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Russia in Africa: Prigozhin’s death exposes Putin’s real motives on the continent

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The apparent assassination of Yevgeny Prigozhin in the crash of his private jet between Moscow and St. Petersburg represents an inflection point in Russian-African relations. Prigozhin, as leader of the notorious Wagner Group, had been the point man for Russia in Africa since Wagner first began operations on the continent in 2017. More than a single entity, the Wagner Group is an amalgamation of shell companies deploying paramilitary forces, disinformation and political interference in Ukraine, Syria and Africa. Its leaders have been sanctioned by 30 countries for the group’s destabilising activities.

Prigozhin was believed to be living on borrowed time after he led a short-lived insurrection – part of a power struggle with the Russian military leadership – in June. While he quickly backed down, the action embarrassed Russian president Vladimir Putin and triggered chatter that Putin’s perceived weakness would embolden other challengers to his authority.

Prigozhin advanced Russian influence in Africa by propping up politically isolated and unpopular authoritarian leaders. As a result of Wagner’s support, these leaders were beholden to Russian interests. Wagner’s backing took a variety of irregular forms, like paramilitary forces, disinformation campaigns, election interference, intimidation of political opponents, and arms for resources deals. Prigozhin referred to this interlocking set of influence operations as “The Orchestra”, which he conducted.

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