/ 25 August 2023

Wagner boss faces the music

Flowers And Memorials Emerge In Moscow For Wagner Group Members Presumed Dead In Plane Crash
A portrait of politician and warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin seen among candles at an informal memorial for PMC Wagner Group at Varvarka street near the Kremlin on August 24, 2023 in Moscow, Russia. Russia's Civil Aviation Agency says mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigizhin was aboard a plane that crashed north of Moscow. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)

The downing of Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plane has all the hallmarks of nefarious political wrangling. What does it mean for Russia and the rest of the world — particularly Africa, where Wagner was very active?

But first — how did it happen?

At the time of writing, no official reason had yet been given for the crash. Wagner-linked Telegram channel Grey Zone, however, has maintained that it was shot down by the Russian military.

The Vladimir Putin playbook suggests that the Russian government will try to blame foreign actors. This is pretty standard — when exiled Putin opponents were targeted with exotic poisons unlikely to be available to anyone but state actors, Russian government complicity was routinely denied. Putin wants the benefits of being a savage (terrifying opponents) without the downside (being seen to be uncivilised).

To shoot down a plane at cruise you need a far more capable system than a portable missile, such as a Stinger. A typical military anti-aircraft system operates off a truck. If anyone but the Russian military operated one that far into Russia, and was not apprehended, that would be an epic security fail. If it was any element of the Russian military, it could not carry out such an act without orders from the top.

Two months before the plane was taken out, to the day, Prigozhin marched on Moscow, ostensibly to protest incompetent leadership of the war on Ukraine, shortly after a rant in which he dismantled all Putin’s pretexts for the war. On the way, several Russian military aircraft were shot down but Prigozhin was persuaded to call off his march to avoid further bloodshed.

In a deep humiliation for Putin, his puppet, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, brokered a deal in which Wagner would decamp to his country.

Putin is not one to tolerate humiliation. Much of his rationale for the war in Ukraine derives from the humiliation he felt over Russia’s loss of influence with the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Symbolism is also big with him. Aside from the damage to logistical support for the war, he takes Ukraine’s attacks on the Kerch Bridge linking Crimea to Russia as a personal affront because the bridge was his big project.

Where does this leave Russia and Wagner?

Before the war in Ukraine, Wagner’s ties to the Kremlin did not officially exist and it was not part of the Russian state — officially, anyway (remember the rule about official denial). Its purpose was to act as an extension of the Russian state where deniability was required. It could commit the worst atrocities without Russia being officially in the frame.

That Prigozhin was closely linked to Putin, and they had a long history, made this all pretty risible but that’s the way Putin rolls. If you run a police state in which the media doesn’t jump until you give the command and then barely has the courage to ask, “How high?” it is easy to fall into the habit of clumsily illogical propaganda. 

Lately, Russian official sources have taken to posting absurdities on social media, such as extolling the virtues of respecting sovereignty, as if sending hundreds of thousands of your troops into a smaller neighbour illustrates that point.

But Putin has now admitted that Wagner is, in fact, a project of the Russian state, so its usefulness has ended — and Prigozhin’s fate was sealed. Not only did he cease to be useful but he had committed the worst offence in Putin’s Russia — lèse-majesté. With Putin’s delusions of channelling Peter the Great, someone insulting his power has no place in his universe.

What does this mean for Africa?

The pretence of Russia having only benign intentions for Africa, respecting sovereignty, not meddling in internal affairs … “Wagner? Wagner Who?” is unsustainable. Now that Russia has officially acknowledged that Wagner was funded by the state, Russia also owns the atrocities Wagner has committed in Africa and as well as its support of unpopular regimes. Wagner’s role in the Niger coup puts it at odds with Niger’s neighbours.

Africa has suffered more than most other parts of the world at the hands of Western Imperialism. Not only was much of Africa colonised by European powers but their colonial regimes were particularly extractive — none worse than the ironically named Congo Free State, which was savagely exploited by the Belgians, initially as the personal property of their king. 

The post-colonial era was no better, starting with the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961, with the connivance of the CIA and the Belgian government. Up to the fall of the Soviet Union, much of the US’s African policy was premised on “anti-communism”, a thin pretext for supporting vile regimes and opposition groups lacking any merit, such as Unita in Angola.

It is therefore not surprising that some in Africa have latched onto Putin and Wagner as anti-colonial heroes, since they are seen as “sticking it to the West”. However, replacing one form of imperialism with another doesn’t take us to a better place. Mercenaries and military coups are not a recipe for successful societies.

If Africa is to truly put colonialism behind it, African societies need to strengthen their own institutions so they are not subject to foreign manipulation.

The end of Wagner as an effective tool of Russian power that allowed denial of state complicity in atrocities is a positive development for Africa. That doesn’t mean we need to embrace Western imperialism as an alternative. A strong Africa should be our goal — that way we can reject all forms of imperialism.

Philip Machanick is an emeritus associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University.