The Fate of the Wagner Group in Syria, Libya, and Sudan

The bizarre episode of the late June failed mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin against the Russian military establishment has put the fate of his Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries in doubt, not only in Ukraine but in several Arab states as well, notably in Syria, Libya, and Sudan. Wagner’s military actions in these strife-ridden Arab countries have played an important role in strengthening certain factions and governments over the past several years, but at the cost of prolonging these conflicts, contributing to human rights abuses, and exploiting mineral resources. Russian officials have indicated that they want such involvement in these Arab countries to continue, suggesting that Wagner fighters could come under direct Russian military command; but whether this nationalization of the mercenary group will succeed remains an open question.

Continuing Uncertainty in Russia

Recent developments in Russia show that the future of the Wagner Group remains shrouded in uncertainty and secrecy. After he called off the mutiny during his march to Moscow on June 24, Prigozhin and his Wagner fighters were supposed to go to Belarus in a deal that would provide them a safe-haven there. But Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko told reporters on July 6 that Prigozhin was no longer in his country and was instead in Russia of his own volition. Moreover, it is unclear how many Wagner fighters are currently in Belarus and for what purpose they are there (one report has said that some of them are being used to train the Belarusian Army).

Prigozhin and his Wagner commanders met with Putin on June 29 so he could hear directly from the group.

It subsequently came to light that Prigozhin and his Wagner commanders met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 29 so the Russian leader could hear directly from the group. At this meeting, according to a Russian government spokesperson, the commanders “emphasized that they were staunch supporters and soldiers of the leader and supreme commander in chief and said they were ready to continue fighting for the motherland.”

It was also revealed that Prigozhin has remained in Russia to supposedly clean up his business affairs. Soon after the failed mutiny, the Russian police seized assets in his mansion, including stacks of foreign currency, gold, and numerous passports—a raid that was aired on Russian state television in an effort to discredit Prigozhin and to paint him as a corrupt traitor. However, the fact that he is still in Russia means that he remains there with Putin’s blessing.

What all these contradictory developments ultimately mean is difficult to say. Given Russia’s troop shortages in its war in Ukraine, Putin may have wanted to test the “patriotism” of the Wagner commanders and to remind them of his pledge of amnesty as long as they remain committed to the war effort in Ukraine and agree to act under Russian military command. Putin may have also wanted to get a detailed assessment from Prigozhin about Wagner’s operations abroad, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, where the group has played a large role.

Arrests in Syria but No Rebellion

The Wagner Group has been active in the Syrian Civil War since Russia intervened on the side of the Assad regime in 2015. Several thousand Wagner Group mercenaries, including Syrian national recruits, have been involved in operations in the country. The recent attempted mutiny in Russia, however, made Russian military officials in Syria nervous. Russian military police and Syrian intelligence officers launched an arrest campaign against Wagner commanders in Syria and raided Wagner offices in Damascus, Hama, and Deir Ezzor as the mutiny was unfolding in Russia. Reportedly, two or three Wagner officers were arrested at Russia’s air base in Humaymim in Latakia Province, and another was arrested in Sweida, south of Damascus. These arrests were reportedly confirmed by US and German defense officials. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin reportedly flew to Damascus to urge Syrian authorities not to allow any Wagner fighters to leave the country.

However, one Syrian analyst based in Turkey told the international media that these Russian actions were merely “precautionary” measures and that no Wagner members had rebelled against Russian military forces in Syria. Whether those detained in Syria have since been released is unknown. For its part, the Wagner Group in Syria has denied that any of its members had been arrested. But Syria may be a special case because of the presence of both Wagner fighters and the regular Russian military, which clearly has the upper hand in this situation. In Libya and Sudan, Wagner forces do not have the Russian military watching over or competing with them, which allows them more freedom to operate.

Allowing Wagner to Continue Operations in Africa?

Preliminary indications coming out of Russia seem to suggest that Russian officials see value in the Wagner Group’s activities in Africa but want these fighters and their activities to come under formal Russian command. Indeed, even before the failed mutiny, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke favorably about the Wagner Group. In a February 9, 2023 press conference in Khartoum, he stated that Wagner was “working on fighting terrorism in [African] countries” and that such private militaries companies are “coming to these countries according to agreements with the governments that have sovereignty over their countries.”

Russian officials see value in the Wagner Group’s activities in Africa but want these fighters to come under formal Russian command.

Since the failed mutiny, Lavrov said in an interview that the “instructors” and “private military contractors,” as he called them, would remain in the Central African Republic and Mali. Although Lavrov did not mention Libya and Sudan, some analysts have suggested that the Wagner forces will remain there too. Atlantic Council expert Alia Brahimi said that there may now be an effort by the Russian government to nationalize the Wagner Group, and that the close cooperation in Libya and elsewhere between the Wagner Group and the Kremlin would make such a process easier. The Ukrainian media, citing a UK Defense Intelligence assessment, stated that the Russian state “is likely prepared to accept Wagner’s aspirations to maintain its extensive presence on the [African] continent.” It is worth noting that in the wake of the failed munity, Putin publicly acknowledged that the Russian government had funded the Wagner Group, finally laying aside years of denials on the part of the Kremlin.

Strategic and Economic Benefits

The Wagner Group’s activities in Libya, Sudan, and other parts of Africa have given Russia a foothold in these countries that it does not want to relinquish. For example, in Sudan, Wagner has been involved in mercenary military activities on behalf of Khartoum before the current rift between the Sudanese Army and the rapid Support Forces, such as helping to put down pro-democracy demonstrations, and also in lucrative gold mining operations. Some of this gold, reportedly transferred through the UAE, has made its way to the Kremlin or has been sold for hard currency, helping Putin circumvent the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia since the beginning of the Ukraine war.

In addition, Wagner’s operations in Libya—chiefly its military support to the self-anointed Field Marshal of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar, who is connected to the eastern Libyan government—has given Wagner a “bridgehead” in Libya. This allows it to maintain links with the head of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces under the command of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, more popularly known as Hemedti, who is embroiled in a civil war against the forces of Sudanese General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

Complicating Factors

It is far from clear that Wagner and the Russian government were always operating from the same playbook. For example, after Haftar failed to take the Libyan capital of Tripoli by force in 2019-2020, the Russian government began to hedge its bets on this Libyan strongman and started to reach out to the Tripoli government even though Wagner remained in Haftar’s corner (and in his employ). And in Sudan’s ongoing civil war, Wagner and the Russian government may be on different sides.

At the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Hemedti was in Russia, where he spoke favorably about the establishment of a Russian naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast; but Burhan, who at the time was in charge of the Sudanese government, was reportedly opposed to the idea. Lavrov attempted to finesse the issue by saying the naval base proposal was first approved by a previous Sudanese government (a reference to deposed dictator Omar al-Bashir), but that has not diminished the controversy. The Kremlin wants to keep its links to Burhan in case he comes out on top in the war, even though it may privately favor Hemedti. Meanwhile, the Wagner Group, because of the Haftar-Hemedti relationship, is reportedly supporting the latter in the civil war.

The Wagner Group is reportedly supporting Hemedti in Sudan’s civil war.

On June 30, a Wagner military base in Libya was hit by a drone strike, though no one was killed or injured in the attack. The government in Tripoli, which has long opposed the Haftar-Wagner alliance, denied that it was involved in the strike; but one possibility is that it undertook this attack to weaken the abovementioned ties. Another possibility is that Turkish forces in Libya may have launched the drone strike at the behest of the Russian government as a warning to Wagner against taking part in any rebellion against the Kremlin. However, until more information is revealed, it remains uncertain as to who actually launched the strike and for what purpose, since there are multiple conflicts within conflicts in Libya.

The UAE Connection

There have long been reports suggesting that the UAE has not only helped to fund Wagner operations in Libya and Sudan (though it may have ended its funding for Wagner in Libya when Haftar’s offensive to take Tripoli faltered in 2020), but has also facilitated the transfer of Wagner funds across its own borders. One prominent security analyst, Andreas Krieg, has even suggested that Wagner “would not be able to operate if they no longer had access to the infrastructure, financial logistics, gold trade infrastructure that the UAE has provided.”

Wagner reportedly operates the Dubai-based company, Kratol Aviation, which is used to move supplies around Africa, as well as another company, Industrial Resources General Trading, which is allegedly involved in moving gold from Wagner operations. These two companies have been sanctioned by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

US Moves Against Wagner Operations

Even before Prigozhin’s failed mutiny, the US had highly negative views of the Wagner Group, and in one encounter in Syria in 2018 even killed about 200 of their mercenaries in an air strike after they attacked a US military base. In January 2023, CIA Director William Burns traveled to Libya where he had discussions with a number of Libyan leaders, including Haftar, and reportedly pressured him to expel Wagner amid concerns that the group could exploit Libya’s oil resources. That same month, OFAC designated Wagner as a “significant transnational criminal organization.” Whether Haftar decides to move against Wagner to enter the good graces of the United States remains an open question. It is noteworthy that Haftar also has good relations with the Russian government, which he wants to maintain; but unlike in Syria, Wagner is the only Russian entity of significance in Libya. Haftar may not want to run the risk of getting into a military conflict with Wagner forces, especially because he knows their capabilities.

The US Treasury has stepped up its pressure on Wagner, sanctioning four connected companies.

In the wake of the failed mutiny in late June, it appears that the US Treasury has stepped up its pressure on Wagner, sanctioning four companies connected with it, including the two mentioned earlier. Although these sanctions, along with pressure on the UAE to clamp down on companies doing business with Wagner, may hinder some of its operations, Wagner may find other means to maintain its influence in Arab and African countries. While the Russian government may have the muscle to place Wagner under its control in Syria, the same cannot be said for Libya and Sudan. Thus, Moscow may prefer to use cooptation and other non-military means to try to bring Wagner under its orbit in these countries.

From the perspective of certain warring factions in Libya and Sudan, such a policy may not be to their disadvantage since what counts for them is retaining a mercenary presence in their countries that would aid them against their opponents. However, from the perspective of the peoples of these countries, a continuing mercenary presence, either from a private company or a nationalized one, merely adds to their woes, as it contributes to the ongoing violence and constitutes a drain on their countries’ mineral wealth, which should be used instead for the welfare of the people.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Telegram/concordgroup