Since 2017, Russian private military companies (PMC), such as the Wagner Group, have played a prominent role in facilitating the expansion of Moscow’s geopolitical influence in Africa. On the heels of Russia’s use of PMCs in Ukraine and Syria, Russia deployed Wagner Group PMCs to Libya in 2017, in order to facilitate Libya National Army (LNA) chieftain Khalifa Haftar’s ambitions for territorial expansion. Russia’s use of PMCs in Libya swiftly diffused to other African countries. In Sudan, Wagner Group PMCs assisted President Omar al-Bashir’s failed efforts to retain power; in Mozambique, Russian PMCs combatted Islamic extremism in the restive Cabo Delgado province; and in Madagascar, the Wagner Group engaged in political interference campaigns to support six pro-Russian election candidates.
The synthesis by Russian PMCs of military power, information warfare, political interference, and diplomatic assertiveness in Africa has fueled predictions that Russia is extending its model of hybrid warfare used in Syria and Ukraine to African theatres. On May 29, the director of the US Department of Defense’s AFRICOM branch Gregory Hadfield claimed that Moscow was replicating its Syria and Ukraine playbook in Libya. This comparison oversimplifies Russia’s conduct, as Moscow’s use of similar hybrid warfare tactics glosses over the distinctions between Russian influence operations in Africa, and military campaigns in Syria and Ukraine. Through its deployment of PMCs in Africa, Russia is advancing a new variant of hybrid warfare, which is focused on establishing durable leverage on the ground and building diplomatic influence, rather than empowering any single faction to achieve a decisive military victory.
In contrast to Russia’s consistent support for Donbas separatist militias in Eastern Ukraine and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army, Russian hybrid warfare in Africa has been characterized by Moscow placing multiple bets on various factions, in order to establish a foothold in protracted conflicts. This model of hybrid warfare has revealed itself in Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR). In Libya, Russia principally supports Haftar, but is also engaging with his intra-coalitional ally turned rival Aguila Saleh, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and, periodically, the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). The Wagner Group-aligned Fabrika Trollei has carried out simultaneous political interference campaigns to strengthen Haftar and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. In the CAR, Russian PMCs officially protect government officials, but Moscow has also armed Seleka militias challenging the central government in Bangui. Russian PMCs are therefore used principally as tools to give Russia a geopolitical presence and their involvement does not signify Moscow’s loyalty to a particular faction.
Although Russia’s participation in diplomatic processes, such as the February 2015 Minsk Agreement on Eastern Ukraine and Astana talks in Syria, have been viewed as means of institutionalizing its military leverage, Moscow’s hybrid warfare strategy in Africa has used the deployment of PMCs and influence campaigns to bolster its diplomatic positions. Even though the number of Russian PMCs in Libya expanded from 300 in March 2019 to 1,200 by May 2020, Russia was skeptical of Haftar’s ability to defeat the GNA in the battle for Tripoli. Instead, Russia hopes to use its ground presence in Libya to secure a key role in a diplomatic settlement, and advocate for a partition of Libya which legitimizes the LNA’s control over the eastern and southern parts of the country. Russia’s February 2020 pledge to facilitate the development of a national accord process in the Central African Republic, which hopes to secure a peace agreement between the CAR authorities and rebel groups on its soil, also illustrates the importance of diplomacy as an end, rather than a means of hybrid war.
The central importance of leverage and diplomatic achievements in driving Russia’s hybrid warfare in Africa ensures that it persists in spite of numerous setbacks involving the Wagner Group. The withdrawal of Russian PMCs from Libya’s al-Wattiyah airbase in late May and the deaths of 7 PMCs through ambushes from the so-called Islamic State insurgents in Mozambique in October 2019 have not encouraged Russia to divest from engaging in hybrid warfare in Africa, as its definition of success is not strictly set in military terms. The limited outcome dependence of Russian hybrid warfare in Africa has encouraged challenger PMC operators to the Wagner Group, such as the maritime security-focused Moran Security Group and infrastructure protection-focused Patriot, to operate with state sanction and maximize revenues for the Russian Ministry of Defense.
As Russia’s PMC deployments in Africa are largely obscured from the domestic audience’s view and benefit from external financial assistance, Moscow’s new leverage and diplomacy-centric variant of hybrid warfare is likely to remain intact for the foreseeable future. In the coming months, we should watch for a rebalance of Russian PMCs from Khalifa Haftar to Aguila Saleh, and Moscow’s conversion of shuttle diplomacy into a formal Kremlin-led peace process. These shifts in hybrid warfare model in Libya could act as a prototype for Moscow’s adoption of similar strategies elsewhere in Africa.