The Russian Wagner Group has gained consistent media attention for their participation in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While constant reporting of their activities is vital to hold them accountable for their crimes, the emphasis on Ukraine has overshadowed the even greater threat that Wagner poses to the global south, especially in Africa. This month has finally seen the start of what could be an international move towards designating Wagner a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO), potentially providing the opportunity to finally put an end to their global atrocities.

Established in 2014, the Wagner Group became operational during the illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Nearly a decade later, they have expanded exponentially with devastating impact. Wagner has circumvented the fact that private military companies (PMCs) are illegal in Russia through the use of front companies, granting the Russian government plausible deniability about Wagner’s atrocities, which they themselves order. In 2022 the group attracted western scrutiny through their participation in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, making them the first PMC to engage in a conventional peer to peer conflict. 

The media attention currently fixed on Wagner’s illegal operations in Ukraine plays right into Russia’s geopolitical schemes. Recent headlines in the U.S. and U.K. of Wagner’s withdrawal from Ukraine have conveniently overshadowed reports of their ongoing involvement in Sudan. Russian interest and relations throughout Africa have continued since the cold war, but Russia is no longer vying for ideological dominance. Now Wagner is being used to “defend [Russian] government mining interests.” Without western intervention, they will increase Russian political influence and control of large deposits of natural resources, in what a senior advisor to President Macron called a “second front” in the ongoing deterioration of West-Russian relations.

Wagner intentionally operates in countries where the West has grown impatient due to lack of success in promoting regional security — namely Syria, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Madagascar and Mali. Wagner is following the same tactics used by Executive Outcomes, a PMC which operated throughout the African continent supporting the tacit objectives of foreign governments. The exchange of security services in exchange for rights to natural resources including gold and diamonds, is known as predatory capitalism. Wagner in turn has then used these to bankroll their activities, including in Ukraine. While the Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a global threat, we cannot let ourselves be distracted from Russia’s greater geopolitical agenda. If we do not limit Russia’s influence in Africa, we could very soon find ourselves locked out. 

Having previously volunteered as a medic with Syrian doctors in Lebanon, I have personally seen the lasting and devastating effects of the Syrian conflict in which the Wagner Group played an influential role. Their involvement greatly increased the conflict and suffering, including the murder and torture of civilians. Even my friends, who were neutral doctors, told me how they themselves were targets of the Syrian-Russian forces.

The same can be seen everywhere Wagner operates. A BBC report in 2021 found evidence of war crimes committed in Libya, including the murder of civilians and prisoners as well as the use of landmines. Furthermore in 2021, the United Nations accused Wagner of human rights violations in the Central African Republic, against civilians and foreigners including aid workers, peacekeepers and journalists. Wagner has repeatedly pushed to see what they could get away with and sadly has not yet been deterred anywhere.

The West cannot wait any longer to stop Wagner’s global atrocities, as Petras Auštrevičius, a Lithuanian member of the European parliament, stated: “We overlooked and underestimated Prigozhin’s private army”. Ukraine is where the largest force of Wagner mercenaries operate, around 50,000 according to the U.K. Ministry of Defence. Yet their smaller operations in Africa with fewer than 5000 mercenaries have set up geopolitical dominoes ready to fall.

Until recently, the Kremlin was able to deny any affiliation with Wagner, allowing Russia to stay clear of any accusations of its war crimes. As I.F. Stone once said, “all governments lie”. Now though, there is evidence of confirmed links of support from the Russian government to Wagner following public disputes between the Kremlin and Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of President Putin. There is no doubt, Russia itself is committing these crimes. 

While sanctions and indictments have been issued against President Putin and Prigozhin, these will not stop Wagner. Nor will the current attempts to combat Wagner in Africa, categorised by CIA Director Bill Burns as doing everything they can. To prevail, host nations must sever all relations with Wagner themselves, thereby cutting Wagner’s ability to engage on the global economic stage.  

To achieve this, the media must push for all governments to redesignate the Wagner Group from a transnational criminal organisation to a Foreign Terror Organisation (FTO) thereby removing the ability of host nations to maintain neutrality. The U.K. has announced they intend to classify Wagner an FTO, with France calling on the EU to do the same. Now the U.S and the rest of the world must follow suit. This is supported by the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland who calls Prigozhin a “war criminal.”

We have a global and moral responsibility to hold Wagner accountable. Their designation as an FTO could lead to regional stability and the end of their growing monopoly on natural resources and Russian political dominance in Africa.

Luc Woodall Gillard is an expedition medic and photojournalist in some of the world’s harshest and most remote environments. Luc is a political commentator with Young Voices UK, photo lead for Adventure Medic Magazine and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London. His work focuses on health, conservation, humanitarian crises and conflict.