Wagner group promotes Russia’s strategic interests in Mideast beyond military influence

The dual military and economic nature of the group’s activities make it more beholden to the Kremlin.
Thursday 20/05/2021
A  2016 file photo of Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin at the Konstantin palace outside St. Petersburg, Russia. (AP)
A 2016 file photo of Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin at the Konstantin palace outside St. Petersburg, Russia. (AP)

MOSCOW - The Wagner Group has only emerged in recent years as a mercenary group fighting in the service of the Russia state even if Moscow has denied any connection to the private military outfit.

More recently, the picture has completely changed with revelations that its supposedly limited security and military role is nothing but a façade hiding an expanding economic empire encompassing Syrian oil and gas riches in the Mediterranean side.

The new image of the Wagner Group reflects a qualitative change in Russia’s strategic outlook beyond direct military intervention to ensure Moscow’s interests as a rising imperial power after the unraveling of the Soviet Union and the ensuing decline of Russia’s international role.

Wagner is hence one of the political tools designed to boost Russian influence in the Middle East and Africa, two soft regions that are prime targets for international competition.

A report by Foreign Policy magazine revealed on Tuesday that a subsidiary of the Wagner Group, the much less known Kapital Company, had secured last March a deal with the Syrian government in which the Russians will explore for gas and oil on the Syrian coast, especially in the disputed region with Lebanon.

The deal represented a bonus from Damascus for the group’s military operators who, according to reports, played an important role on the ground in defeating the Syrian opposition forces in the years following the Russian intervention in 2015.

The group’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is known to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Syrian political analyst Ahmed Ghannam said Russia is now firmly implanted in Syria, a country with a huge potential of untapped  gas and oil resources, besides its strategic location as a link between Europe, the Arabian Gulf, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

Ghannam told The Arab Weekly that Russia often uses security groups working under the command of Russian intelligence and the Kremlin, to carry out logistical tasks that have a combined military and economic purpose.

In his view, Syrian lawyer Muhammad Sabra told The Arab Weekly that Russian oil companies have led their own wars in Syria and forged alliances with shadowy groups through Syrian proxies such as the Tiger Group led by Suhail Al-Hassan, whom President Putin was keen to receive in Hmeimim airport along with President Bashar al-Assad

Observers believe that the revelations over the nature of Wagner companies will turn the spotlight on the group’s activities in other countries, such as oil-rich Libya and Venezuela and in Central Africa, with its gold and diamond mines.

Due to its dual military and economic activities, the group will be more beholden to the Kremlin, unlike other international companies which look for their economic interests even when these diverge from those of their countries of origin.

“The challenge we have now is that Russian private military security contractors are going to be a permanent fixture on the landscape of  Middle East and African oil and gas development for some time to come,” stressed Candace Rondeaux, a senior fellow at the Centre on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University.

A portrait of Russian private military contractor Yevgeni Chuprunov is seen at his grave in Novomoskovsk, in Tula region, Russia June 1, 2017. (REUTERS)
A portrait of Russian private military contractor Yevgeni Chuprunov is seen at his grave in Novomoskovsk, in Tula region, Russia June 1, 2017. (REUTERS)

Relying on loyal private security companies provides Russia with room tomanoeuvre allowing it to deal with developments, away from Western diplomatic and media pressures. This opens the door for a soft expansion in vital regions of the world in a way that was not previously possible through direct military intervention in support of allies in Latin America, Africa or Afghanistan.

The absence of any official capacity allows Russian companies to move freely, especially in a continent like Africa, which is rife with political instability and boasts abundant natural resources.

In January 2018, Sergey Sukhankin, an associate expert at the International Centre for Policy Studies in Kiev revealed that Wagner mercenaries had been sent to Sudan to protect gold, uranium and diamond mines.

The presence of the Wagner Group in Libya sparked a lot of Western government interest, especially from the United States. Analysts say this particular level of attention was due to Libya’s economic importance, as the group was based in a vital region that includes the Oil Crescent. Wagner also supported Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar since he had took control of  various oil major fields.

“If Russia has access in Syria together with Libya, that creates a strategic arc, which allows Russia to expand into Africa and expand into Europe from its southern flank,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who  focuses on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East.

Wagner and its network of commercial and military relations bring to mind one of the most famous military colonial projects, which is the East India Company that ruled the Indian subcontinent for more than a century as a commercial company with its own military forces  under a “Viceroy” who became the Governor-General of India of what are now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Some have underestimated the significance of the gains that the Wagner Group could achieve in Syria, especially since the important oil fields in the east are under the control of the Kurds who are supported by the United States. However, observers believe that Wagner’s presence is more symbolic than that of just direct gains and that Russia wants to prove its influence in the long run through military and economic deals with the Syrian state.

This gives Moscow a firmer foothold in Syria and helps it achieve its long-term goal of re-establishing its presence in the eastern Mediterranean.