Why Russia’s Wagner Group Has Been In Ukraine, Africa And more

Wagner Mercenary Group. 

The Wagner mercenary group has provided fighters for hire across Africa and other countries, with the Kremlin’s approval. But what’s next for the global network — and the countries Wagner operates in — is uncertain after the group’s founder and leader, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, on Saturday called off a 24-hour mutiny against his onetime ally and benefactor, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said at a news briefing Monday that the agency “does not know what will happen to Wagner” or any possible “successor organizations.”

Prigozhin vowed Monday in a Telegram message to continue operating Wagner from Belarus, where he agreed to go into exile after refusing to let Russia’s regular army absorb his units in Ukraine. Hours later, Putin said that fighters who sided with Prigozhin could go to Belarus, join the Russian security forces or head home.

While Prigozhin’s rebellion concerned units of mercenaries in Ukraine, over the last nine years Wagner fighters have popped up in more than a dozen countries. They’ve served as security for Russian assets or host governments. Others have fought in the battlefield. Wagner said Monday that he always operated internationally “in the interests of the Russian Federation.”

Here’s what to know about where Wagner Group has worked and the impact of its operations.

What is Wagner doing in Ukraine?

In September, Prigozhin publicly acknowledged that he had founded the paramilitary group nearly a decade earlier to help pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and Russian forces in Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Wagner deployed tens of thousands of mercenaries to Ukraine, the United States estimated. The number has dropped to closer to 8,000, according to British intelligence. Prigozhin has claimed that he controls 25,000 fighters. Many were recruited from Russian prisons to bolster Russian forces.

In May, Wagner appeared on the cusp of expanding its reach in Ukraine after it helped Russia capture the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The town is of little strategic value, but it is the sole territory Russia has captured this year. As casualty counts grew during the months-long battle, Prigozhin released increasingly profane diatribes against Russia’s military leaders, which culminated with his mutiny.

The Russian news outlet Verstka reported that a base for 8,000 Wagner soldiers was being constructed in Belarus, which The Washington Post could not independently verify. As of Monday, it was unclear where Prigozhin was and if any Wagner fighters had relocated to Belarus.

What is Wagner doing in the Middle East and Africa?

Soon after the Wagner Group first popped up in Ukraine, mercenaries tied to it were also reported in Syria, where in 2015 Putin intervened on the side of President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war. In Syria, the paramilitary group provided security to Russian and Syrian military facilities and took part in some fighting, such as Assad’s campaign to recapture the city of Palmyra.

Wagner forces there were also part of the deadliest U.S.-Russian confrontation since the Cold War. In 2018, U.S. troops and their allies near Syria’s Deir al-Zour responded to an attack by fighters loyal to Assad with a counterattack that killed about 100 people — Russian mercenaries among them.

In oil-rich Libya, Wagner operatives have been fighting on the side of the renegade Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter in his battle to oust a U.N.-backed government set up in 2015 to end the country’s civil war. As with the Syrian war, the fighting in Libya has become a front for regional proxy battles, and the presence of Wagner fighters has signaled that Russia is seeking a stronger hand in the Middle East and North Africa.

Wagner and Russia also are expanding their political and financial reach elsewhere in Africa. So far, the paramilitary group has been in 18 African countries, a number that represents more than half the nations where it has worked, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In Mali, whose relations with the West are at a low point, Wagner mercenaries have guarded the presidential palace and helped track extremists. In the Central African Republic, Wagner has been helping to prop up the country’s embattled government — and in exchange, a company linked to Prigozhin has been awarded licenses to mine gold and diamonds.

Wagner began operating in Sudan in 2017, according to Suliman Baldo, founder of the Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker. The organization has advised government leaders and equipped and trained security forces, according to a leaked U.S. intelligence document seen by The Post. Prigozhin also has connections to a Sudanese company with gold mining and processing concessions.

Wagner has worked with both Sudan’s military and the Rapid Support Forces which, since April, have been in a fierce battle for control of the country. The U.S. Treasury Department in May accused Wagner of supplying surface-to-air missiles to the RSF.

What has been the U.S. response to Wagner?

Wagner’s international operations complicate U.S. efforts to isolate Russia on the global stage.

“Wherever we’ve seen Wagner operate in the past, we’ve seen death and destruction follow in their wake,” Miller, the State Department spokesperson, said Monday. “And we have instituted a series of policies to hold them accountable and to counter Wagner’s influence.”

The U.S. Treasury first imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group in 2017 in response to allegations that it was fueling violence in eastern Ukraine. Since then, Prigozhin and Wagner have faced additional rounds of sanctions. In January, Washington labeled Wagner a “significant transnational criminal organization.”

The Treasury Department has imposed sanctions against Wagner on allegations of “bankrolling” Putin, “advancing Russia’s malign influence” in the Central African Republic and using Mali as a conduit for acquiring weapons for Russia’s war in Ukraine, among others.

“Wagner comes in, further destabilizes the country, ravages the mineral resources and makes as much money as they can before they choose to leave,” U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Milton Sands, head of Special Operations Command Africa, told The Post last year. “The country is left poorer, weaker and less secure. Every time.”

Over the past year, Washington has also mulled, though apparently not put into action, ways to help Ukraine and allies in Africa kill Wagner commanders, according to leaked secret U.S. intelligence documents.