In January, the U.S. government designated the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, “a significant transnational criminal organization.” In doing so, the Biden administration has avoided succumbing to growing pressure to designate the group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Despite the decision, the pressure remains to go further, which carries the risk of creating potentially harmful effects for Africa.
The Wagner Group’s visibility has grown considerably since February 2022, though it has been active for several years across the world. In the Middle East, it has deployed alongside the Russian military and Syrian government forces over the course of the Syrian civil war, such as in the liberation of Palmyra from the Islamic State. In Africa, however, the group has grown in significance while its activities remain shrouded in mystery as multiple countries have brought it in to assist their governments as they face insurgencies of various types. In Mozambique, the government hired the group to assist government forces in pushing back against an Islamic State affiliate. Meanwhile, in the Central African Republic, Wagner has actively fought against rebels alongside government soldiers while providing security services in resource-rich areas.
Over the past few years, the Sahel region has borne witness to a series of military coups. Western-oriented governments that had partnered with the West to fight against the rising tide of jihadist violence––much of it a by-product of the destabilization of Libya following the ouster of Col. Moammar Gadhafi––were subject to local discontent with the worsening security situation. Many of these are former French colonies, and the French military retained significant presence and had been deployed for over eight years as part of its failed anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane. Recent coups, such as those in Mali and Burkina Faso, have resulted in French forces effectively being kicked out and have contributed to a growing hatred for France across francophone Africa.
These countries have increasingly turned to Russia as a potential ally. For the most part, the Russian Federation has avoided committing its own armed forces to these countries, but the Wagner Group has appeared on the ground. Increasingly, local support for Russia and local opposition to France have gone hand-in-hand, with many demonstrators waving the Russian flag. In the Sahel region, such support is not limited to the new military-political leaderships. It has also found its way to grassroots levels, with researcher Dr. Tatiana Smirnova noting that in places like Mali, “social mobilization in support for Russia started well before its active involvement by the end of 2020.”
Between 2017 and 2019, Russia signed multiple defense-related deals with four of the Group of Five for the Sahel countries; and between 2015 and 2018, Russia managed to sign over 20 bilateral military cooperation agreements across the continent. The Wagner Group’s growing presence, in particular, at the expense of France’s waning influence, has worried Western policymakers and observers. While Ukraine remains the primary frontline between the West and Russia, this may soon spread more globally as the African continent risks becoming yet another frontline in a Western bid to limit Russian influence, with negative consequences for African states.
Possibility of FTO Designation
So far, the Biden administration has resisted pressure to designate the Wagner Group as an FTO or the Russian Federation as a state sponsor of terror (SST). Despite continued support by many in the West, this path remains fraught with danger. An SST designation reduces the possibility of Russia-U.S. deescalation and talks, which have remained active on several fronts, such as in the case of the Viktor Bout-Brittney Griner prisoner swap. With an SST designation, the swap would have been considered de facto negotiating with terrorists. Meanwhile, efforts to revive talks on nuclear weapons remain important but will become elusive if Russia is given the SST designation. As the Atlantic Council’s sanctions expert Edward Fishman correctly observed, an SST designation “injects a risk into all dealings with Russia,” including by hindering possible multiparty talks in a negotiated peace settlement for the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict.
A more likely prospect is an FTO designation for the Wagner Group, as advocated by James Petrila and Phil Wasielewski in their Jan. 18 article on Lawfare. It avoids the direct risk that comes with an SST designation while still appeasing those who want to take a tougher and more antagonistic position on Russia. During the conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin has abandoned its prior efforts to officially disaffiliate itself from the Wagner Group. As such, an FTO designation of a group openly aligned with and backed by a state runs the risk of leading to an SST designation as well. In July 2020, well before the Russian war in Ukraine, the U.S. Department of the Treasury named the Wagner Group “a designated Russian Ministry of Defense proxy force.” Across the Atlantic, in November 2022, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution declaring Russia an SST by a vote of 494 votes in favor, 58 against, and 44 abstaining. Just 12 days prior, a group of 42 members of the European Parliament with various political affiliations signed a letter to the European Council requesting that the Wagner Group be declared a terrorist organization.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to face pressure from Capitol Hill to take a stronger stance. On Jan. 25, nine members of the House of Representatives introduced a bill called the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act, which would require the State Department to designate the Wagner Group as an FTO within 90 days of the bill becoming law. For some members of Congress, the administration’s effort to have its cake and eat it too by designating Wagner as a transnational criminal organization was insufficient; for example, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) stated that he “recognize[s] the Biden administration’s movement forward in announcing new sanctions against the Wagner Group” but thinks that “it does not go far enough.”
Worsening Russia-U.S. relations risk spiraling out of control for the Biden administration when it comes to Wagner. The rhetoric from Capitol Hill has increasingly described the mercenary group as a direct national threat to the United States. Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) described the group as “a threat to the interests and security of the United States, our allies, and its partners,” while HARM Act co-sponsor Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) bizarrely accused the Wagner Group of “treasonous actions,” despite the private military company neither being Ukrainian nor American nor attacking the Russian Federation.
Even if the Biden administration acquiesced and designated the Wagner Group as an FTO, it is not a given that the action would satisfy Congress. For many members of Congress, the U.S. is effectively at war with the Russian Federation. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) was explicit on the matter, stating, “We’re not just at war to support the Ukrainians. We’re fundamentally at war, although somewhat through a proxy, with Russia, and it’s important that we win.” The White House took opposition to this statement in particular, though pressure from Capitol Hill for Biden to take an increasingly tougher position on the issue as a whole will likely continue.
Implications for Africa
African countries could find themselves in the crossfire if the private military company does get an FTO designation. In many of the war zones in which the Wagner Group is active, they are there because they have been invited by the governments of those states. These countries could become subject to sanctions, further hampering already crisis-stricken countries that not only suffer from a deficit of security but also bear the brunt of climate change and global economic shocks, which in turn contributes to irregular migration. U.S. sanctions on Russia have already contributed to collateral damage on African economies. Senegalese President Macky Sall, in his capacity as the African Union’s chairperson, opposed such pecuniary efforts. Meanwhile, during her trip to the continent, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned African countries against buying anything from Russia besides agricultural products. (It’s important to note that Russia is currently Africa’s largest arms seller.) This and other U.S. posturing is unlikely to gain it many friends on the continent, with leaders like Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni pushing back against U.S. pressure to dissociate from Russia while others are continuing to deepen ties.
Despite the unified anti-Russia position held by Western countries, they have fundamentally failed to hamper Russia’s security partnerships throughout the world. For example, in August and September of last year, Russia held its Vostok military exercises with China, India, Pakistan, and others. In Africa, the story is much the same. Over the course of 2022, Algeria reaffirmed its military cooperation with Russia, causing concern within the European Union. Meanwhile, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor defended her country’s decision to host joint naval drills with China and Russia for 10 days, which started on Feb. 17. This partnership with Russia even carries over to the cultural front, with the Central African Republic making the Russian language mandatory for university students.
For African countries that invite the Wagner Group, an FTO designation could have a deleterious effect. The reason they invited the Wagner Group in the first place was due to their own poor security situations, which in turn has had a devastating impact on their economic development. An FTO designation could thereby have a knock-on effect on vulnerable countries. Though the West may hope that this designation would deter states from working with Wagner, the continent’s unanimous refusal to adopt anti-Russia sanctions, along with continued security cooperation with Moscow by many governments, suggests that this may be unrealistic, at least in the short term. Coupled with the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, Sahelian states could be harmed financially even if they have no behavioral impacts.
African officials and civilians interacting with the Wagner Group could be prosecuted according to 18 U.S.C. § 2339B, which states that an individual who “knowingly provides material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both, and, if the death of any person results, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life.” While an FTO designation focuses primarily on such support occurring within the United States, U.S. law does provide for extraterritorial jurisdiction. Consequently, prosecution could occur if “an offender is brought into or found in the United States, even if the conduct required for the offense occurs outside the United States.”
Sahelian countries have relatively limited economic interaction with the U.S., but the reach of U.S. power could result in these states facing challenges with third parties. In addition to Russia’s suspension from the SWIFT system and other global financial mechanisms, the U.S. could seek to exert pressure on African countries by hindering their transactions with countries like the United Arab Emirates, which, according to a 2020 U.S. Defense Department report, is allegedly funding the Wagner Group in Libya while simultaneously being a major financial node for various African economies.
The U.S. has a history of pressuring foreign states, including heavily impoverishеd ones in Africa, to provide compensation for victims of FTOs operating in their territory. As part of the renormalization of relations between the U.S. and Sudan, the former demanded—and later received—$335 million from the latter in 2021 “to compensate victims of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the USS Cole in 2000 as well as the 2008 killing of USAID employee John Granville,” even though Sudan’s per-capita gross domestic product stood at a mere $751 at the time and the nation had an inflation rate that reached a height of 422.78 percent just a few months after the payment was made. A similar fate could await Sahelian states, especially if the U.S. and its allies seek compensation from all of the Wagner Group’s beneficiaries or employers in a bid to provide funding assistance to Ukraine, with such proposals already having been made regarding Russian assets in the West.
The Biden administration’s decision to effectively confiscate half of the Afghan Central Bank’s assets following the Taliban’s takeover in order to compensate the families of 9/11 victims could act as a harmful precedent for African states, even decades after the fact. In the case of lawsuits against the Wagner Group, either by Africans or Ukrainians, the U.S. could potentially replicate conduct with Afghanistan by doing the same to governments like those of Mali and the Central African Republic. Elsewhere around the world, the U.S. has withdrawn recognition from a government (for example, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has been charged with narcoterrorism by the Justice Department) or approved the transfer of seized central bank assets for victims of terrorism (as the U.S. did with Iran). War, political instability, and economic problems represent just a fraction of the myriad challenges potentially facing African hosts of the Wagner Group if the U.S. government decides to use its entire toolkit to go after the group.
Should African states continue to employ the Wagner Group following an FTO designation, they may risk being designated as SSTs themselves. If that occurs, they could be subject to a far greater range of possible sanctions. The process of being removed from the SST list is a long and arduous one. For example, it took Sudan 27 years to be removed, many years after the State Department itself conceded that Sudan had ceased its support for terrorist groups. Even if the Wagner Group leaves or dissolves, the effects of the designation could linger over their old clients for a long time.
Even if the U.S. government decides to proceed regardless of the harmful impact on African states, it is not clear that doing so would be effective. On the political front, the State Department and the CIA have sought to pressure countries like Libya and Sudan to expel Wagner. In January, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director William Burns both visited Egypt, where they tried to leverage their influence in order to get Cairo to advance the U.S. anti-Wagner agenda, albeit with no immediate effect. Meanwhile, the ratcheting up of Cold War rhetoric may force sanctioned governments to stick together. The failure to relaunch the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the U.S.’s continued sanctioning of Iran has resulted in Moscow and Tehran growing closer together. Moscow-Beijing cooperation has also strengthened in light of worsening China-U.S. relations. The difficulty in reversing sanctions and FTO-related policies may in fact reaffirm the Russian government’s ties with African governments.
The rise of military governments in the Sahel region coupled with the continued threat of terrorism and insecurity also provides for a different calculus than the one desired by the U.S. While FTO designations focus on economic tools of coercion, the pro-Russia governments remain primarily concerned with security. As long as the U.S. relies on negative incentives instead of positive ones, it will be hard pressed to find any more success than did its French predecessors.
Deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations do not simply have bilateral effects or merely impact Europe. A decision to designate the Wagner Group as an FTO will spill over to the African continent, which has chosen to remain neutral or, at best, limit its criticism of Russia to votes at the U.N. If congressional momentum succeeds in pushing the Biden administration to take a tougher line on Wagner, then Africa may find itself in an even more difficult position as it seeks to balance its own concerns with the challenges of navigating through a new Cold War.