No sooner had Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plane crashed to earth than questions began circulating as to the fate of his sprawling network of shadow companies, aircraft, vessels, and blood-spattered mercenaries. What does this mean for Russia’s policy towards Africa? Will Wagner dissolve and merge with more formal elements of the Russian state?
While Prigozhin himself may have outlived his usefulness to the Kremlin, his operations and networks, particularly in Africa, continue to hold enormous importance. The Kremlin will not so willingly walk away from the shady lucrative dealings Prigozhin made across the continent — orchestrating gems-for-gunmen deals with Africa’s ruling elite.
These efforts have proven extremely useful, as Russia is desperate for goods to aid its war machine and to depress US and Western influence. All Putin needs is a replacement. Someone who has already proven their loyalty amongst the Kremlin’s inner circles and who has demonstrated the competence to work abroad with dangerous men seeking wealth, arms, and political influence.
Step forward Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer who made a name for himself in the 1990s transporting arms from Eastern Europe to Africa with his vast fleet of 60 aircraft and 30 front companies. Wherever there was an African conflict, more often than not, Bout was on a nearby runway unloading the Kalashnikovs — including in Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. During the civil wars in Angola and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), he supplied weapons to both sides. A former member of the Soviet Air Force, Bout leveraged his connections following the dissolution of the USSR to acquire “surplus or obsolete airplanes which he used to deliver arms and ammunition from old Soviet stockpiles.”
In 2008, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), lured Bout to Bangkok on the pretense he would meet Colombian FARC Rebels — then a designated terrorist organization. During the meeting, Bout attempted to sell hundreds of surface-to-air missiles to the undercover agents. Following extradition to the US, he was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison, until his release last year in a prisoner swap for US basketball player Brittney Griner.
Since his release, Bout has hinted at returning to “business” and noticeably attended the Russia Africa Summit last month in St. Petersburg, where leaders from across the continent were meeting to discuss closer cooperation with Russia. Dubbed the “sanctions buster,” Bout shares a remarkably similar skill set to that of Prigozhin and has publicly demonstrated his loyalty and support for Putin since his release.
Whether Prigozhin’s blessing helps or harms Bout in the fetid political atmosphere of Putin’s Russia is an open question. The gun runner has no experience running a global mercenary organization (with an attached and significant operation laundering natural resources), though his experience dealing with the continent’s ruling elite through a webbed network of front companies and shady business deals would undoubtedly prove useful. Bout was often paid in diamonds for his services and laundered the proceeds through his shadow network.
The Kremlin is likely to subsume most of Wagner’s hired guns under the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency with its history of foreign interference, assassination, and sabotage. Russian military officials have reportedly told their African and Middle Eastern counterparts that the GRU will begin to formally manage Wagner forces in their countries.
The GRU will seek to maintain the mining concessions and licenses Prigozhin arranged to extract precious minerals, metals, and gems across Africa. It’s doubtful the agency will want to front its own operation so Bout, or someone else with a substantial range of dark abilities, will be needed to act as the face and voice of the enterprise. Watch this space.
Michael Albanese is a practitioner in the international development field, where he supports US Government-funded democracy promotion missions. 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.