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In recent years, the presence of the Wagner Group and other Russian PMCs has been on the rise in the Middle East and Africa. In this article, Dr. Elizabeth Radziszewski, a researcher at START Consortium at the University of Maryland, delves into the expanding influence of Russian PMCs in Africa. The author argues that Western and African PMSCs have the capability and expertise to replace Russian mercenaries in Africa to uphold human rights, international humanitarian law, and promote more effective security management approaches for African states currently reliant on Wagner’s assistance.

With their rapid expansion of military intervention into conflict zones in Africa, Wagner Group has emerged as a powerful actor with agendas that clash with the interest of Western states. While much remains unknown about the group’s future considering its failed mutiny attempt in Russia, there is no indication that its presence in African conflicts will abate any time soon. Despite its involvement in Mali, Central African Republic, Libya, Mozambique, and Sudan, Western response to this development—which has involved the U.S. and EU states imposing sanctions targeting Wagner, Prigozhin, several individuals and resource extraction companies linked to the group, and the U.S. designation of the mercenary outfit as a Transnational Criminal Organization—has proven insufficient in stopping Wagner’s influence so far.

Research, which focuses on state actors, shows that sanctions take time and are successful, on average, 40 percent of the time. This success is likely much lower for shadowy non-state groups. It is also too early to say how effective President Biden’s strategy of sharing sensitive intelligence regarding threats posed by Wagner will have on dissuading governments from working with the mercenary group. Yet neither sharing intelligence about Wagner’s intentions alone nor sanctions do much to address the underlying reason behind governments’ decision to work with the group, mainly that they seek help fighting the rebels. Beyond the use of intelligence sharing and punishment-focused approaches, there is a need for a solution that promotes alternative ways to manage security for those African states that are currently relying on Wagner’s assistance or those that are considering taking this step, a competition-based model that leverages the benefits of working with Western and African PMSCs.

Western and African PMSCs in the Wagner dilemma 

There has been a glaring absence of public discussions and reluctance of Western governments to consider the possibility that Western and African PMSCs could, and perhaps should, market themselves as a viable and competitive alternative to Wagner. The doubts are understandable. For one, the willingness of such PMSCs to do so is one obstacle. American PMSCs, for example, require a license to deliver services abroad and prefer not to work with undemocratic governments for the fear of getting a bad reputation that could damage their chances of securing future contracts with Western clients. And there is also the big constraint: these companies are reluctant to directly intervene militarily. Doing so would equate them with mercenaries, the use of which is outlawed under international law. Second, current and potential clients of Wagner may be attracted to Wagner’s promises of quick battle successes, thus even if Western and African PMSCs had the willingness to become an alternative, they may still be shunned by African clients that remain under Wagner’s spell.

These obstacles, however, can be overcome and reveal a potential alternative. Western governments should encourage more accountable PMSCs to provide their services to these governments especially in contexts when the latter are opposed to working with Western governments. This opposition was seen in the case of Mali and its expulsion of the French troops. Reluctance might also come because Western advisors are more averse to being present in the field as was the case for the British and U.S. training in Nigeria in 2014. Thus, balancing against Wagner could be accomplished by encouraging Western and African PMSCs to present themselves as attractive alternatives that are more aligned with Western interests yet not explicitly tied to Western governments.

While working for undemocratic governments is undoubtedly problematic, the current option of staying away and letting Wagner expand even more, is the worst outcome for the Western community and the African continent considering massive human rights violations attributed to the group. Given that many Western PMSCs have made substantial improvements in their practices to reduce human rights abuses—many have 3rd party certifications from the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoCA), ANSI/ASIS International Management System for Quality of Private Security Company Operations, and/or International Organization for Standardization (ISO)—and a reputation to uphold, their work with such governments would undoubtedly save civilian lives.

It is time for the stigma associated with providing services to undemocratic services to be broken and for flexibility to emerge depending on context. This is not to suggest that working with undemocratic governments should be embraced; rather, that such an option should be seriously considered if lives can be saved. To avoid being labeled as mercenaries, PMSCs could limit their involvement to a supportive role in the form of troop training, assistance with intelligence gathering and analysis, and advising in the field while being fully integrated within the host government’s military.

Strategic considerations: Wagner Group and the appeal of alternative PMSCs

There is also the question of why governments would choose these PMSCs instead of Wagner. At first glance Wagner’s services appear valuable. They boast a large force of men and while a lot of emphasis has been placed on their use of untrained convicts in Ukraine, the group also consists of experienced former special forces. Its victory in the Bakhmut battle in Ukraine and brute force approach appears attractive to potential customers. The group’s success story in Africa in terms of generating victories for the governments, however, is exaggerated. While in early 2021 the group helped the government of Central African Republic retake major towns from rebel control, by the end of 2021 rebel forces switched their tactics from frontal assault to guerrilla style of fighting causing a surge in violence and inflicting heavy casualties on Wagner that have continued into 2023. In Mozambique, the group faced ambushes and heavy casualties from jihadists, ultimately withdrawing while the insurgency expanded. Wagner has yet to deliver decisive victories in Africa.

Just as Wagner has turned to social media to discredit the presence of the French in Mali, so should the Western and African PMSCs be proactive in launching their own social media narratives to highlight the reputational and security costs that governments are facing when choosing to work with Wagner and, more importantly, the benefits coming from an alternative model. Western governments could help amplify the message. First, Wagner’s indiscriminate use of force often comes with deliberate civilian targeting, and is a strategy that, while it may bring temporary benefits, backfires in the long run.

A team of researchers at START, for example, conducted an analysis of empirical studies on counterinsurgency that were published from 2002-2022 and that examined government use of indiscriminate violence to find that this tactic was ineffective in bringing success to governments 64 percent of the time that such an approach was analyzed. The appearance of victory is often an illusion—research shows that while rebel violence declines in the targeted area, violence picks up elsewhere just a few months later. Western PMSCs and more reputable African PMSCs such as Special Tasks, Training, Equipment, and Protection Ltd. (STTEP), are more likely to emphasize greater restraint when dealing with civilians and provide training on how to accomplish this. While this approach may not pay immediate dividends, it is a more reliable long-term strategy for reducing rebel attacks and terminating the conflict.

Furthermore, African PMSCs can provide more viable and Africa-centered solutions because, unlike Wagner, they have a better understanding of the African strategic environment, culture, and African armies. This advantage needs greater emphasis as it positions such PMSCs to be more effective in assisting the governments with intelligence gathering, strategy planning, and designing the type of population-centric approaches that are conducive to military effectiveness of the counterinsurgent forces. Such a model, which also included more direct combat involvement, for example, helped the Nigerian government limit the growth of Boko Haram in 2014—specifically by reducing the rebels’ ability to carry out attacks and enabling to government to regain control of the territory the size of Belgium— when it turned to STTEP for assistance. Recognizing the importance of winning the support of the locals to gain operational knowledge, the company worked with local civilian security groups to create a bridge between those groups and the military. This type of focus on forging connections with the military and local actors is largely missing from Wagner and cited as one of the reasons for their failed intervention in Mozambique in 2019.

Despite STTEP’s success and its full integration with the Nigerian military, their direct combat involvement and provision of weapons was sufficient for the U.S. to consider their operations akin to mercenary work and threaten the Nigerian government with foreign aid termination. PMSCs could adopt STTEP’s model while complying with anti-mercenary norms by avoiding direct combat engagement and the sell of weapons. While limiting the scope of involvement may not provide an immediate relief to the governments, it can nevertheless strengthen the military’s capacity enough to put pressure on the enemy, win over the locals, and establish the type of connections with local groups to deny recruitment opportunities to the rebels.

The Western and African PMSCs’ initiated narrative also needs to make a strong connection between Wagner’s presence, imperialism, and threats to sovereignty, ideas that resonate with local audiences. At the present, Russian disinformation campaigns have equated the West, especially the French, with neocolonialism, and Russian mercenaries as players without ulterior motives. However, recent events in Russia involving the group can only help the West to portray Wagner as unpredictable and willing to take over power. The group’s control of key state resources in many African states means that it has influence over these governments. While Wagner’s help in regaining access to mines from the insurgents benefits the elites, it also means that they need the group’s constant presence to resist new waves of attacks by insurgent forces. This, in essence, creates the type of dependence-based relationship that limits state sovereignty in the long run.

Western governments as well as the PMSC industry could greatly benefit from establishing contacts not only with government officials but also with key social media influencers, local civilian defense groups, and media outlets that they could work with to spread the message to local audiences. Tapping into the respected and influential opinion leaders is often more important than the message itself when it comes to shaping public opinions, while the nature of the message is important to attract the attention of such leaders in the first place.


There might be a concern that Western or African PMSC are not a great alternative because the industry itself suffered from an accountability deficit in the past. Frequently cited is the example of Blackwater’s killing of civilians in Baghdad and reports of fraud. While efforts to address these acts are likely to continue, it is important to note that issues with accountability are not a feature of every PMSC—research shows that publicly traded PMSCs have more transparency, are linked to a lower number of human rights abuses, and their presence has been associated with shorter conflicts—and clients can choose companies with corporate structure that increases accountability. They can also hire several companies to improve peer monitoring and reduce their dependence on just one major security provider, an option that has not been on the table so far as Wagner operates in Africa mostly as a sole actor. Although it faces competition from Patriot, another Russian private military company, and there have been reports from Russian war veterans of other Russian private military companies popping up in Africa, their role has been limited geographically and in the scope of activities.

Lastly, it is critical to note that this PMSC-alternative-based solution is not a substitute for developing sustainable peace. While under specific conditions, PMSCs can help terminate conflicts, their role in contributing to the survival of peace makes a difference only when companies provide training to the troops and in doing so strengthen the state’s military capacity more sustainably. However, these actors are not here to solve the underlying grievances, craft peace agreements, and facilitate negotiations between warring groups. Therefore, setting the foundation for stable peace requires a significant involvement of state and non-state stakeholders at the local, national, regional, and international level.



The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).