Until Yevgeny Prigozhin blinked and ordered his Wagner Group forces to turn back within 200 miles from Moscow, it looked as though Putin’s Russia had created a monster it could not control. But whatever fate awaits its hardman founder, the organisation Prigozhin built is too useful to be dispensed with entirely.
Wagner’s reach and methods are convenient not just in the furtherance of Russian interests in places where the Kremlin seeks to call the shots without taking direct responsibility for the consequences. As an army for hire, Wagner also serves many powerful paymasters, none more so than its clients in northern Africa and the Middle East.
Hiring Wagner’s dogs of war facilitates regimes to be overthrown, resources to be appropriated, and scores to be settled without calling, directly, for the intervention of a foreign power. That business model is simple: Russian muscle without the complications of formal Russian occupation (nor the alternative proposition of Western aid with its accompanying strictures on human rights, anti-corruption initiatives, and intrusive NGOs).
As an example, take one of Wagner’s most generous patrons, the United Arab Emirates. Since 2014, the UAE has backed the efforts of the rebel warlord, Khalifa Haftar, and his Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) to seize southern and eastern Libya with the aim of toppling the UN-recognised government in Tripoli. The Emiratis did so in defiance of the UN arms embargo. Indeed, their intervention went beyond arms supply. Between August 2014 and May 2018, the UAE launched over 160 airstrikes in Libya.
In January 2019, Russia’s Security Council Secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, flew to Abu Dhabi to discuss security issues with the UAE’s national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Three months later, Haftar launched an all-out offensive to seize Tripoli. He did so aided by an understanding between the UAE and the Wagner Group in which Emirati air strikes from drones and fighters supplemented Wagner’s ground operations on the warlord’s behalf.
In November 2020, the U.S. Defense Department’s inspector general for counterterrorism operations in Africa alleged — despite Abu Dhabi’s protestations to the contrary — that the UAE was actively bankrolling Wagner’s operations in Libya. Its mercenaries were thus empowered to carry out the dirty work on the ground in furtherance of Abu Dhabi’s strategic ambitions without Emirati soldiers being implicated.
The extent of this defiance of UN efforts to starve the insurgency of arms and support was laid bare in March 2021 with the publication of the 548-page report by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya. It and a range of other sources demonstrated the extent to which Haftar was reliant on his clients’ support. The UAE supplied Haftar with some of the fifty-plus Pantsir missile batteries purchased from Russia. The S-1 missiles were operated for Haftar by Wagner technicians.
The Emiratis’ collaboration with Wagner in Libya has also further destabilized Sudan. In November 2020 a report by Human Rights Watch produced evidence to suggest that Sudanese security guards, hired by the UAE contractor, Black Shield Security Services, were shoring up Haftar’s position in eastern Libya.
More consequential still has been the extent to which the current Sudanese civil war has its origins in the Wagner and UAE support for what is now the 70,000-strong Rapid Support Force (RSF). The RSF is under the command of the rebel general, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo who is trying to seize power from Sudan’s de facto ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Burham.
Despite his obscure social origins (there is debate as to whether he started off as a camel trader or highwayman before gravitating to selling furniture), Hemedti accumulated vast personal wealth at the head of the Janjaweed militia which grew into the RSF. These troops were bloodied not just in Sudan’s own conflicts (notoriously in Darfur) but also when Hemedti rents them out to fight in other people’s wars.
By 2017, there were about 40,000 RSF militia supporting the UAE’s and Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen’s Houthis. The assumption has long been that they were paid by the Emiratis. Three years later, the RSF were put at the disposal of the UAE’s ally, Haftar, in his efforts to overthrow the government in Tripoli. In return, credible reports suggest Haftar has been the conduit through which the RSF is being resupplied with fuel and arms in the current struggle for control of Sudan.
In 2019, Hemedti worked alongside his now rival, General al-Burham, to overthrow President Omar al-Bashir in 2019. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of whom were keen to stall the coming of democracy to Sudan, duly sent the Burnham-Hemedti government $3 billion in currency and aid. A 2019 investigation by the NGO Global Witness identified what it suggested were large RSF- and Hemedti-linked bank accounts in Abu Dhabi despite the questionable nature of how these fortunes had been accrued. He was, concluded the investigators, “at the apex of a paramilitary-industrial complex.”
Despite the tensions with al-Burham and between the army and the RSF, Hemedti warmed to his task as the transition government’s effective deputy leader and diplomat/salesman-at-large. In February last year, Hemedti flew to the UAE for meetings hosted by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MBZ).
Sixteen days later, Hemedti flew to Moscow (Sudan’s primary arms supplier) for meetings with Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Hemedti’s visit coincided with the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which he enthusiastically endorsed with his statement that, “Russia has the right to defend itself and its people and citizens in accordance with the laws and the constitution.”
Russia has every reason to care who takes power in Khartoum. Wagner-linked entities help Putin circumvent international financial sanctions by smuggling Sudanese gold to replace depleted Russian reserves. Well-placed central bank sources in Khartoum estimate that most of Sudan’s gold ends up in Russian vaults.
No less consequential for Moscow is sign-off on a (renewable) 25-year lease for a Russian naval base at Port Sudan, from which it would gain a strategic military port on the Red Sea. “There is no objection to a military base being present, whether belonging to Russia or to others,” Hemedti confirmed, “if that is consistent with Sudan’s interests.”
Abu Dhabi has clear expectations that its investments will be protected no matter who ultimately wrests control in Khartoum, and that the RSF — or whichever force succeeds it — will be made available to support UAE interests in Yemen and the Horn of Africa just as it has done in the past. There is nothing surprising in these priorities.
But what concerns the West and those regional politicians that fear attracting Wagner’s avarice is the extent to which the Emirates’ interests dovetail with those of Putin and Wagner. Putin’s and Prigozhin’s interests in Africa remain just as entwined regardless of the eventual ramifications of Prigozhin’s march towards Moscow. Wagner, after all, does the things explicitly that Moscow wants implicitly.
This dovetailing goes beyond the UAE’s role as a haven for Russian assets seeking relabelling and Sudanese gold’s exchange into less traceable forms, significant though they are. Indeed, the bulk of Africa’s illegally mined gold is channelled through Dubai: UN trade data for 2020 suggests a more than $4 billion discrepancy between the UAE’s declared gold imports from Africa and what African countries say they exported to the UAE. The Emirati-Wagner mutual interest has a political face too.
In the UN Security Council, the UAE refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. Mikhail Bogdanov, Putin’s Middle East envoy, and Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of his security council, are regular visitors to the UAE. The two have met with Anwar Gargash (MBZ’s foreign policy adviser) and Ali al-Shamsi (the Emir’s national intelligence director).
Unperturbed by the message to the West that it sent, MBZ brazenly went to Moscow last October for a productive meeting with Putin. The UAE has done as Putin wanted and voted with its OPEC partners to cut oil production, rebuffing President Biden’s appeals that it should avoid further intensifying the rise in world energy prices and thus deepening Europe’s inflation crisis.
It seems that, in pursuit of its friendly relations with Moscow, Abu Dhabi is unafraid of repercussions with Washington, D.C. Last November the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Financial Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned UAE companies Success Aviation and iJet for their alleged role in facilitating the supply of Iranian military drones to Russia. In January this year, OFAC sanctioned the UAE’s Kratol Aviation for allegedly assisting Wagner’s military operations in the Central African Republic, Libya, and Mali.
There are good grounds for concluding that Hemedti is Moscow’s and Abu Dhabi’s preferred strongman for Khartoum and that the sort of paramilitary-industrial complex he represents is precisely what suits their strategic interests. Despite Abu Dhabi’s professions of neutrality, as the analyst Mat Nashed put it to the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, “the UAE is certainly backing Hemedti.”
Western influence in North Africa and the Horn of Africa has withered. Whatever becomes of Yevgeny Prigozhin, regional players like the UAE will continue to fund the Wagner Group (under whatever form it may evolve into) because it is a very useful enforcer of its interests, regardless of the wider consequences. That will suit Moscow too.
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