The 2011 NATO-led military intervention that toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi enflamed Islamist insurgencies across Western Africa as jihadist groups obtained much of the Libyan military’s ordnance. These insurgencies particularly threatened Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. France launched Operation Barkhane in 2014 to help West African countries fight terrorism, deploying 5,500 French soldiers at its peak. Smaller US and European contingents reinforced the French-led operation. Dissatisfied with Barkhane’s progress, military juntas deposed democratic governments in Mali (2020) and Burkina Faso (2022), ended military cooperation with France, and sought Russian military support.
Russian foreign military interventions predominantly rely on private military companies (PMCs) with PMC Wagner emerging in recent years as the most powerful. Mali’s new government retained Wagner at a cost of $10 million per month, probably paid in kind with natural resources. Wagner’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, transformed his PMC into Moscow’s unofficial foreign legion and became Russia’s most powerful oligarch. By 2023, Putin so feared Prigozhin’s power, that he prioritized containing Wagner’s business over expanding Russian influence in Africa. Moscow’s and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s contradictory reactions to Niger’s July 26 coup best illustrates this.
Like in Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger’s military grew dissatisfied with French military assistance against Islamist insurgents. After withdrawing French forces from Mali and Burkina Faso, President Emmanuel Macron declared last year that Niger would become the heart of Western anti-jihadist operations in Western Africa. Nigerien President Mohammed Bazoum was Paris’s last remaining ally in the region. Then, a presidential guard-led military coup ousted Bazoum on July 26.
While the Kremlin has repeatedly denounced the coup, Prigozhin celebrated it and offered Wagner’s services to Niger’s military junta. Putin’s regime maintains power in large part through providing loyalists with state contracts and, before Wagner established its African business empire, no Russian actor could rival government largesse. However, Prigozhin facing negligible punishment for launching his June rebellion indicates Wagner has established an alternative patronage network within Russia’s security apparatus. So, despite President Mohamed Bazoum’s pro-Western stance, Putin may prefer ECOWAS restoring Niger’s elected government to Wagner plundering the country’s natural resources.
On July 27, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told state-controlled Channel One, “We believe the coup is an anti-constitutional act… We reaffirm our position that it is necessary to restore the constitutional order in Niger.” Similarly, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated, “We count on the rapid release of President Bazoum by the military.”
Prigozhin, on the other hand, released a voice message on Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels that evening celebrating the coup. “What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonizers… Today this is effectively gaining their independence.” He then offered Wagner’s services to the military junta. “Thousands of Wagner fighters are capable of bringing order and of destroying terrorists.”
Moscow on Monday reiterated its opposition to the coup, explicitly disavowing Prigozhin’s remarks. Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted, “We want Niger to restore constitutional order as soon as possible… The Kremlin’s assessment of the situation in Niger and the words of the founder of the PMC Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, about what is happening in that country should not be put in the same semantic row.”
Yeltsin-era oligarchs mostly enriched themselves by acquiring privatized state-owned enterprises via non-competitive tenders. That business model did not require remaining in the president’s good graces. Putin renationalized many industries while creating a new economic elite dependent on state funds and disproportionately drawn from the security apparatus. Prigozhin made his original fortune from government catering contracts.
Prigozhin’s evolution from caterer to warlord is shrouded in mystery. Russia’s military intelligence service, the G.U., likely recruited Yevgeny Prigozhin to finance a PMC that would support Moscow-backed separatists during the 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Wagner gradually metamorphosed from another Moscow-backed PMC to Russia’s unofficial foreign legion. Prigozhin’s corporate network provides multiple services, including military interventions, political consulting, and public relations campaigns.
Russian state agencies directly funded some Wagner operations while awarding Prigozhin-owned companies massive government contracts that enabled him to self-finance other ventures. However, in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Sudan, Wagner secured resource concessions as payment for their services. Since 2018, Wagner paramilitaries prevented rebel groups from ousting CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and employed bribery, intimidation, and propaganda to facilitate his reelection. Industrial-scale gold and diamond mining endowed Wagner with independent revenue streams as well as a mechanism for laundering other Russian concerns’ money. Wagner’s gold-smuggling then became a critical node in sanctions circumvention after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
The Kremlin empowered Prigozhin further by enlisting Wagner to shore up Russia’s faltering war effort. Wagner initiated a recruitment drive, swelling its ranks to 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts by December 2022. It also received an enormous arsenal, which included tanks, surface-to-air missile systems, self-propelled artillery pieces, multiple-launch rocket systems, anti-tank guns, mortars, and armored troop carriers.
Originally, Putin envisioned Wagner as just another security force competing for his good favor, even a counterweight to his generals. But, by early 2023, clearly fearing Prigozhin’s growing power, Putin endorsed measures to curb his influence. He demoted Wagner allies in the state security apparatus (e.g. Sergey Surovikin), blocked recruiting prisoners, and possibly restricted Wagner’s ammunition supply during the Battle of Bakhmut. Finally, Putin ordered Wagner to integrate into the military. In other words, Putin announced he would nationalize Prigozhin’s business empire and personal army, leaving him defenseless against his political adversaries.
Rather than submit to this death sentence, Prigozhin launched the June rebellion. Wagner’s bloodless capture of Rostov-on-Don and lightening advance towards Moscow indicates Prigozhin has established an alternative patronage network within Russia’s security apparatus. Sergey Kostelyanyets, head of the Center of Sociological and Political Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for African Studies, told Newsweek, “Russia’s Ministry of Defense and other Russian security agencies have neither capacity nor will to replace Wagner, which has come to possess extensive physical and logical infrastructure in Africa.” Accordingly, Wagner beneficiaries within Russia’s elite effectively vetoed Putin’s “integration scheme” and then compelled the Kremlin to permit Prigozhin to conduct his business in Russia unfettered. Putin now appears resigned simply to containing Wagner’s expansion.
Micah Levinson is a professor of political science and senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org.