WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) – The United States is examining how the Wagner Group’s short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military establishment might affect the mercenaries’ operations in the Middle East and Africa, officials said.
Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin startled the world by leading an armed revolt on Saturday that brought his fighters from the Ukrainian border to within 200 kilometers (125 miles) of Moscow before he abruptly called off the uprising.
U.S. policymakers view the mercenary force through the prism of a rivalry with Russia for influence in Africa and the Middle East and accusing it of gross human rights violations. The U.S. military has clashed directly with Wagner forces in Syria.
Among the possibilities policy analysts are considering, said a U.S. official, is that leaders of African nations may be less willing to hire the group after witnessing Prigozhin turn against his patrons. One of the options Russian President Vladimir Putin offered Wagner members was to sign a contract with the Russian armed forces.
“If these Wagner forces are absorbed into the Russian military overnight, it could be a problem. Many of these countries didn’t sign up for a Russian military presence when they asked for Wagner forces,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Some of those African leaders, said the official, worry deeply about internal rivals and Wagner’s march on Moscow could fuel their fears.
Although not officially part of Russia’s military, the Wagner Group is important to Putin because it can promote his foreign policy priorities and reach at a fraction of the cost. Putin said on Tuesday that the group had been “full financed” from the state budget.
The organization has deployed thousands of troops to Africa and the Middle East. It has established strong ties with several African governments over the past decade with operations in countries including Mali, Central African Republic (CAR), and Libya.
The mercenaries have played a central role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, doing much of the bloodiest fighting against Ukrainian troops.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder declined to speculate about Wagner’s future but condemned the group’s actions in Africa and beyond.
“They are a destabilizing influence in that region and certainly a threat, which is why they’ve been declared a transnational criminal organization,” Ryder said.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian media that Wagner’s work in Central African Republic would continue.
The U.S. official said that despite Lavrov’s comments, the United States was looking to see if countries in Africa trusted those assurances. Prigozhin, a former Putin ally, defied orders this month to place his troops under the command of Russia’s Defense Ministry. Following the mutiny, Putin said on Monday he would honor his promise to allow Wagner forces to relocate to Belarus if they wanted, sign formal army contracts or return to their families. Much would depend on Prigozhin’s fate and how much influence he retained with his troops in Africa, the U.S. official said.
Michael Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official, agreed that the weekend’s events could harm Wagner in Africa.
“They will be seen as too unstable and potentially a threat to the leadership in those countries,” Mulroy said. “They almost started a coup in their own (country),” he added.
Despite the obvious risks to Prigozhin’s organization, there is a chance that the group benefits from its mutiny, a second U.S. official said. Wagner’s surprise push to Moscow, which faced little resistance, could boost its reputation, leading to more business in Africa.
“He deals in matters of violence and this is good for the brand,” said the second U.S. official.