Britain, with an ambitious mercantile class supported by the world’s most powerful navy, took immediate steps to establish a chain of ports through the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, allowing the wealth of its rich Asian dominions to flow freely to the center of the Empire. France and Italy followed, establishing their own bases in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to facilitate access to their own colonies. Imperial Russia, a northern empire in a perpetual search for warm-water ports, was slow to see the opportunities presented by the canal, leaving it to an odd group of privately-backed Cossacks and Orthodox priests to try to establish an African colony in Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden in 1889. “New Moscow,” established on land already claimed by France, was quickly destroyed by a French naval bombardment.

Destruction of the Russian Baltic Fleet at the Hands of the Japanese, 1905

The diplomatic crisis that followed sapped Russian enthusiasm for African adventures, though Cossack missions continued to reach the Ethiopian emperor, who controlled what is now modern Eritrea, including the Red Sea ports of Massawa and Assab. By the time of the Russo-Japanese War, the significance of Russia’s failure to establish a Red Sea or Indian Ocean port was exposed when its Baltic fleet was forced to make an 18,000-mile voyage to the Sea of Japan without resort to proper coaling and repair facilities. The lesson of the exhausted fleet’s total destruction by the Japanese when it finally arrived was understood by the Soviets, who focused on the establishment of warm-water ports to support naval operations in the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia in the 1960s and 70s.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a temporary end to Russia’s presence overseas, but the neo-Soviet ambitions of Vladimir Putin have revived the campaign to expand Russian military and commercial influence in Africa. Key to this is the establishment of a port on the strategically important Red Sea, the two most likely hosts being Sudan and Eritrea, nations that are similarly at odds with the West.

Khartoum was engaged in talks with Moscow over the establishment of a Russian naval base on Sudanese territory up to the outbreak of clashes between rival wings of the Sudanese military in April 2023. Now, with the ongoing turmoil within the country, Moscow’s focus has shifted to Eritrea, a stable but totalitarian state accused of significant human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

Eritrea is currently ruled by 77-year-old President Isaias Afwerki, and has not had an election since achieving independence in 1993. In terms of both prosperity and civil freedoms, the country ranks near the bottom in both categories; many citizens are reliant on remittances from Eritrean expatriates to obtain basic necessities. Many of the expats have fled Eritrea to escape mandatory conscription for indefinite periods and other hardships. Even so, the regime’s agents abroad continue to try to control their lives through taxation, threats to family members and other measures.

In the early years of its independence, Eritrea enjoyed a congenial relationship with the United States. However, tensions arising from the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia led to a rift with Washington and a shift away from democratic norms and regional cooperation in favor of xenophobic sentiments. All economic failings of the regime are attributed to the existence of UN and US sanctions, promoting anti-Americanism in a country with little access to independent news sources. Eritrea is thus viewed in Washington as a destabilizing influence in the Horn of Africa and a possible partner of both Russia and Iran. Moscow now favors removing the UN sanctions on Eritrea, but doing so will require the support of nine members of the Security Council, including all five permanent members.

Eritrea has repaid this diplomatic support by being one of only five countries to vote against the March 2022 UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, joining Syria, North Korea, China and Belarus. During a visit in January to by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his Eritrean counterpart, Osman Saleh, blamed the war in Ukraine on America’s “reckless policy of hegemony and containment that they have pursued in the past decades”  (Ministry of Information – Eritrea, January 27).

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki

Eritrea’s relations with Russia have intensified of late; having never made a trip to Moscow since independence, Afwerki has already made two this year. A major topic of discussion has been the establishment of Russian naval facilities on Eritrea’s 700-mile Red Sea coast. The prime candidates for such facilities include the ports of Assab and Massawa.

During a July 28 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the second Russia-Africa Summit, Afwerki described Russia’s role in Ukraine as resistance to a NATO plot to rule the world: “The war declared by NATO on Russia is not only against Russia; its aim is to dominate the whole world… NATO is defunct. NATO does not exist. NATO is in intensive care… I think we need to strategize and I say Russia will have to lead this strategy. Russia will have to design a plan on facing this declared war, not only on Russia, but this is a global war. Everybody should come and join Russia in this strategy, and the sooner, the better” (, July 28).

Such enthusiasm for Russian leadership was in short supply at this year’s Russia-Africa Summit, which saw a significant drop-off in attendance by African heads of state: from the 43 who attended the first summit in 2019, only 17 did so this year. The summit came ten days after Russia announced it was pulling out of the UN-brokered deal guaranteeing the safe passage of Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea to Africa. Putin’s pledge to ship limited amounts of free grain to six friendly African nations, including Eritrea, did little to appease those states not on the list.  The contradictions between Moscow’s policy in the Black Sea and its ambitions in Africa were thus exposed in the midst of Russia’s influence offensive in Africa. To move forward with its plans in the Red Sea, Moscow will need to emphasize a Russian option to the alleged threat from the West to non-democratic states like Sudan and Eritrea.

Gold, Arms, and Islam: Understanding the Conflict in Sudan

Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 9

Andrew McGregor

April 28, 2023

Sudan Air Force Warplane Strikes Targets in Khartoum

Sudan ended over a quarter-century of Islamist-military rule with the 2019 overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir, whose rule was based on Islamism, Arab supremacy, and the ruthless application of military power. A joint civilian-military government was formed to lead the transition to a civilian-led democracy. However, an October 2021 coup led by Sudan’s military and security forces ended all progress toward civilian rule, severing at the same time most of Sudan’s economic and financial ties to the West.

The UN and international diplomats have been trying to guide negotiations for a democratic transition between the military and the civilian Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition. The final version of the Framework Agreement on transition was to be signed on April 6. However, the deadline passed when the security forces indicated they were not prepared to sign due to the inability of two competing elements of the military to agree on integration and military reform provisions.

General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan (Reuters)

The Framework Agreement called for the integration of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF, or al-Quwwat al-Musallaha al-Sudaniya) and Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF, or al-Quwat al-Da’m al-Sari). The SAF is led by Lieutenant General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, who is Sudan’s de facto leader as Chair of the Transitional Sovereignty Council (TSC), while the RSF is a 30,000-strong paramilitary led by the number two figure in Sudan, TSC Deputy Chair Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti.” The Framework Agreement was intended to lead Sudan to civilian rule. The SAF, however, is highly politicized, and many of its senior officers adhere to an Islamist ideology that rejects the idea of secular government. Rather than unifying the security forces, the Framework Agreement ultimately brought their differences to a head. Supporters of the former president in the SAF are seemingly using the dispute to create a state of political insecurity favorable for a return to Islamist-military rule. Nation-wide fighting finally broke out on April 15 between the two factions.

The RSF, which was loyal to al-Bashir until his overthrow, has sought international support by accusing the army of mounting a “coup d’état” and seeking “to repeat the failed experiences of the rule of the Islamic Movement that conquered our country and destroyed the dreams of our people for thirty years” (Facebook/RSFCommand, April 16). The paramilitary now refers to their former military partners as “fascist military leaders” supported by “a crowd of corrupt Islamic people thirsty for the blood of the Sudanese people” (Facebook/RSFCommand, April 17). In a February 19 televised speech, Hemeti described the 2019 military coup as a “mistake” that has become “a gateway for the return of the former regime” and warned of efforts by Islamists to restore the Bashir regime (Radio Dabanga, February 21; BBC, February 20).

RSF Commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti”

The RSF, much feared within Sudan, is a close-knit operation—the second-in-command is Hemeti’s brother, ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamdan Daqlo, while Hemeti’s commanders are all from his own Mahariya clan of the Rizayqat Arabs. The paramilitary has participated in UAE-funded operations in Yemen and in counter-insurgency operations in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile State. It is especially active along the borders with Libya and the Central African Republic, and its brutal response to anti-regime demonstrations in Khartoum and elsewhere has made it widely unpopular. [1]

Ethnic Dimensions of the Conflict

Many Darfur Arabs, who comprise the RSF’s base, dislike the Khartoum ruling class, which consists mostly of members of Sudan’s powerful northern Nile-based Arab tribes, who have controlled the country since independence in 1956: the Ja’alin, the Danagla, and the Sha’iqiya (al-Bashir is Ja’alin, al-Burhan is Sha’iqiya). The riverine Arabs, in turn, regard the Darfur Arabs as backwards and “Africanized.” Like many Darfur Arabs, Hemeti, with nothing more than a Quranic school education, is likely to believe he will never be accepted by the riverine military and political elite. Al-Burhan, on the other hand, is regarded in Darfur as the prime architect of a genocide of non-Arab Muslims and is well-remembered for his threats to exterminate the Fur people, who were the former rulers of Darfur.

During a March “Security and Military Reform Workshop” in Khartoum, the RSF hinted at the longstanding rivalry between the Arab tribes of western Sudan and those of the Nile region (New Arab, April 17). Referring to the SAF as “an army composed of a specific militia belonging to certain tribes,” the RSF reminded those present of a struggle that dates back to the days of Mahdist rule (1885-1899). At that time, western Arabs, particularly the Ta’aisha, took power after the early death of the Mahdi in 1885 and the subsequent sidelining of his riverine relatives by the Mahdi’s Ta’aishi successor, Khalifa ‘Abd Allahi.

Violence returned to Darfur in the modern era with the growing influence of the Arab Gathering (Tajamu al-Arabi), an Arab supremacist group following an ideology developed by Mu’ammar Qaddafi and spread by the leaders of Libya’s Islamic Legion (Failaq al-Islamiya) in the 1980s. Clashes over land developed between the Arab and the non-Arab Muslim tribes of Darfur, particularly the Fur, the Zaghawa, and the Masalit. The latter groups united in outright rebellion in 2003, while the Bashir government responded by unleashing Janjaweed (a Sudanese Arab militia) gunmen and bandits on the non-Arab civilian population under military direction. The leader of the Janjaweed was Shaykh Musa Hilal ‘Abd Allah, the nazir (chief) of the Um Jalul clan of the Mahamid Arabs, a branch of the northern Rizayqat of Darfur. One of his deputies during the 2003-2005 period of the worst Janjaweed abuses (murder, rape, torture, arson) was Hemeti, who is a cousin from the Awlad Mansur clan of the Mahariya branch of the Northern Rizayqat. [2]

When the crimes of the Janjaweed began to attract unwanted international attention in 2005, the government integrated the gunmen into the Border Guards (Haras al-Hudud), a small camel-mounted unit. Integration into official security structures shielded the Janjaweed from prosecution and brought them under tighter government control. This formation would evolve by 2013 into the RSF, which was conceived as a counter-insurgency force composed mostly of former Janjaweed. The RSF came under the direct authority of the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS, or Jihaz al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat) rather than the army and became notorious for their human rights abuses and lack of discipline. Even at this early stage, the RSF became known for clashes with the SAF.

Factions Fail to Integrate

Since becoming Sudan’s de facto ruler in 2019, al-Burhan has displayed an inability to rein in the RSF. He has allowed it to become, as some suggest, a “state-within-a-state.” The RSF, with its young leadership, has for some time offered better training and greater opportunities to make money than enlistment in the SAF.

The SAF wants the RSF to be integrated with the army within a year or two at most. However, the RSF prefers a ten-year timeline (in other words, no real integration at all). UN mediators suggested a five-year compromise, which was swiftly rejected by both parties (New Arab, April 17).

SAF Soldiers at Khartoum Airport (Dabanga)

Hemeti’s power and influence will disappear if the RSF comes under the command of the SAF’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. The RSF leader has thus demanded his paramilitary report directly to a civilian government. This essentially preserved the RSF’s autonomy while allowing Hemeti to maintain a major political role.

Al-Burhan dissolved the RSF on April 17 and labelled it a “rebel” movement, adding that the matter is an internal one that does not require interference from the international community. There are, however, questions regarding al-Burhan’s legal authority to dissolve the RSF (Radio Dabanga, April 18). As noted by Dr. Jebril El-Abidi, it was a mistake to try to integrate the RSF into the national military as a complete unit, encouraging continued loyalty to RSF leaders rather than the general command (Asharq al-Awsat, April 20).

When Gold Makes Things Worse

Sudan is now the third-largest gold producer in Africa. However, as much as 80 percent of production is smuggled out of the country, and much of it to Russia. This contributes nothing in the way to state revenues that are already badly diminished by the separation of oil-rich South Sudan.

Joining existing US sanctions, EU sanctions were imposed in March on M-Invest and its subsidiary Sudan Meroe Gold, mining companies tied to Russia’s Wagner Group, for illegally trading in gold “looted by force from local traders” (Sudan Tribune, March 2). In March 2022, an executive with a Sudanese gold mine informed The Telegraph that Russia was smuggling 30 tonnes of gold from Sudan every year to build its reserves and weaken the effects of sanctions imposed on Russia for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The gold is transported in small planes from military airports not subject to customs inspections (The Telegraph, March 3, 2022). Sudan’s Minerals Minister, an ally of the RSF, described the allegations as “baseless” (Sudan Tribune, March 11, 2022).

Remote mines operated by Meroe Gold were guarded by Wagner Group personnel who were also involved in training the RSF (Sudan Tribune, March 21, 2022). It is unclear if Wagner continues in these roles; Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin insists there has been no Wagner presence in Sudan for two years. US authorities have claimed the Wagner Group is now providing weapons to the RSF through bases in Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR) (The New Arab, April 22).

Documents obtained by an anti-corruption NGO revealed the RSF has its own bank account in Abu Dhabi that it has used to obtain vehicles suitable for conversion to machine-gun mounted “technicals.” Financing comes from al-Junaid Gold Company, which is officially owned by ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamdan Daglo and his two sons (Global Witness, April 5, 2020). Al-Junaid has since diversified into numerous other economic activities, its revenues providing independence for the RSF.

In Darfur, gold was discovered in 2012 at Jabal Amer (northwest of Kabkabiya). In July 2015, Musa Hilal and his Mahamid followers took control of Jabal Amer after slaughtering hundreds of Bani Hussayn Arabs working the artisanal mines. This reaped enormous profits until Musa’s arrest in November 2017, at which point control of the mines was transferred to Hemeti and the RSF. The SAF in turn seized control of Jabal Amer in October 2020.

Smuggled gold is typically exported through the Wagner Group-occupied CAR or by air to the Russian base in Latakia, Syria. Wagner elements have been accused of attacks on artisanal gold miners close to the border with the CAR (Radio Dabanga, August 1, 2022). Moscow has little interest in a return to civilian rule in Sudan as one of the first tasks of a new government would be to take control of gold exports to ensure revenues wind up in the public treasury instead of private hands.

“Admiral Grigorovich” Frigate, Port Sudan, 2021 (al-Arabiya)

Beyond gold, a deal was reached in February between Russia and Sudan’s military rulers for the establishment of a Russian naval base on the Red Sea coast in return for arms and military equipment, although it awaits ratification by a new civilian government (al-Arabiya, February 11; Sudan Tribune, February 11). The 25-year deal, with automatic 10-year extensions if neither side objects, would allow a base of 300 Russian military personnel capable of accommodating four Russian ships at a time, including nuclear-powered vessels. [3] Egypt and Saudi Arabia are both unhappy about the deal, which would see a long-term Russian naval presence in the strategic Red Sea. French, American, British, and Norwegian diplomats have all expressed concerns about the growing involvement of Wagner Group companies and personnel in Sudan, much of it facilitated through the RSF. [4]

Islamism in the Regular Army

The RSF has accused the army’s “fascist military leaders” of “religious mania” (Facebook, April 17; Facebook, April 18). Many Islamist al-Bashir loyalists, known as keizan, are prominent in the high ranks of the army. Loyalists of al-Bashir and the banned Islamist National Congress Party (NCP, now operating under the name “Islamist Movement”) have stepped up activity in recent weeks, calling for the assassination of UN envoy Volker Perthes and attacking pro-democracy demonstrators in Khartoum North (Reuters, April 11). The Islamists describe pro-democracy activists as secularists intent on attacking Sudan’s traditional Islamic faith (Middle East Monitor, April 9, 2019).

Airstrike Damage, Khartoum (NBC)

Before the current fighting broke out, the FFC and its partners warned of NCP efforts to provoke a confrontation between the army and the RSF that would create conditions favorable to a return to Islamist rule. Leading Islamists and NCP members (including those held on human rights violations) began leaving detention facilities and returning to government posts (especially Military Intelligence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) after the 2021 military coup, while al-Burhan dissolved a committee looking into corrupt arrangements between the NCP government and the army. General Ahmad Ibrahim Mufaddal, an NCP loyalist, was appointed last November to lead the General Intelligence Service (GIS, or Jihaz al-Mukhabarat al-‘Amma), successor to the powerful NISS that held an iron grip on political dissent during the Bashir regime. The RSF, seen as traitors for their failure to prevent the overthrow of al-Bashir, is especially disliked by the Islamists.

In recent days, prisons across the country have been emptied of thousands of criminal and political inmates, either through release or escape. Among those to have walked out of the notorious Kober prison are Ahmad Haroun, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, and leading Islamists of the al-Bashir regime, including former vice-president ‘Ali ‘Uthman Muhammad Taha, Awad al-Jaz, and Nafi al-Nafi. Both the FFC and the RSF allege an army plan to restore leading Islamists to power. Al-Bashir himself is still believed to be in a military prison hospital (Darfur 24, April 25; Darfur 24, April 26; Al Jazeera, April 26; Radio Dabanga, April 26).

Map produced by Thomas van Linge showing territory held by the Army (red), the RSF (mustard yellow) and rebel movements (green).


Fighting is underway in most parts of Sudan, but is especially intense in Darfur, the home of Hemeti’s power base but also the source of much of the SAF’s rank-and-file. Long-standing tribal clashes in West Darfur have intensified with the breakdown of security. Khartoum has experienced looting, street-fighting, and aerial bombing.

A SAF victory would likely allow an entrenchment of Islamist military rule, while an RSF victory might find room for a civilian government, but only under RSF influence. The paramilitary would still absorb the arms and facilities of the SAF and become the sole security organization in Sudan. The ambitious Hemeti is likely to seek a leading role in any new government, possibly as head of state.

Any war in Sudan has a high chance of spilling over into its unstable neighbors, such as Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya and South Sudan. The Wagner Group is already involved in the last three of these nations.

Hemeti is having trouble selling his new image as a champion of democracy as he attempts to portray al-Burhan as the figurehead of a radical Islamist movement and uses slogans like “power belongs to the people” and “what is happening now is the price of democracy.” Hemeti has even tried to claim the RSF are fighting al-Burhan “and his Islamist gang” (the keizan) within the SAF, and not the army itself (Radio Dabanga, April 17). Al-Burhan has similarly suggested he was prepared to negotiate only with “parties within the RSF” seeking dialogue, and not the current RSF leaders (Sudan Tribune, April 20).

If the Framework Agreement is signed and free elections follow, the Islamist faction will lose any chance of retaking control of Sudan, short of mounting yet another coup, one that, in the current environment, would meet with massive resistance in the streets as well as in the international arena. Despite their rhetoric, Hemeti and his private army will not provide a road to a democratic transition and civilian rule. For the Islamists, therefore, this may be their last chance to seize power.


[1] See “Army for Sale: Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces and the Battle for Libya,” AIS Special Report, August 4, 2019.

[2] The northern Rizayqat Abbala (camel-breeding Arabs) include the Mahamid, Mahariya, and Irayqat groups. The core of the Janjaweed was from the Mahamid and Mahariya branches of the northern Rizayqat. The southern Baqqara Rizayqat (cattle-breeding Arabs), had little to do with the Janjaweed. The meaning of the term Janjaweed is disputed, but is commonly given as “Devils on Horseback.” The term was not used by the Arab militias themselves or by the government.

[3] For Russian mercenaries in Sudan and Moscow’s search for a naval base on the Sudanese Red Sea coast, see: “Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 6, 2019.

[4] For details, see “Putin’s New Russian Empire is Suddenly on the Rocks: How the War in Ukraine Threatens Russian Interests in Sudan,” AIS Special Report on Ukraine No.3, March 24, 2022.

This article first appeared in the April 28, 2023 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, Washington, DC.

Russia’s Phantom Military Exercise in Algeria: Is the War in Ukraine Damaging Moscow’s Ability to Project Power and Influence Abroad?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report on Ukraine no. 8

December 2, 2022

Over the last year, growing military ties between Russia and Algeria seemed to be at odds with Algeria’s traditionally non-aligned approach to international affairs. Algeria’s leadership seems intent, however, on continuing to pursue a policy of deriving maximum benefit from both the West and Russia, generating enormous revenues from providing gas to a desperate Europe while entering a military dalliance with Russia that requires little commitment from Algiers but promises access to modern weapons that could support Algeria’s determination to be regarded as a “regional power” by the international community.

“Exercise Desert Shield,” a mysterious two-week joint Russian-Algerian military exercise in the isolated Hammaguir region of Béchar in the Algerian desert suggests that Russia may be experiencing difficulty in providing both the arms and troops necessary to project Russian power and influence abroad as a result of its war on Ukraine.

Map of Algeria showing Béchar beside the Moroccan border.

On the evening of November 28, the day the exercise was to conclude, the Algerian Ministry of Defense used national television to make the surprising announcement that no such deployment had taken place: “This joint military exercise was scheduled as part of cooperation with the Russian army within the framework of counter-terrorism. However, it did not take place” (, November 29, 2022; Atalyar [Madrid], November 29, 2022).

The Ministry further suggested that such an exercise had never reached the organizational stage, but with detailed reports of such organization (including timing, numbers, location, scope, etc.) appearing in international media for nearly a year without refutation, the timing of the Ministry’s denial seems extremely late and exceedingly odd. At the time of publication, the Kremlin had not issued a comment on the affair.

Official Russian news source Sputnik reported on November 15 that the counter-terrorist exercise would begin the next day (Sputnik [Moscow], November 15, 2022). The announcement was strange, given that by November 15, the Russian Ministry of Defense would likely have been aware the exercise had either been cancelled or had never been approved by Algiers in the first place. Did Algiers cancel the exercise at the last minute under pressure from Europe and the United States, or were highly-trained members of the hard-pressed Russian military simply unavailable at the last minute? The former seems likelier, as the latter would indicate an almost unimaginable loss-of-face for the Russian military, especially as Defense Ministry agents and Wagner Group operatives seek to convince restless African states that Russia can be a reliable and professional ally in place of Western nations like France or the United States.

Diplomatic and International Consequences

Algeria’s growing ties to Russia, its status as the world’s third-largest purchaser of Russian arms and its refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine led 17 Members of the European Parliament to call for a reassessment of EU relations with Algeria on November 17 (, November 17, 2022). The sale of Russian arms provides badly-needed revenues Moscow needs to continue its war on Ukraine, but the catch is that Moscow’s battlefield needs must take precedence over military exports.

Well armed by Russia and other sources, Algeria’s 130,000-man military is both large and politically influential. An oil-revenue-powered willingness to deploy modern military weaponry helps ensure its sovereignty and secures its substantial energy reserves.  Algeria, Africa’s largest exporter of natural gas, has been able to take advantage of Europe’s misguided energy “green shift” to fill its foreign exchange coffers at a time when Russia seeks to apply pressure on Western Europe by restricting oil and gas exports. Italy has been at the front of the European queue for Algerian gas, signing a deal in July to import billions of additional cubic metres via an undersea pipeline from the North African coast.  The resulting windfall has helped Algeria double its military budget.

Morocco Reacts to Russians on its Borders

Moscow has been mildly supportive of Algeria in its diplomatic cold war with Morocco over the disputed status of the Western Sahara. Algeria’s arms buildup and military cooperation with Russia naturally alarms its western neighbor, though it is not without its own resources and contacts. Algeria and Morocco severed ties in August 2021 and Algeria’s plan to assume the largest military budget in Africa by increasing its defense budget by 130% in 2023 is of great concern in Rabat. To draw NATO’s attention to the matter, Moroccan media has tried to portray Russian military activities in Algeria as a threat to southern Europe.

While Algerian troops were supposed to be receiving Russian training, Moroccan paratroopers from the 2e Brigade d’Infanterie Parachutiste joined a company of Britain’s Parachute Regiment for “Exercise Jebel Sahara,” three weeks of training in November that included a six-day war game with live fire exercises. Morocco’s 2e Brigade’s operational history includes a confrontation with Algerian forces during the 1963 “Sand War.” Morocco also conducted a 25-day joint exercise with French forces in March 2022 in a new military zone along the border with Algeria.

Despite experiencing major differences since both nations achieved independence, Algeria and Morocco have avoided an all-out war, preferring to fight through proxies in the Western Sahara while using national media to snipe at the allegedly perfidious behavior of the other side.

Increased Algerian-Russian Military Cooperation

The first joint exercise involving Russia and Algeria occurred in October 2021, when Algerian forces joined counter-terrorist exercises conducted in North Ossetia. Less than a year later, one hundred Algerian troops were part of the September 2022 Vostok (“East”) combined arms exercise held in the Russian Far East. Algeria was the only African nation invited to participate, joining 50,000 troops, 140 warplanes and 60 ships from Russia, China, India, Belarus, Central Asian states, and several other Asian nations.

Russian and Algerian Troops in North Ossetia, October 2021 (Algeria Press Service)

This Russian-sponsored recognition of Algeria’s military helped promote pro-Russian attitudes in parts of the Algerian officer corps. The exercises were observed in person by Vladimir Putin, turning them into a kind of show of support for Russia’s campaign in Ukraine. In Algiers, participation was confirmation that Algeria was now recognized as a “regional power.”

Though the French government expressed little interest in Algeria’s participation in the exercise, it alarmed former French foreign intelligence chief Alain Juillet, who expressed concern: “Very close to us, on the other side of the Mediterranean, there is a country that ultimately works with the Russians and that obviously does not agree with what is happening in Europe” (VA+, November 6, 2022).

Algerian-Russian Naval Exercises

Algeria’s Navy has also intensified cooperation with Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean. Joint tactical exercises in November 2021 were followed by a three-day visit to Algiers in July 2022 from two ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the hydrographic/intelligence ship Kildin and the oil-tanker Vice Admiral Paromov. In September 2022, there were reports of a Russian Navy minesweeper participating in joint exercises with the Algerian navy out of the small port of Jijel. Still trying to perfect a balancing act between the West and East, the modern commercial port of Djen Djen (10 km from Jijel) hosted the American Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Farragut on September 19 for a short training exercise with the Algerian navy.

Russian Intelligence Ship Kildin, Algiers (Ministry of National Defense-Algeria)

In October a four-day Russian/Algerian exercise in the Mediterranean involved the Stoikiy (545) and the Soobrazitelny (531), both Stereguschchiy-class corvettes of Russia’s Baltic Fleet (TASS, October 21, 2022). Algeria is still awaiting delivery of several corvettes of this class from Russian shipyards, though under current conditions, delivery may occur well in the future, if at all.

Algeria has also expressed interest in acquiring four Russian Project 22160 patrol ships. However, the poor performance of these ships in the Ukraine conflict has forced the Russian Navy to abandon plans to build more ships of this class.

The Exercise that Never Was

Exercise Desert Shield was supposed to be the first time Russian troops have operated on Algerian soil, with some 80 to 100 Russian Special Forces members joining a similar number of Algerian troops. The exercise in Béchar was to focus on detecting and eliminating terrorist formations in desert conditions.

The French Rocket Facility in Colomb-Béchar

Only 50 kilometers from the tense border with regional rival Morocco, Béchar (known as Colomb-Béchar in colonial times) was home to a Foreign Legion post before it became the first home of France’s space and ballistic missile program in 1947. The base remained in the hands of the French Air Force until 1967 (five years after Algerian independence), when it was finally transferred to Algerian control under the terms of the 1962 Evian Accords. Most of France’s space program relocated to French Guiana.

According to reports, the exercise was to include training on the tactical use of Russian-made BMP infantry fighting vehicles (Atalayar [Madrid], November 15, 2022). Algeria is interested in purchasing the latest variant of the BMP, but enthusiasm may be dampened by the vehicle’s performance in Ukraine, where some 200 have been destroyed, abandoned or captured. Replacing these vehicles may cause a delay of several years before the manufacture of export versions can resume.

Political Influence May Follow Ammunition Supply

While Algeria would assert its foreign policy is strictly non-aligned, it is commonly viewed in the West as receptive to the influence of Russia and China. This, in consequence, determines the degree of cooperation and engagement Algeria experiences in its relations with the West.

A key question is how long Algiers is prepared to be seen as a possible or potential ally of a Russian nation that is unable or unwilling to extricate itself from a conflict that has had enormous costs in material, lives and reputation. Security partnerships are customarily sought with states with a proven history of military success. The failure so far of Russia’s armies, training and equipment to overcome a former Soviet republic does not increase its attractiveness in this regard.

Trade is in decline between Russia and Algeria while the US remains the largest source of foreign direct investment in Algeria. China is a rival to Russia’s wooing of Algeria, convincing Algiers to sign on to its “Belt and Road Initiative” (a.k.a. the New Silk Road) as well as agreeing to a $7 billion phosphate extraction scheme. Both Algeria and Morocco are major consumers of Chinese arms; Algeria’s navy operates three Chinese-built Adhafer-class frigates and is awaiting delivery of six Chinese Type 056-class corvettes. Morocco and Algeria have also both purchased Chinese-made military drones.

Last year’s deal enabling an Algerian purchase of $7 billion worth of Russian arms, including advanced fifth-generation Su-57 multi-role fighter-jets, alarmed many members of the US Congress. An October 2022 letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken from a bipartisan group of US congressmen called for sanctions against Algeria under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) on the grounds that such arms sales would help finance the Russian war in Ukraine:

It is critical that President Biden and his administration prepare to sanction those who attempt to fund the Russian government, and its war machine, through the purchase of military equipment (al-Arabiya, September 29, 2022).

Some sources suggest the $7 billion deal may soon be supplanted by a $12 to $17 billion agreement that would see Russia provide military supplies to Algeria for ten years (Asharq al-Awsat, November 2, 2022).

The new model Su-57 multi-role fighters would augment Algeria’s existing stock of Russian-made MiG-29 and Su-30 fighter-jets, though sanctions affecting the availability of electronic and other parts are making it difficult for Russia to meet its own needs. Russia’s stocks of arms, armored vehicles, warplanes, missiles and ammunition are greatly depleted at the moment. The training and maintenance personnel that normally accompany large transfers of arms will also likely be unavailable for some time. Russian efforts to make up its battlefield losses are already hindered by manpower shortages in the defense industry. There is every chance Russia will not be able to meet its commitments under the existing deal with Algeria, much less expand it going forward.

Export revenues for Russian arms are already well off this year. It will take years for Russia to rebuild its military regardless of the success or failure of its war on Ukraine. In the meantime, Algeria might turn to China or Turkey to make up the arms deficit without having to deal with the human rights complications that might be involved in dealing with Western nations (Middle East Eye, September 1, 2022). Otherwise, there will be intense competition with other African and Middle Eastern nations reliant on the Russian arms industry for weapons, parts and ammunition. If Russia is unable to supply its clients, there may be lasting damage to the Russian arms industry. Based on tactics being used in the Ukraine war, there may be a new global emphasis on purchasing drone technology rather than conventional weapons systems, and it will be Turkey’s Bayraktar drones that will be in the highest demand based on their performance in Ukraine.

In the meantime, the war has threatened Algeria’s heavily subsidized food supply and forced a local ban on exports of many categories of food earlier this year, depriving Algeria of revenues. It is yet another collateral consequence of Russia’s war on Ukraine.


Algeria will undoubtedly continue to act cautiously when formulating its foreign relations – alignment with Russia and/or China could easily turn into an unwanted political and strategic liability. In this respect, Algiers appears determined to keep its options open; despite lingering bitterness in Algeria over the conduct of French forces during Algeria’s War of Independence (1954-1962), high-ranking French authorities have made visits to Algiers in recent weeks, including Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and President Macron.

Putin meets Tebboune in January 2020 as Egypt’s al-Sisi looks on (Fabian Sommer)

Algerian president Abdelmajid Tebboune is scheduled to visit Moscow this month to sign an agreement concerning a Russian-Algerian strategic partnership (Al-Monitor, November 15, 2022; al-Mayadeen [Beirut], November 30, 2022). The threat of Western sanctions in the event of an Algerian alliance with Russia appears to have caught the attention of Algeria’s government. Even if implementation of such sanctions is unlikely with the prospect of parts of Europe facing a long, cold winter without Algerian gas deliveries, the threat alone may at least make Algiers think twice about intensifying cooperation with Moscow.

How African Jihadists Are Exploiting Russia’s “Food War” in Ukraine

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report on Ukraine no. 7.

November 9, 2022

Dogon Hunters

Islamist extremists in Mali are attempting to prevent the harvest of various food crops, vitally needed in the midst of food shortages and rising food prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this year the jihadists tried to prevent farmers from planting, but Malian troops were sent to guard the farmers. Now, with the harvest ready to start, farmers are again coming under fire in their fields. Militia leader Youssouf Toloba has called on traditional hunters of the Dogon ethnic-group to support the Malian military in its efforts to protect the farmers (Le Soir de Bamako, October 17, 2022). Toloba is the so-called “chief of the general staff” of the Dan Na Ambassagou, a group of Dogon hunters who have formed a “self-defense” militia to defend the Dogon from Islamic State and al-Qaeda-associated jihadists operating almost at will in Mali.

The Black Sea Corridor and Global Food Security

The jihadists are following Russia’s lead in weaponizing food security. For months after the February invasion of Ukraine, Moscow imposed a blockade of the Ukrainian Black Sea coast, the only real means of exporting Ukraine’s massive production of grain and other food products to the rest of the world.

A July 22 agreement negotiated by the UN and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to allow the shipment of Ukrainian grain and fertilizer through Russia’s naval blockade is set to expire on November 19. By October 19, negotiations with Russia for an extension to the Black Sea safe corridor had already begun to founder after Ukraine invited UN experts to examine the remains of Russian drones allegedly made in Iran. A Russian diplomat warned that any “illegitimate investigation” into the drones’ origins would force Russia to “reassess” its collaboration with the UN (Reuters, October 19, 2022).

On October 29, Russia suspended the agreement, warning of potential danger to ships defying Russia’s blockade. This time the cause was an alleged Ukrainian attack on Russian warships at the naval port of Sevastapol. The alleged attack, using both naval and aerial drones, was said to have damaged several ships, including a modern Admiral Grigorovich class frigate (NATO reporting name “Burevestnik”), probably the Admiral Makarov, flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet since the April 14 sinking of the old flagship Moskva by Ukrainian Neptune missiles ( [Kiev], November 1). Russia admits only to damage to a minesweeper. The Admiral Makarov and other ships of the Black Sea fleet are valuable targets, having been used to launch Kalibr cruise missiles into Ukraine during Russia’s ongoing missile offensive.

Russia’s defense ministry claimed to have captured an intact UAV used at Sevastapol and examined its memory to determine it had flown along the safe corridor. The ministry suggested it may have been launched from one of the civilian ships carrying Ukraine’s agricultural products (al-Jazeera, November 3, 2022). Moscow has also claimed that Russian food exports remain restricted by sanctions and other measures despite assurances provided in the Black Sea safe corridor agreement.

However, Russia’s warning failed to stop shipments of Ukrainian grain and sunflower oil; a new record was in fact set on October 31 for shipping Ukrainian goods through the safe corridor established in July (354,000 tonnes). With the Turkish president once more taking the role of mediator to assure the continuance of the agreement, vital to world food supplies, Russia was left with a hard choice; continue issuing ineffective warnings that would ultimately become embarrassing if they continued to be ignored, attack international cargo ships carrying grain and oil from Ukrainian ports (which would produce global condemnation, even from its allies), or accept Turkish mediation efforts. The latter course was chosen and resulted in “written guarantees” from Ukraine promising that the safe corridor or Ukrainian ports would not be used for attacks on Russian naval ships (BBC, November 2, 2022).

The war has put enormous pressure on global food markets, and there is no guarantee Russia will renew the export agreement in mid-November. It would, however, be in Moscow’s interests as the alternatives are not promising. Once Russia tries to enforce a blockade of the Black Sea corridor, it loses all its leverage. At that point, there would be no reason for Ukraine not to continue attacking the apparently vulnerable Russian Black Sea fleet. The move would also cause damage to the relationship with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has performed a valuable role as mediator between the Kremlin and the West. Food insecurity leads to political insecurity – Moscow stands to lose the quiet support it has in many parts of the developing world if food-laden freighters start going to the bottom of the Black Sea.

The Food Crisis

Among these developing nations is insurrection-torn Mali. Mali imports 14% of its food. In 2019, the top countries from which Mali imported food products included Brazil, South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and France. While neither Ukraine nor Russia figure largely in Mali’s food sources, global shortages in grain, cooking oil and other products affected by the conflict in Ukraine create competition for diminishing supplies, increased food prices and even civil insecurity.

Mali’s military, known for severe measures against civilians (torture, illegal detainment, summary execution) and for internal fighting while ignoring the terrorist threat, has lost respect in many areas of the country. Having failed to provide security in wide swathes of the nation, government security forces are being replaced by local, ethnically-based “self-defense” militias largely beyond any type of government control. Sometimes well-armed, these militias often attempt to resolve tribal disputes with soaring rates of violence. The worst of Mali’s internal ethnic conflicts is between the agricultural Dogon community and the pastoral Fulani (a.k.a. Fula, Peul, Fulbe). With a spiralling death-rate, the original disputes between farmers and herders over access to land and water have become secondary to the perceived need to meet extreme violence with greater violence.

The Dogon

The Dogon homeland is found along the 93-mile long Bandiagara escarpment, slightly north of Mali’s border with Burkina Faso. The region’s unique geology and cliff-side architecture led to it being recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1989. The Dogon arrived in the area sometime in the 14th or 15th century, displacing the Tellem (Dogon – “We found them”), who practiced a Stone-Age hunting culture. Most Dogon continue to practice a highly ritualized polytheistic religion, though the 20th century witnessed the growth of significant Christian and Muslim minorities. A centralized leadership does not exist, with each village governed by its own elected spiritual and political leader, the hogon.

The Dogon in Mali (Joshua Project)

The Dogon are best known to the outside world through their elaborate ritual masks and, unfortunately, a persistent pseudoscientific delusion that the Dogon, without any type of telescopic instruments, possess highly advanced astronomical knowledge. Though Afro-centrists have advanced the theory that the skin pigment melanin allowed the ancient Dogon to see minute details of incredibly distant star systems with the naked eye, the Dogon knowledge of astronomy was most likely gained in 1893 when a team of French astronomers stayed with the Dogon for five weeks. When French anthropologists recorded Dogon knowledge in the 1930s, they mistakenly included their limited astronomical knowledge as part of the Dogon belief system. In modern years, the “ancient astronaut” and New Age crowd consider Dogon astronomical knowledge as the result of early visitations to the Dogon by extraterrestrial fish-men from the Sirius star system. [1]

Dogon Cliff Dwellings in Bandiagara

In reality, the Dogon practice sedentary agriculture, which has sometimes brought them into conflict over land rights and access to water with their semi-nomadic Muslim Fulani neighbors, whose culture and economy is built around raising cattle. Such disputes were customarily resolved by community elders who recognized the symbiotic relationship between herders and farmers. In recent years, however, traditional conflict resolution methods have begun to fail due to loss of farmlands to desertification, growing numbers of cattle, external provocation of the Fulani by Muslim extremists, an absence of government control and a proliferation of automatic weapons. The latter has helped replace negotiable and individual incidents of violence with large-scale massacres that have no apparent resolution for their victims other than retribution in kind.

Like their neighbors in Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, the Dogon include a fraternity of traditional hunters known collectively as the “Dozo Ton” (Hunters’ Fraternity). Typically clothed in brown garments, the Dozo conduct secret rituals and initiations and wear amulets intended to make them bullet-proof.

Amidst growing insecurity in 2016, the Dogon Dozo formed a self-defense militia called the Dan Na Ambassagou (“Hunters who trust in God”). In recent years the Dozo hunters have added automatic weapons to their traditional arsenal of flintlocks, leading to charges from the Fulani that Mali’s deposed government was arming the hunters as a means of farming out the war against Islamist extremists. According to a Dan Na Ambassagou leader, the militia has indeed provided guides for patrols of the Forces Armées du Mali (FAMA – Armed Forces of Mali) (Reuters, April 19, 2019). Survivors of several massacres of Fulani civilians have identified the Dogon Dozo as the perpetrators.

Mamadou Goudienkilé, president of the Dan Na Ambassagou movement and a former captain in the Malian army, claims the hunters are not simply targeting Fulani:

The Fulani are our neighbours, we are ready to live with them. We are fighting the jihadists, not the Fulani. If the jihadist is Fulani, we fight him, if he is Dogon, we fight him too. But I repeat: this war is not between the Fulani and the Dogon…  (Le Point [Paris], April 13, 2020).

The Fulani

To counter the Dogon Dozo hunters, Mali’s Fulani attempted to consolidate their own local self-defense groups into the larger Alliance pour le Salut au Sahel (ASS – Alliance for the Salvation of the Sahel) in May 2018. The militia’s leader, who goes by the pseudonym “Bacar Sow,” maintained the Fulani are as much victims of the jihadists as any other Malian community, pointing as well to decades of government neglect fueling the intercommunal violence:

The areas where we operate have been abandoned since independence. In these areas, there is a lack of water, electricity, infrastructure and development. There are no schools, there are no roads, no health center. All that is necessary for the development of man is sorely lacking in us… Since [independence in] 1960, the various governments have done nothing and a total social disorder has taken hold (Monde Afrique, March 25, 2019).

Amadou Koufa (Jeune Afrique)

The Dogon, Bambara and other ethnic groups believe the Fulani cooperate with regional jihadists, a belief reinforced by the emergence of the mostly Fulani Katiba Macina extremist group in 2015. Led by Fulani imam Amadou Koufa, a veteran of Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din (Supporters of Religion), the group joined the al-Qaeda-connected Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (Support Group for Islam and Muslims – JNIM) in 2017. In a November 2018 video, Koufa appealed for an ethno-religious Fulani insurrection in seven African countries (RFI, November 9, 2018). Koufa was declared dead by Malian authorities later that month following a French military operation, but re-emerged in a February 28, 2019 video mocking both the French and Malian security forces.

The Fulani are repeatedly targeted by the mostly Bambara Malian army, which often treats all Fulani as terrorists, Islamist extremists or supporters of the jihad groups that have spread their activities from Mali’s north to its central region since 2013. A degree of animosity between the Muslim Fulani and non-Fulani peoples of Mali (including other Muslims) dates back to the great theocratic Fulani kingdoms that dominated the region in the 19th century.

The jihadists, who have suffered serious losses in recent years, are reported to have recently begun pressing young men into their ranks, summary execution being the alternative to recruitment. Once absorbed into the ranks, each recruit is issued a weapon and a motorcycle (Le Soir de Bamako [Bamako], October 18, 2022).

In the last two years, JNIM jihadists, including Katiba Macina, have been in steady conflict with rival jihadists of the État islamique au Grand Sahara (EIGS – Islamic State of Greater Sahara) after some members of Katiba Macina defected to the Islamic State.

Fulani Herders on the Niger River, Mali (TVC News).

In an attempt to strengthen their position in the region two years ago, JNIM militants tried to mediate between the Dogon and Fulani communities. The point was to try and end clashes between the groups that made jihadist expansion difficult while severing Dogon ties to the state. These efforts were initially successful, allowing farmers and herders to operate in peace, but ultimately, they collapsed, marking a return to intercommunal violence and interruptions in the local food supply (Reuters, August 28, 2020).

Before his 2020 overthrow and subsequent death in January 2022, Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta sought to explain the growing hostilities between Fulani and Dogon:

The violence and cleavages we are witnessing are an outgrowth, a contagion of what has happened in the North [of Mali] over the past decade. As part of their expansionist and hegemonic project, jihadist terrorists have exploited the bankruptcies and weaknesses of the administrative network to insinuate and spread an exclusive speech of hatred, all under the guise of religion (Jeune Afrique, July 2, 2019).

Militia vs. Military

The militias all cite the same reason for their formation – the inability or unwillingness of government security forces to secure their communities from attacks and property theft, especially in the last four years. Malian security forces rarely make an appearance during the attacks, regardless of their proximity to the attack or its duration, citing shortages of men and equipment and even the difficulty of operating in the dark.

 Marcelin Guenguéré

Illustrative of the military’s declining prestige was the reaction of Dogon villagers when a truck full of soldiers arrived in the town of Koro to arrest Marcelin Guenguéré, spokesman of the Dogon Dan Na Ambassagou militia and a suspect in violent attacks on the Fulani. Video shot by the militia showed the troops being driven away by chanting, rock-throwing locals and Dogon hunters. Ignoring the president’s order to dissolve the Dan Na Ambassagou, Guenguéré declared that any attempt to disarm the militia “could provoke a rebellion that will not be so easily contained” (Reuters, April 19, 2019). Mamoudou Goudienkilé, president of Dan Na Ambassagou, insisted that “Before disarming ourselves, we should already disarm the jihadists who are killing our people, stealing our cattle and burning our villages!” (RFI, March 10, 2021).

Youssouf Toloba (Malivox/Youtube)

The movement’s military leader, Youssouf Toloba, pointed out the president could not dissolve the group as he “wasn’t the one who created it.” Toloba added that his movement had signed a cease-fire agreement in return for a government pledge to secure the Dogon homeland, “but then nothing was done…” (VOA, March 25, 2019). Toloba provided his interpretation of the role of the Dan Na Ambassagou to a French newspaper:

We do not accept being called bandits or militia on the understanding that, in general, the term “militia” has a negative, even pejorative connotation. We are not a militia, we are rather resistance fighters like those who, in France, during the Second World War, took up arms against the Germans who were the invaders (Le Point [Paris], April 3, 2021).

Toloba has repeatedly called for a combat alliance between FAMA and the hunters, claiming the latter possess invaluable intelligence regarding the position and the operations of the jihadists (Nouvel Horizon [Bamako], May 10, 2022).

Sékou Allaye Bolly

Other Fulani have joined non-Islamist self-defense militias, such as the one led by Sékou Bolly, a Fulani businessman who formed a loose alliance with the pro-government, Tuareg-dominated Mouvement pour le salut de l’Azawad (MSA – Movement for the Salvation of Azawad) and absorbed former jihadists in his militia who passed through the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process. [2]

Cooperation between Guinguéré and Sékou Bolly in the interest of establishing peace angered elements in both the hunter and Fulani communities, who regarded it as a betrayal of their interests. In turn, Guinguéré and Bolly have both demanded that Youssouf Toloba submit to the state following accusations the militia leader has abandoned the mission of defending Dogon communities in favor of extortion and the looting of resources (Le Wagadu [Bamako], January 13, 2021).

Dan Na Ambassagou fighters clashed with JNIM militants (likely part of the Fulani-based Katiba Macina) last May. The katiba (battalion) had been pressuring local Dogon communities to join a government-sponsored attempt to create local non-aggression agreements with the jihadists (Nouvel Horizon [Bamako], May 16, 2022).  Toloba opposed these “wacky peace deals” with jihadists:

Why would we cede our land to strangers? The goal of the jihadists is to subjugate us. To sign an agreement with them is to betray the Malian state, which is secular. These agreements entail the application on the ground of sharia, which we do not want (Le Point [Paris], April 3, 2021).

Massacres at Ogossogou and Moura

On March 23, one of the worst slaughters in modern Mali’s history occurred at the Fulani village of Ogossogou in the Mopti region of central Mali. Nearly 160 Fulani civilians perished in the brutal attack, allegedly carried out by the Dan Na Ambassagou. Many of the dead were hacked to death by machetes while others were burned alive in their homes. Typical of such attacks, all farm animals were either killed or carried away, leaving the survivors to starve without assistance.

Colonel M’Bah Ag Moussa (Malijet)

The assault occurred one day after JNIM jihadists claimed responsibility for a March 17 attack on the FAMA garrison at Dioura (Mopti region) in which 23 soldiers were killed and a substantial quantity of arms and military gear seized by the assailants, who arrived by motorcycle and automobile. The JNIM statement (carried by its media arm, al-Zallaqa) said the attack was retribution for the government’s “heinous crimes” against the Fulani, but denied the Dioura attack was led, as claimed by the government, by a two-time FAMA deserter, Colonel M’Bah Ag Moussa “Abu Shari’a” (a.k.a. Bamoussa Diara). (Defense Post/AFP, March 18, 2019; Africa Times, March 24, 2019). [3]

Youssouf Toloba’s Dogon and Sékou Bolly’s Fulani militia had conducted successful mixed patrols in the region until the Ogossogou massacre. Bolly loudly accused Dan Na Ambassagou of responsibility for the attack, ending the possibility of further joint patrols. When Toloba was asked about a UN accusation of Dan Na Ambassagou responsibility, he asked: “Did the United Nations catch Dan Na Ambassagou attacking the village?” (Le Point [Paris], April 3, 2021).

Da Na Ambassagou spokesman Maracelin Guenguéré insists, improbably, that the Ogossogou massacre was in fact carried out by other Fulanis, not Dogon: “I can assure you of one thing, today everyone can have access to a hunter’s outfit. These are not hard to get outfits… There are Fulanis who are in conflict with other Fulanis. They manage to kill each other and pretend that it is the Dogons who killed them” (Le Point [Paris], June 20, 2019).

Less than a week after the Ogossogou affair, a March 27 FAMA/Russian raid on the Katiba Macina-held town of Moura was followed by five days of bloodletting, with over 300 civilians murdered after a brief firefight with a small group of 30 armed jihadists, most of whom escaped. The dead filled three mass graves they were forced to excavate first. The attackers indulged in days of rape and looting, as well as the destruction of motorcycles, commonly used by the jihadists. Using FAMA interpreters, the Russians separated Fulanis from other ethnic groups, explaining they needed to be killed as all Fulanis were supporters of jihad (Human Rights Watch, April 5, 2022).

Retaliation at Sobane Da

Retaliation for the Ogossogou massacre came on the night of June 9-10, when an attack on the Dogon village of Sobane Da was carried out by some 50 gunmen on motorcycles or pick-up trucks.  Over eight hours the attackers, identified by the survivors as Fulanis, disembowelled many of their victims and burned women, children and the elderly alive inside their huts (, June 11, 2019; Le Monde [Paris], June 11, 2019; Le Point [Paris], June 20, 2019). At least 35 villagers were killed. Dogon leaders later claimed the Fulani militia of Sékou Bolly committed the atrocity in revenge for Ogossogou.

According to Da Na Ambassagou spokesman Marcelin Guenguéré:

The people who attacked us, those terrorists, those jihadists, I assure you that these are people we know, these are our Fulani neighbors who are with us on Dogon territory. I do not incriminate all the Fulani, but it is the Fulani who live with us who are at the origin of all this, they have their agenda (Le Point [Paris], June 20, 2019).

On June 18, 2022, the Katiba Macina slaughtered 132 civilians near Bankass, in the Mopti region of central Mali. On July 20, an assault by the militants on the town of Kargué was badly defeated by Dan Na Ambassagou fighters, who killed 53 of the attackers (Le Pays [Bamako], July 22, 2022). On July 23, the katiba attacked the Kati military base outside of Bamako, killing a soldier and demonstrating an unsuspected ability to reach right into the heart of Mali’s military structure.

There seems no end to the cycle of violence – Russian Wagner personnel and Malian troops were accused of massacring 13 civilians in the Fulani village of Guelledjé on October 30 (Africanews/AFP, November 1, 2022). Idrissa Sankaré, a leading official of the Tabital Pulaaku Mali (a civil Fulani umbrella group) recently warned a gathering of Fulani leaders: “Malians must understand that we are condemned to live together, to accept each other mutually to defend our homeland together, to avoid suspicion, amalgamation, hatred… not wanting to live in together is to want to disappear together” (Maliweb, August 31, 2022).

Forecast – The Shift to Moscow

Like a number of other African nations, Mali is now turning to Moscow for security assistance after French counter-terrorist forces withdrew in February. Mali has received an influx of fighters from the Russian Wagner network as well as Russian jet-fighters, mobile radar systems and transport and attack helicopters. Local pro-Russian activists organize demonstrations demanding a Russian presence in Mali -their funding comes from a Wagner-associated mining company with access to Malian gold deposits. Malian authorities, likely with encouragement from Russian disinformation specialists, claim French aircraft collect intelligence for the jihadists and deliver them shipments of arms. [4] Russians patrol the grounds of the presidential palace in Bamako; France’s President Macron has suggested the new military regime is looking to the Russians for protection rather than help in fighting terrorists.

The Black Sea transit agreement expires on November 19. Even if the shipping corridor remains open, the total amount of Ukrainian grain and other agricultural products shipped remains small, somewhere around one-tenth of what still awaits export. Some 77 empty freighters are off Ukraine’s ports, awaiting their loads of grain and sunflower oil.

Mali’s minister of the economy, Alousseini Sanou, visited Moscow in the first week of November. In an appearance on Malian state TV, Sanou announced Russia was sending aid to Mali in the form of 60,000 tonnes of petroleum products, 30,000 tonnes of fertilizer and 25,000 tonnes of wheat. The shipment was first discussed in an August phone call between Putin and Colonel Assimi Goïta but has yet to be confirmed by the Kremlin (Reuters, August 11, 2022; al-Jazeera, November 3, 2022; Agenzianova [Rome], November 3, 2022).

If the Russian supplies do materialize, it will provide some relief for Mali, but with jihadists shooting farmers in their fields it will not provide a long-term solution to the diminishing food supply and intercommunal violence, violence that the introduction of private Russian military contractors has only exacerbated. After a meeting with the Turkish defense minister on November 3, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg identified the cause of the growing food crisis being exploited by the jihadists for their own benefit:

The increased prices and the problems we have seen in the global food market are not caused by sanctions. It is caused by the war itself… It is the war of aggression that is undermining and threatening the supplies of food from Ukraine to the world market. The grain deal helps to reduce the effects, but the lasting solution will be to end the war and that’s Russia’s responsibility… [5]


  1. See, for example: Temple, Robert K.G: The Sirius Mystery: New scientific evidence of alien contact 5,000 years ago, (2nd ed), London, 1999 (1st ed. – 1976).
  2. Aurélien Tobie and Boukary Sangaré: The Impact of Armed Groups on the Populations of Central and Northern Mali: Necessary Adaptations of the Strategies for Re-establishing Peace, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 2019, p. 10.
  3. Ag Moussa was a mixed Tuareg/Bambara considered close to JNIM leader Iyad ag Ghali. He received his military training in Libya and was a native of Kidal region in Mali’s north. Military commander of JNIM since 2017, Ag Moussa was killed in a carefully planned French attack in the Gao region on November 10, 2020. Sidi Mohamed ag Oukana, Ag Moussa’s half-brother, remains Iyad ag Ghali’s senior religious advisor. See “French Troops Kill JNIM Military Leader Colonel Bah Ag Moussa Diara: What are the implications?” AIS Militant Profile, November 20, 2020,
  4. Last month, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop demanded an emergency session of the UN Security Council to address Malian allegations that France was providing weapons, ammunition and intelligence to jihadist groups (Le Témoin [Bamako], October 25, 2022).
  5. NATO Press Conference, Istanbul, November 3, 2022,

The Wagner Group: The Kremlin’s Dirty Arm

A PolskieRadio24 Interview with Dr. Andrew McGregor

November 3, 2022

Any involvement of the Wagner Group has to be approved by the Kremlin and is usually negotiated through the Russian Ministry of Defense; its operations abroad are supervised by the FSB or, more often, the GRU – says Dr. Andrew McGregor, director of Aberfoyle International Security, in an interview with

Ewa Zarzycka, portal  Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin, who admits to creating the Wagner Group?

Yevgeny Prigozhin is responsible for financing the Wagner “Group,” which is really a network of contract soldiers, disinformation specialists, election manipulators, VIP security personnel and a variety of companies focused on resource extraction. He has no known military background or expertise, having moved up from sausage-maker to restaurant owner to Kremlin caterer. A personal friendship with Vladimir Putin dating back to their days in St. Petersburg accounts for most of his success.

Does he command this private army, or is he merely its political protector? Does Prigozhin want to make a political fortune from the successes of the Wagnerians in Ukraine?

With no personal military expertise or training, Prigozhin does not oversee Wagner ground operations, this task being given to senior members of the network, usually with experience in the GRU. Prigozhin does not fund the network’s operations (which in most cases are not particularly lucrative), but acts more as a funding middleman and administrator.

Prigozhin recruits for Wagner Group in a Russian prison colony.

Prigozhin is a creature of Vladimir Putin and his fortunes are closely tied to those of the president. Prigozhin was recently reminded of this point when he began to publicly criticize Russian generals and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, another personal friend of the president. Prigozhin’s spokesman was dragged from his car and badly beaten by members of the Russian National Guard, a force personally loyal to Putin and led by the president’s former judo sparring partner.

How large is the group, and how armed. Is it a private company or does it use state financial and material resources (armaments)?

The size of overseas deployments ranges from 100 (security and advisory services) up to 2,000 (combat operations) depending on the duties undertaken. American estimates suggest there are roughly 8,000 Wagner personnel in Ukraine.

Arms and uniforms are typically identical to those used by Russian regular forces. Russian-made armored personnel carriers or infantry fighting vehicles are often deployed on foreign operations, though these are not always the latest models. In some cases, such as Libya, Russian warplanes (absent their national insignia) were deployed with Wagner pilots. The Wagner network often acts as a conduit for Russian arms supplies to client nations.

Was it Prigozhin first with his idea, or was it first the idea (of the Kremlin?) and then Prigozhin? When did the Kremlin stop pretending that it was a private company?

With strict laws in the Russian Federation against mercenary activities, it was Vladimir Putin who first suggested in a 2012 speech that there might be some room for the establishment of private military contractors (PMCs) in Russia. The next year, the Slavonic Corps, a Hong Kong-registered PMC recruited from Russian veterans, was deployed in Syria. The mission was an utter disaster, partly because of lack of support from the Russian military, and the leaders of the Corps were prosecuted in Russian courts.

However, the deployment did suggest to Kremlin insiders that a new private military force with stronger ties to the Russian regular forces and intelligence services might be a means of furthering the financial interests of Kremlin insiders abroad and, to a lesser extent, Russian national interests. The main appeal was the plausible deniability that came with a PMC with no official existence or visible ties to the Russian government.

What is the attitude of the Americans towards the Group? Do they treat them as a legal formation in understanding international law. After all, they also have Blackwater themselves?

Taking legal action against “the Wagner Group” is complicated by the fact that, on paper at least, no such group exists. The US has thus applied sanctions against Prigozhin, his associates and the many registered entities that form the Wagner network. There is an ongoing debate in Washington over whether the “Wagner Group” should be declared a “Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).” Those who oppose the designation refer to the amorphous nature of the Wagner network and suggest its personnel can be tried instead under existing international laws against war crimes and crimes against humanity. New legal approaches are being developed that would treat Wagner operatives, not as independent “mercenaries,” but as members of a de facto arm of the Russian government.

Though Blackwater and its successor groups have been employed by the US government, especially to allow the withdrawal of US regular army and National Guard personnel, such groups do not figure in the foreign policy of the US in the way Wagner network operatives are used to further Russian goals. Another difference lies in accountability; when Blackwater operatives committed a massacre in Baghdad in 2007, they were eventually prosecuted and convicted by US courts (though all were eventually pardoned by Donald Trump in 2022). Abuses by Wagner personnel are ignored by Moscow, which continues to disclaim any responsibility for their actions.  American diplomatic intervention in recent days appears to have persuaded the military junta ruling Burkina Faso to abandon plans for a widely-expected Wagner deployment.

Is the Kremlin the only “employer” of the Group?

The Kremlin routinely denies any connection to the Wagner network. All deployments of Wagner personnel must, however, meet with Kremlin approval and are typically negotiated through the Russian Ministry of Defense. Wagner operations abroad are overseen by personnel of the FSB (successor of the KGB) and, more often, the GRU.

What is the Group’s relationship with the Kremlin? Putin denies such links, but could the Group develop without the Kremlin’s approval?

As mentioned, all Wagner deployments must meet with Kremlin approval. Any attempt to operate outside Kremlin oversight would quickly result in prosecution under Russia’s strict prohibitions against mercenary activity. In this sense, Wagner operatives are not “mercenaries” in the usual understanding of the term.

Where the Group has operated and continues to operate, officially or unofficially. The main field of activity is Africa and the Middle East (Syria?). There are rumours that in Africa, the Group earns money for the Kremlin. It is also said the Group makes money (for Kremlin) in some unspecified way (exploiting natural resources, e.g. gold). This sounds very mysterious to me. Could you add something on this subject? Can this money change the fate of the war in Ukraine? What part of the Group is fighting in Ukraine and what part is making money abroad? They are badly needed in Ukraine?

Nations or disputed regions in which Wagner personnel or other Russian contractors have had a verifiable presence include Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Venezuela, Sudan, Mali, Mozambique, Madagascar, the Central African Republic and Ukraine. These deployments are typically paid for by contracts giving Wagner-related companies access to natural resources, especially in the mining sector. Profits are directed to Kremlin insiders rather than the state budget. Financing the Russian war in Ukraine relies mostly on proceeds from Russia’s domestic oil and gas industries rather than Wagner-associated operations.

Statue Honoring the Wagner Group in Bangui, Central African Republic (VOA)

A Russian manpower shortage in the current Ukraine campaign has led to many Wagner operatives working abroad being recalled for service in Ukraine. This has reduced their activities in places such as Libya while reasserting the idea that Wagner personnel are under the control of the Kremlin.

Regarding the nationality of the recruits, is it an international formation, similar to the Foreign Legion, or does it recruit only Russians?

The Wagner network recruits in a variety of East European countries, including Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine and Serbia. In the MENA nations, Wagner recruits both Syrians and Libyans; there are unverified reports some of these have been deployed in Ukraine.

Central Asian nations provided Wagner recruits until recently, when most of these nations banned Wagner recruitment. Wagner does not accept recruits from NATO or EU countries. Wagner has little in common with the French Foreign Legion, which is now a fully integrated part of the French regular army and highly selective in its recruiting. Unlike Wagner, the Foreign Legion no longer accepts recruits with a serious criminal record. Wagner is more like the old private armies of the British East India Company, the French East India Company and the Dutch East Indies Company, all of which contributed to the overseas interests of their home nations (particularly through the exploitation of resources and labor) without coming under the formal command of their respective national militaries.

Spain, France, Ukraine, Israel, Great Britain, the United States, Saudi Arabia and many African states continue to recruit foreign nationals for their militaries. Some offer citizenship after completing a set number of years in military service.

Wagner-produced movie “Granite” about Russian contractors in Mozambique.

There is much talk about recruiting criminals into the Group for whom army service can shorten their sentences and earn money. By the way, how much money can a criminal volunteer expect per month , and how long the training would last. Does any insurance company cover them? The risks are very high.

To address Russian manpower shortage in Ukraine, Evgeny Prighozin began recruiting in Russian prison colonies, offering six-month contracts with the promise of commutation of their sentences if the convicts survived. Despite offering a blunt assessment that 80% of prison recruits would not survive the enlistment period, the prospect of serving long sentences in Russia’s miserable and overcrowded prisons has helped enable recruitment.

As little as a week of training is provided to prisoners before deployment to the front lines. This is understandable given that prison recruits function much in the same way as Soviet penal battalions in WWII; they are used in frontal attacks designed, not to take objectives, but to force Ukrainian forces to fire, thus revealing their concealed positions to Russian forward artillery observers (Russian military doctrine relies heavily on the use of massed artillery). Prisoners may be offered less than the usual Wagner rate of $4000 per month, but since full payments are usually made to Wagner operatives only at the end of their contract, many will never collect. They are not covered by insurance and offers to provide compensation to families of dead prisoner-recruits are rarely committed to paper and thus worthless.

Some six-month enlistments and their subsequent commutations of sentence are reported to be for sale to rich inmates in Russian prison colonies. Purchasers are advised to lie low outside of Moscow or St. Petersburg until six months have passed, at which time they can emerge safely with no criminal record.

How do the Russians treat the Group’s activity? Do they regard them as patriots, experts in dirty work or common criminals?

It is difficult to gauge Russian popular opinion in the absence of a free media. Abandoning a policy of keeping a low profile within Russia, Wagner has recently been hailed by Kremlin-controlled media as an important element on the frontlines in Ukraine. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, little was ever said in Russian media regarding Wagner activities. Russian perceptions of Wagner thus tend to be based on Kremlin propaganda efforts and Wagner’s own public relations department, which produces films, statues, t-shirts, Facebook pages and billboards praising the work of Wagner personnel.

The Wagner Group is not the only private army in the world. How many are there? Moreover, how are they used by other governments?

It is very difficult to say how many “private armies” there are in the world. Part of the problem is a matter of definitions – is every private armed security company a “private army”? Private Military Contractors (PMCs) tend to come and go in the marketplace. Some, like Blackwater, change their names on a regular basis. Some can be very dangerous; others, like the Atholl Highlanders, the last private army in Europe before the emergence of the Wagners, are purely ceremonial.

Employment of “private armies” by national governments can be undertaken for the following reasons:

1/   National militaries lack the arms or skills to prevail in a security crisis;

2/  National forces may be regarded as uncommitted or even a threat to regime survival;

3/  National forces may be insufficient in numbers to address an ongoing security threat;

4/   A regime may wish to take severe measures against its internal enemies through the short-term use of unaccountable troops.

Rather than operate as a “private army,” Wagner operatives have experienced close integration with Russian regular forces in recent months despite occasionally violent rivalries between the two forces.

Wagner is not an elite unit, and was never designed or intended for use on European battlefields in a conventional war. The use of poorly-disciplined veterans (many with troubled service records or criminal convictions) and volunteers seeking an early release from Russia’s prison colonies can in no way tip the scales of the Ukraine conflict in Russia’s favor. Instead, their use side-by-side with Russian regulars has merely served to dispel the pretence that Wagner operatives have no connection to the Russian state, severely diminishing their usefulness abroad. Wagner’s brutal methods, its failure to subdue jihadist or rebel movements and its devotion to profit over security will ultimately backfire in most of its foreign deployments. As a means of establishing a broad Russian geo-political presence in resource-rich and strategically important nations, the Wagner approach and its rapid spread has alarmed the West.  However, so long as Wagner personnel remain unaccountable to any authority, even despite now clearly-established ties to the Kremlin, short-term success can only be followed by long-term failure.


Aberfoyle International Security is a Toronto-based independent consulting firm specializing in international security analysis. According to the US press in 2011, among the materials found in Bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout there were more than 50 articles written by its current director, Andrew McGregor.