A revolt by the Wagner force in Russia poses a diplomatic quandary for African states where forces from the mercenary group have played an increasingly central role in long-running internal conflicts.
Legalbrief reports that the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Sudan and Libya have all become platforms for the shadowy group which had plied Moscow’s interests – until now. And South Africa’s relationship with Russia – and the West – has once again been brought into sharp focus with this weekend’s extraordinary developments. The Wagner group, Russia’s de facto private military organisation, on Friday night announced that it would invade Russia and ‘punish’ the country’s military leaders for an alleged missile attack on the mercenaries’ base in Ukraine.
A week after President Vladimir Putin’s cool talks with President Cyril Ramaphosa on his attendance at the Brics summit in SA later this year, any chance that the Russian leader would leave his country appears to have disappeared following the armed rebellion which has battered his credibility. The attempted coup attempt came just days after Ramaphosa visited St Petersburg, as part of the African initiative to negotiate peace between Russia and Ukraine. City Press learnt from an authoritative government source that, before the public meetings, Ramaphosa had tried to convince Putin not to visit SA. The pending summit caused a diplomatic uproar after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest over alleged war crimes. Government has already reportedly received a legal opinion indicating that Putin would have to be arrested if he set foot in SA. This forced Ramaphosa to propose to Putin last Saturday that he should either attend the summit virtually or send a representative in his place.
Ramaphosa last week incurred the wrath of the Russians when he discussed an unusual request by French President Emmanuel Macron to attend the summit. After Ramaphosa accepted Macron’s request, the Russian Government said he would not be welcome. City Press notes that Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, told the RIA news agency: ‘Leaders of states that pursue such a hostile and unacceptable policy towards us, discussing with such emphasis and conviction that Russia should be isolated on the international stage, and share the common Nato line on inflicting a so-called strategic defeat on us – such a leader is an inappropriate Brics guest.’ Full City Press report
The significance of the failed mutiny will be felt keenly in the CAR and Mali. Both countries have sought closer ties with Russia and military support to battle the armed fighters, saying in the past that their military co-operation agreements are with Russia rather than with Wagner. ‘(Wagner’s) presence in Mali is sponsored by the Kremlin and if Wagner is at odds with the Kremlin … naturally Mali will suffer the consequences on the security front,’ said Malian political analyst Bassirou Doumbia. Al Jazeera reports that Mali, where military authorities seized power in coups in 2020 and 2021, is battling a years-long operation against armed groups affiliated with Isis and al-Qaeda. It has said Russian forces there are not Wagner mercenaries but trainers helping local troops with equipment bought from Russia. However, the alliance has soured relations with the UN and alienated Western powers, who have said the fighters are Wagner forces and have alleged that they have committed possible war crimes alongside Malian soldiers.
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The power struggle in Russia could also have significant ramifications for CAR, where hundreds of Russian operatives, including many from Wagner, have been helping the government fight several rebel insurgencies since 2018. Both CAR and Mali have been drawn increasingly into Russia’s orbit in recent years as the Kremlin sought greater influence in Francophone Africa to the dismay of former colonial power France, which has faced anti-French protests in the region and worsening relations with several West African governments. In February, Macron described the deployment of Wagner troops in Africa as ‘the life insurance of failing regimes in Africa’ that will only sow misery. Full Al Jazeera report