With at least 420 (and probably many more) dead as a result of fighting between Sudan’s military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia, Western and other states with citizens and diplomats in the country are making desperate efforts to save those caught in the crossfire.
Why has this happened? There are numerous reasons, including multiple breakdowns by both Sudanese parties to build a civilian-led government following the removal of the country’s former dictator, Omar al-Bashir, in 2019. But not for the first time (see Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic), Russia’s baleful influence is at work.
Wagner forces directly support General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo and his RSF paramilitary units, who reportedly control the majority of gold mines along the Red Sea. Two companies linked to Wagner’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin — Meroe Gold, a Sudanese gold mining firm, and its owner, the Russian-based M Invest firm — are involved in funneling gold out of the country.
Both also advised al-Bashir on how to suppress the pro-democracy movement, efforts that resulted from 2017 Russia-Sudan agreements made at the head-of-state level. These plans directly advocated for the use of social media disinformation campaigns and the staging of public executions across the country. M Invest is said by the US Treasury Department to be a front for Wagner. Recently, Russia has begun making moves to construct a military base in Sudan along the Red Sea.
The US has sanctioned Prigozhin and the companies he is linked to, stating that his “role in Sudan highlights the interplay between Russia’s paramilitary operations, support for preserving authoritarian regimes, and exploitation of natural resources.”
Kremlin-linked Wagner forces have been involved in some of Africa’s nastiest conflicts for years now and are often accused of significant misbehavior, including torture and mass murder. More recently, these operations have helped the Kremlin to evade Western sanctions and fund its war of aggression in Ukraine.
Despite extremely high casualties in Ukraine (estimated by the US to be 20,000-plus), Wagner has been able to continue operations in Africa. In fact, Prigozhin is reportedly seeking to return his focus to the continent following heavy losses at the hands of the Ukrainian army.
While former Commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) General Stephen Townsend cited intelligence suggesting Wagner forces had been pulled from Libya because of the conflict, there has been no evidence to suggest that forces have been withdrawn from places such as Mali, where roughly 1,000 Wagner mercenaries deployed last year. New reports have also suggested that the organization wants to expand into Burkina Faso and its goldmines, as well as Guinea and Eritrea.
Russia has not acted alone. According to last month’s trove of leaked classified US documents, Russian intelligence services have deepened their ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in an effort to “to work together against US and UK intelligence agencies.”
In 2020, the US Defense Intelligence Agency assessed “that the United Arab Emirates may provide some financing for the [Wagner] group’s operations.” In the case of Sudan, approximately 90% of the country’s gold is believed to be smuggled abroad, often routed through the UAE, where it is then laundered. In 2021 alone, Sudan’s gold exports exceeded $1.7bn. Kratol Aviation, a UAE-based air company, has been sanctioned by the US for transporting the group’s men and equipment.
Meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron recently unveiled a revamped strategy for Africa, which calls for a substantial reduction of French troops in its bases across the continent. During his speech in February, Macron referred to Wagner as the “life insurance of failing regimes in Africa.” The French leader’s sentiment is shared widely amongst Western allies, yet as Wagner forces continue to proliferate while Western forces draw back, the life insurance premiums for African autocrats begin to look affordable.
The situation could even worsen, as the end of Putin’s war in Ukraine may see thousands of battle-hardened men seeking lucrative employment elsewhere. Such a deluge of mercenaries, in their quest for Africa’s gold and other resources, might then plunge the continent even deeper into conflict.
Michael Albanese is a practitioner in the international development field, where he supports USG-funded democracy promotion missions globally. Previously, he worked at both the Atlantic Council and the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.