Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has hailed Niger’s military coup as good news and offered his fighters’ services to bring order.
In a voice message on Telegram app channels associated with Wagner, Prigozhin – who remains active despite anger Vladimir Putin by leading a failed mutiny against the Russian army’s top brass last month – did not claim involvement in the coup.
However, he described it as a moment of long overdue liberation from Western colonisers and made what looked like a pitch for his fighters to help keep order, suggesting he has plans to expand Wagner’s influence in the region.
The Wagner group has had an extensive operational scope in numerous African countries including the CAR, Libya, Mali, Sudan, Mozambique and Burkina Faso, with the message coming as Putin courted leaders from Africa at a summit on Friday.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces pressed their counteroffensive through the Russian-occupied southeast on Thursday, capturing the village of Staromaiorske in a campaign to drive a wedge through Russian defensive positions.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin (pictured) made a surprise appearance at the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, just weeks after his group of mercenaries aborted rebellion against the Russian defence ministry. Today, he hailed Niger’s military coup as good news and offered his fighters’ services to bring order to the country
The counteroffensive has focused on securing villages on the southward push and areas around the eastern city of Bakhmut, taken by Russian forces in May after months of battles. Ukrainian officials have reported slow, steady progress.
The Russian President has acknowledged intensified Ukrainian attacks over the last few days, but said they had made no headway.
He told Russian television that every Ukrainian assault had been beaten back, and that Moscow’s forces had inflicted significant losses on their opponents.
Wagner hails Niger coup
‘What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonisers,’ the voice message posted to Telegram on Thursday – understood to be recorded by Prigozhin – said.
‘With colonisers who are trying to foist their rules of life on them and their conditions and keep them in the state that Africa was in hundreds of years ago.’
The speaker had the same distinctive intonation and turn of phrase in Russian as the Wagner boss although it was impossible to confirm with certainty that it was him.
‘Today this is effectively gaining their independence. The rest will without doubt depend on the citizens of Niger and how effective governance will be, but the main thing is this: they have got rid of the colonisers,’ the message said.
It is unclear who is in charge of Niger after soldiers on Wednesday evening declared a military coup and held President Mohamed Bazoum in the presidential palace.
The country, one of the poorest in the world but which also holds some of its biggest uranium deposits, declared full independence from former colonial ruler France in 1960.
The voice message was the latest sign that Prigozhin and his men remain active in Africa, where they still have security contracts in some countries like Central African Republic (CAR), and are keen to expand.
Prigozhin, 62, appears to continue to enjoy freedom of movement despite what the Kremlin said last month was a post-mutiny deal that would see him relocate to neighbouring Belarus where some of his men have already started training the army.
He was heard in a video released earlier this month telling his men in Belarus that they should gather their strength for a ‘new journey to Africa.’
There have been various sightings of Prigozhin in Russia since the post-mutiny deal was clinched and the Kremlin said he had even attended a meeting with Putin, who had earlier called the abortive mutiny ‘a stab in the back’.
The voice message’s release coincided with the publication on Telegram of at least two photographs purporting to show Prigozhin meeting African attendees of a showcase two-day Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg which concludes on Friday.
The location shown in one of the photographs was verified as being the Trezzini Palace hotel in St Petersburg, Russia’s second city and Prigozhin’s home town.
The lanyard worn by the official from Central African Republic (CAR) he is shown meeting in the same photograph matches those given to the summit’s delegates.
Smiling and wearing blue jeans and a white polo shirt, Prigozhin looks relaxed in the photos as he poses to shake the hands of the delegates.
A screen grab captured from a video shows the soldiers who appeared on national TV to announce the ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger, on July 27
With the headquarters of the ruling party burning in the back, supporters of mutinous soldiers demonstrate in Niamey, Niger, Thursday, July 27
Prigozhin, in his voice message, boasted of Wagner’s alleged efficiency in helping African nations stabilise and develop in what sounded like a sales pitch.
‘…Thousands of Wagner fighters are capable of bringing order and of destroying terrorists and of not allowing them to harm the local populations of these states,’ he said.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said on Thursday that constitutional order in Niger should be restored.
Analysts said the Prigozhin appearances indicated that his private military company (PMC) would continue to play a role in furthering the Kremlin’s foreign policy agenda in Africa.
‘Yes, it’s wild that Prigozhin is back in Russia, and apparently has been several times. But it’s also in line with both Wagner’s and Russia’s goals to project normalcy and business as usual,’ Catrina Doxsee, an expert at the US CSIS think tank, said on messaging platform X (formerly Twitter).
‘Moscow will likely use the Summit to reassure African partners of their commitment and continuity of PMC services in the wake of the uncertainty from the past month.’
Fighting intensifies in southeastern Ukraine as Kyiv claims gains in its counteroffensive
Fierce fighting raged Thursday in southeastern Ukraine, where a Western official said Kyiv has launched a major push and Putin said ‘hostilities have intensified significantly.’
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky congratulated his troops on reclaiming control of a village, while Putin praised Russian troops ‘heroism’ in repelling attacks in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region.
Putin insisted on state TV that the Ukrainian troops’ push ‘wasn’t successful’ and charged that they suffered heavy casualties, although it was not possible to independently verify his claim.
Ukrainian troops have made only incremental gains since launching a counteroffensive in early June, and Putin has repeatedly claimed Ukraine has suffered heavy losses, without offering evidence.
Ukraine has committed thousands of troops in the region in recent days, said a Western official who was not authorised to comment publicly on the matter.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces pressed their counteroffensive through the Russian-occupied southeast on Thursday, capturing the village of Staromaiorske in a campaign to drive a wedge through Russian defensive positions
A US official said Ukraine has begun to commit troops from the 10th Corps, although it’s not certain all of its units are moving into the fight.
Ukraine had been holding the 10th Corps in reserve, with the expectation it would be used to exploit gaps or soft spots the ground forces opened up.
Those additional new forces would be used to take advantage of places where Ukrainian troops have been able to break through some of Russia’s defenses.
The US official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing military operations.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters last week that Ukraine was ‘preserving their combat power’ and that a ‘significant’ amount of it had not yet entered action as Ukrainian forces slowly and deliberately worked their way through the Russian minefields.
It was unclear how the current effort differs from previous ones by the Ukrainian military to break through deeply entrenched Russian defences.
The Russian army has set up vast minefields to stymie Ukrainian advances and used combat aircraft and loitering munitions to strike Ukrainian armour and artillery.
Zelensky posted a video Thursday in which a group of Ukrainian soldiers said they had taken control of the village of Staromaiorske in the Donetsk region next to the Zaporizhzhia province. ‘Our South! Our guys! Glory to Ukraine!’ Zelensky declared.
Russian military bloggers have confirmed that Ukrainian forces have taken part of the village that was the focus of Ukraine’s attacks in recent days.
If Russian defences in the area collapse, it would open the way for the Ukrainian forces to push southward toward the coast.
Ukrainian authorities have kept operational details of the counteroffensive under wraps, and they have released scant information about its progress.
However, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Wednesday that troops are advancing toward the city of Melitopol in the Zaporizhizhia region.
A tank burns as Ukrainian Armed Forces members liberated the town of Staromaiorske, in the location given as Staromaiorske, Donestk Region, Ukraine and released July 27
Military vehicles are seen as Ukrainian Armed Forces members liberate the town of Staromaiorske, in the location given as Staromaiorske, Donestk Region, Ukraine
The seizure of Melitopol near the Sea of Azov would be a major success for Ukraine, which hopes to punch through the land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014.
That could split Russian forces into two and cut supply lines to units farther west. Russia currently controls the whole Sea of Azov coast.
The Institute of Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, reported that Ukrainian forces launched ‘a significant mechanized counteroffensive operation’ in western Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday and ‘appear to have broken through certain pre-prepared Russian defensive positions.’
Zelensky, meanwhile, visited the city of Dnipro, along the Dnieper River to the north of Zaporizhzhia, meeting with military commanders to discuss air defenses, ammunition supplies and regional recruitment.
He also visited a medical facility caring for the wounded from the front, thanking the staff and emphasising the importance of their work in saving the lives.
A recent increase in wounded at a Dnipro hospital hinted that the tempo of fighting had increased.
In what appeared to be a precautionary move, Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, prohibited civilian access to the Arabat Spit in Crimea, a narrow strip of land that links the peninsula to the partially occupied Kherson region.
The open-ended ban is needed to contain security threats, the FSB said in a statement quoted by Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti.
US officials, who have provided Kyiv with weapons and intelligence, declined to comment publicly on the latest developments, though they have previously urged patience as Ukraine seeks to grind down Russian positions.
Ukrainian soldiers say they have recaptured the Ukrainian village of Staromaiorske, in Donetsk region, Ukraine, in this screen grab from video posted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and released on July 27
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said during a visit to Papua New Guinea that Kyiv’s effort to retake land seized by Russia since its full-scale invasion in February 2022 would be tough and long, with successes and setbacks.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said ‘an intense battle’ is taking place but declined to provide details.
‘We believe that tools, the equipment, the training, the advice that many of us have shared with Ukrainians over many months puts them in good position to be successful on the ground in recovering more of the territory that Russia has taken from Ukraine,’ Blinken said in New Zealand.
Meanwhile, a missile strike on Ukraine’s southern Odesa region killed one civilian and further damaged its port infrastructure in the latest attack since Moscow broke off a grain export agreement, Odesa Gov. Oleh Kiper said.
The attack used Kalibr cruise missiles launched from the Black Sea, he said.
Ukraine’s air force said it intercepted 36 Russian missiles launched from Tu-95MS strategic bombers.
African leaders press Putin to end Ukraine war
Meanwhile in St Petersberg, African leaders pressed Putin today to move ahead with their peace plan to end the Ukraine war and to renew a deal on the export of Ukrainian grain that Moscow tore up last week.
While not directly critical of Russia, their interventions on the second day of the summit with Putin were more concerted and forceful than those that African countries have voiced until now.
They served as reminders to the Kremlin leader of the depth of African concern at the consequences of the war, especially rising food prices.
‘This war must end. And it can only end on the basis of justice and reason,’ African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat told Putin and African leaders in St Petersburg. ‘The disruptions of energy and grain supplies must end immediately.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a plenary meeting at the second Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg on July 28
‘The grain deal must be extended for the benefit of all the peoples of the world, Africans in particular.’
Reports last month said the African plan floats a series of possible steps to defuse the conflict including a Russian troop pull-back, removal of Russian tactical nuclear weapons from Belarus, suspension of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant against Putin, and sanctions relief.
Putin gave it a polite but cool reception when African leaders presented it to him last month. On Friday he said Moscow respected the proposal and was carefully studying it.
Congo Republic President Denis Sassou Nguesso said the African initiative ‘deserves the closest attention, it mustn’t be underestimated…We once again urgently call for the restoration of peace in Europe.’
Senegal’s President Macky Sall called for ‘a de-escalation to help create calm’, while South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said he hoped that ‘constructive engagement and negotiation’ could bring an end to the conflict.
The stream of calls prompted Putin repeatedly to defend Russia’s position and place the blame on Ukraine and the West.
Responding to Mahamat, he said Russia was ‘grateful to our African friends for their attention to this problem’ but it was Kyiv that was refusing to negotiate with him under a decree it passed shortly after he claimed last September to have annexed four Ukrainian regions that Russia partly controls.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, African leaders and heads of delegations pose for a family photo at the second Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg on July 28
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and heads of delegations attend a family photo opportunity during the Russia Africa Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, July 28
Russia has long said it is open to talks but that these must take account of the ‘new realities’ on the ground.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has rejected the idea of a ceasefire now that would leave Russia in control of nearly a fifth of his country and give its forces time to regroup after 17 grinding months of war.
At the summit, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urged Russia to revive the Black Sea grain deal which, until Moscow refused to renew it last week, had allowed Ukraine to export grain from its seaports despite the conflict.
Sisi, whose country is a big buyer of grain via the Black Sea route, told the summit it was ‘essential to reach agreement’ on reviving the deal.
Putin responded by arguing, as he has in the past, that rising world food prices were a consequence of Western policy mistakes long predating the Ukraine war.
He has repeatedly said Russia quit the Black Sea agreement last week because it was not getting grain to the poorest countries and the West was not keeping its side of the bargain.
Since withdrawing from the deal, Russia has bombed Ukrainian ports and grain depots, prompting accusations from Ukraine and the West that it is using food as a weapon of war, and global grain prices have risen again.
On Thursday, he promised to deliver free Russian grain in the next several months to six of the countries attending the summit.
Putin is seeking to use the event to inject new momentum into Russia’s ties with Africa and enlist the continent’s support in countering what he describes as U.S. hegemony and Western neo-colonialism.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, African leaders and heads of delegations attend a plenary meeting at the second Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg on July 28
Despite its refusal to renew the grain deal seen as vital to supply Africa, many of the African leaders had warm words for Moscow’s record of support for their countries in their 20th century liberation struggles and more recently.
The leaders of Mali and Central African Republic, whose governments have relied heavily on the services of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, both expressed their gratitude to Putin.
CAR President Faustin Archange Touadera said his country’s relations with Russia had helped it to save its democracy and avoid a civil war, thanking it ‘for helping us to oppose foreign hegemony’.
Mali’s Assimi Goita told Putin: ‘You have shown pragmatism and realism in efforts to reach agreement with Ukraine.’