Business as usual for Russia's globe-trotting mercenary army. Is Putin fully on board or unable to prevent it?
Everyone thirsting for news about Wagner, Russia’s globetrotting mercenary army, finally has something concrete to indicate it’s fighting fit and still out there.
The ‘private military company’ was founded and run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, once famous as “Putin’s chef” and known since June 23 for his short-lived mutiny. After the mutiny, Wagner’s future seemed to hang in the balance with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s government suggesting it would be broken up, subsumed by the regular army and suchlike.
But, it’s (private) business as usual for Wagner, folks.
Hundreds of Wagner’s mercenary fighters have apparently arrived in the Central African Republic (CAR) to secure the country’s July 30 referendum for constitutional change. It’s the kind of thing Wagner has been doing in the mineral-rich, troubled country since 2018. CAR is one of at least half a dozen nations in Africa where Wagner has operated.
The bland announcement of Wagner’s ventures in CAR came from a Russia-based Wagner front company, which operates in the country as the representative of Russian “instructors” there. The Russian Officers’ Union for International Security (OUIS) said the new deployment was a “planned rotation”.
Really? What’s going on here?
Barely two weeks ago, hundreds of Wagner men were said to have left CAR because Russia’s defence ministry wanted them to regularise their position and sign contracts with the government. Now, they’re back, deploying in CAR, as they have many times in the past five years, fighting to defend President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s government against rebel attacks on the capital, Bangui.
This round of Wagner’s CAR operations will be particularly significant. Mr Touadera wants to change his country’s constitution and abolish presidential term limits of two four-year stints. Success would mean he could seek a new, third term in 2025 or even be for president for life, according to sections of the CAR opposition. As a means to this end, Mr Touadera has already removed CAR’s top judge who made so bold as to oppose the constitutional change.
Wagner’s return to CAR as the government’s guard dog will matter. To CAR, to its president and to Wagner.
Wagner’s various wings have clocked up riches in return for their efforts in CAR, not least unrestricted logging rights and control of the lucrative Ndassima gold mine.
According to observers in CAR and outside it, Wagner has tried to establish control over the flow of gold and diamonds and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made such measures more important because the rouble has come under pressure and precious metals could help the Putin regime.
Is that the reason Wagner is back in CAR? And that Mr Putin is allowing a business-as-usual scenario for Wagner? Or is Mr Putin unable to prevent it?