France and Germany this week warned West Africa’s Mali against a reported deal with Russian mercenary Wagner, claiming that the country is close to hiring 1,000 mercenaries for the secret group.
Reports of Wagner’s existence emerged at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, which was triggered in 2014 and hastened accusations that the Kremlin supported a separatist uprising in the eastern part of the country.
The group later reappeared in Syria, where it reinforced Bashar Assad’s fighting regime and was accused by Russian media of torturing prisoners and securing oil supplies.
Wagner warriors have since resurfaced in politically volatile African countries such as the Central African Republic as military “instructors” and Libya, where they support the rival administration of Putist General Khalifa Haftar.
In addition to supporting official Russian military operations, as in Syria, Wagner is also reported to have played the traditional role of a private security company elsewhere.
Wagner is believed to be funded by 60-year-old businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has suffered EU and US sanctions for destabilizing Libya and interfering in US elections.
The group, which, like all private combat companies, is banned in Russia, is of course considered to be recruiting from law enforcement agencies and the military, who are looking for potential soldiers with salaries five or six times greater than the average salary in Russia.
Several local Russian news sites have reported from funerals in Russia about suspected warriors who say that families receive large payments in exchange for their silence.
The think tank Carnegie has described Wagner as “one of Moscow’s worst kept secrets”.
The group has two main goals: “To give the Kremlin credible negligence when deploying warriors in war zones” and to be “a ready-made ability to build influence with susceptible states.”
Activists have accused Wagner of committing “war crimes” in Syria, while the UN has suspected the group of human rights violations in the Central African Republic.