Threatologist Profile: African Corps — The Russian Ministry of Defence’s replacement for Wagner in Africa

This profile explains the origins and initial operations of African Corps, a unit set up by the Russian Defence Ministry to replace the private military company (PMC) the Wagner Group.

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov
Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov reportedly supervises the unit.

Key takeaways from the profile:

  • African Corps is formally part of the Russian Ministry of Defence and reportedly operates under the control of Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov.
  • It has deployed to Burkina-Faso, where it is supporting the military government of Ibrahim Traoré, and is reportedly also already operating in Libya.
  • It is expected in the future to deploy to Mali, the Central African Republic, and Niger, forming part of Russia’s efforts to bolster its presence and influence in Africa.

Profile last updated: 2 February 2024.

What is African Corps?

African Corps is a new contract-service military unit created within the Russian Ministry of Defence as part of an effort to bolster Russia’s military presence on the continent.

African Corps’ Telegram channel reported that its recruitment efforts are focused on “military personnel with combat experience who have participated in the SMO [”special military operation,” i.e. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine], as well as former and current employees of the Wagner PMC. The officer corps consists of experienced military commanders from elite units of the Russian Armed Forces and PMCs, who have rich combat experience, including from the SMO” (10). It claimed that roughly half of its personnel and some of its officers were former members of Wagner and that such personnel were preferred (24). Potential recruits were required to be aged between 25 and 45 (55 for officers) and Russian citizens who were able to travel abroad (25). However, it emphasised that it was not possible for people to transfer from Ukraine or Russia’s National Guard to the unit (22, 23).

News agency Bloomberg cited a Russian Defence Ministry source as claiming the unit aims to recruit 20,000 people, but at the same time expressed scepticism over the feasibility of that target, noting it far exceeds Wagner’s own operations on the continent (17). Business daily Vedomosti, also citing Defence Ministry sources, claimed the formation of the unit would be completed by summer 2024 (26).

Why was African Corps created?

Both Russian business daily Kommersant and Bloomberg have portrayed the creation of African Corps as an attempt to replace the Russian private military company (PMC) the Wagner Group (1, 17). Bloomberg, for example, argued that the Corps would form part of “a network of planned Defense Ministry-controlled bases” and “allow the Kremlin to consolidate control of Wagner’s business network in Africa, including potentially lucrative mining interests” (17). Wagner had previously assumed a prominent role providing security to authoritarian regimes in Africa (2), but has been in decline since its leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin launched a ‘coup’ attempt in Russia in June 2023 and then was killed in a plane crash in August 2023 (3). The Russian Defence Ministry has already subsumed a sizeable portion of Wagner’s operations and personnel. The Wall Street Journal has identified the PMCs Redut, led by Konstantin Mirzayants, and Konvoy, led by Konstantin Pikalov, as two other key components of the strategy to replace Wagner (21).

African Corps’ own Telegram channel claims that the decision to create the unit was made in summer 2023, after St Petersburg hosted the Russia-Africa summit in July. It explicitly framed that decision in terms of declining Western influence on the continent and the corresponding “opening of a ‘window of opportunity’ for advancing our geopolitical interests” (10). African Initiative portrayed the creation in similar terms, citing a Russian Defence Ministry source as saying “The Russian Defence Ministry will help sovereign African states counter the neocolonial influence of the West, undermining its resource base, and strengthen equal cooperation between Russia and African countries” (16). African Initiative is a media outlet that launched in September/October 2023 and seeks to promote an “understanding of Russia’s goals in Africa”; it has previously published exclusive information on Wagner and appears to be closely linked to the Russian authorities (15, 28).

Who is in charge of African Corps?

Kommersant noted that the Russian Defence Ministry has not formally commented on the creation of African Corps, but that anonymous ministry sources have eagerly shared information about the unit (1). Kommersant, Vedomosti, and African Initiative have all reported that African Corps is under the direct control of the Defence Ministry and supervised by Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov (1, 16, 26).

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Where does African Corps operate?

Burkina-Faso

Burkina-Faso is African Corps’ first and — at the time of publication — sole confirmed deployment. The unit’s Telegram channel reported on 24 January that a 100-person military contingent had arrived in the capital, Ouagadougou, to “provide security to the country’s leader Ibrahim Traoré and [protect] the Burkinabe people from terrorist attacks.” It also reported that the contingent would be bolstered by an additional 200 people “in the near future” (4). Kremlin press secretary Dmitriy Peskov refused to comment on the report, but emphasised that Russia was looking to develop its relations with the country across all domains (27).

Traoré seized power in a coup in September 2022, but has struggled to defeat insurgent groups in the country (5). Kommersant noted that African Corps’ deployment was preceded by months of talks and mutual visits. These included a meeting between Traoré and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July 2023; a visit to Burkina-Faso by Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov in September 2023; talks in Russia between Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu and his Burkinabe counterpart Kassoum Coulibaly in November 2023; and the reopening of the Russian embassy in the capital in December 2023, more than 30 years after it was closed (1). The deployment also coincided with Burkina-Faso’s formal withdrawal, alongside Mali and Niger, from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which had suspended Burkina-Faso following Traoré’s coup (6).

The presence of African Corps in Burkina-Faso represents an increase in Russian security involvement in the country. In December 2022, the president of neighbouring Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, claimed that the Burkina-Faso government had recruited Wagner personnel to help fight the insurgency in the north of the country and was using a gold mine in the south to help pay for it (7). Both Russia and Burkina-Faso denied the claims, although Burkina-Faso did say it had asked for Russian assistance in providing military training, shortly after it ejected French special forces from the country (8, 9). The RSB-Group PMC is reportedly already helping train the country’s security forces (26). In the aftermath of his ‘coup attempt,’ Prigozhin posted a video of himself somewhere in Africa, where he expressed the goal of “making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even more free” (12). However, Prigozhin’s death and the Russian Ministry of Defence’s efforts to take control likely delayed the development of the relationship with Burkina-Faso.

Libya

Yevkurov visited Libya in late August 2023, where he met with Libyan National Army militia commander Khalifa Haftar, who enjoys good relations with Russia (14). Yevkurov reportedly visited again in September and December 2023, while Haftar met Putin in Moscow in September (28).

African Initiative, citing a source in the Russian Defence Ministry, claimed in December 2023 that African Corps has already completed recruitment for a contingent to operate in Libya and was now controlling the country’s coastline, from Jafar in the west to the Haruba military base in the east. The same source claimed that more than half of the Wagner personnel operating in the country had joined the unit, but some had experienced problems receiving their pay (13).

Mali, Central African Republic, Niger

Kommersant reported that it expected African Corps to deploy to Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Niger in the future. Yevkurov — accompanied by General Andrey Averyanov, the deputy head of Russian military intelligence (GRU) — visited all three countries in late 2023: Mali in September and December; CAR in September; and Niger in December (1, 11, 21). Mali and Niger joined Burkina-Faso in creating the Alliance of Sahel States, with the purported aim of providing collective defence and mutual support, following their departure from Ecowas (18). African Initiative claimed this Alliance was created with Russia’s support (16).

According to Russian Deputy Defence Minister Aleksandr Fomin, Russia has military-technical cooperation agreements in place with 30 African countries, with six more in the pipeline (16). Russia has developed particularly strong relations with Algeria, including extensive military cooperation (19). Russia reportedly plans to use CAR as a regional headquarters and has, since September 2023, doubled to 2,000 its military presence in the country (17).

Other notable details

The symbolism of the name of the unit has not passed unnoticed. The Wagner name came from the composer Richard Wagner, who was reportedly Hitler’s favourite; Wagner was also the call sign of Dmitriy Utkin, one of the founders of the group who had far-right affiliations and who died with Prigozhin (20). African Corps, of course, was the name of Hitler’s North African expeditionary force.

In addition to its channel on Telegram (https://t.me/KorpusAfrica/), the unit operates an “official” page on VK (https://vk.com/korpusafrica).

Sources

Show sources

(1) Nataliya Portyakova. Kommersant. 25 January 2024. Первые военнослужащие российского Африканского корпуса прибыли в Буркина-Фасо. Accessed at https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/6467569 on 31 January 2024.

(2) Julia Stanyard, Thierry Vircoulon and Julian Rademeyer. Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. 2023. The Grey Zone: Russia’s military, mercenary and criminal engagement in Africa. Accessed at https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/J-Stanyard-T-Vircoulon-J-Rademeyer-The-Grey-Zone-Russias-military-mercenary-and-criminal-engagement-in-Africa-GITOC-February-2023-.pdf on 20 February 2023.

(3) Threatologist newsletter. 24 August 2023. Prigozhin’s death and the social construction of reality. Available at: https://threatologist.com/?na=view&id=48.

(4) KorpusAfrica. Telegram. 24 January 2024. Untitled post. Accessed at https://t.me/KorpusAfrica/210 on 1 February 2024.

(5) Al Jazeera. 28 September 2023. Burkina Faso’s military rulers say coup attempt foiled, plotters arrested. Accessed at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/9/28/burkina-fasos-military-rulers-say-coup-attempt-foiled-plotters-arrested on 1 February 2024.

(6) Vicky Wong. BBC News. 29 January 2024. Ecowas: Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso quit West African bloc. Accessed at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-68122947 on 1 February 2024.

(7) Kent Mensah. Voice of America. 15 December 2022. Ghana Says Burkina Faso Paid Russian Mercenaries with Mine. Accessed at https://www.voanews.com/a/ghana-says-burkina-faso-paid-russian-mercenaries-with-mine-/6878119.html on 01 February 2024.

(8) AFP. Al-Arabiya news. 23 February 2023. Russia denies claims of Wagner operating in Burkina Faso. Accessed at https://english.alarabiya.net/News/world/2023/02/23/Russia-denies-claims-of-Wagner-operating-in-Burkina-Faso on 01 February 2024.

(9) AP. 7 April 2023. After Burkina Faso ousts French, Russia’s Wagner may arrive. Accessed at https://apnews.com/article/burkina-faso-russia-wagner-jihadi-02d9235279f0991cdb6ad3ebb4d3e546 on 01 February 2024.

(10) KorpusAfrica. Telegram. 19 December 2023. Untitled post. Accessed at https://t.me/KorpusAfrica/5 on 31 January 2024.

(11) Amu TV. 02 September 2023. Russian military delegation in Central African Republic after Burkina Faso visit. Accessed at https://amu.tv/63456/ on 01 February 2024.

(12) Pjotr Sauer. The Guardian. 22 August 2023. Wagner making ‘Africa even more free’, says Prigozhin in first post-rebellion video. Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/aug/22/wagner-prigozhin-recruiting-post-russia-rebellion-video-africa-putin on 01 February 2024.

(13) African Initiative. 22 December 2023. «Африканский корпус» завершает формирование контингента в Ливии. Accessed at https://afrinz.ru/2023/12/afrikanskij-korpus-zavershaet-formirovanie-kontingenta-v-livii/ on 01 February 2024.

(14) Necva Tastan. Anadolu Agency. 25 August 2023. Russian deputy defense minister meets with Libyan commander. Accessed at https://www.aa.com.tr/en/politics/russian-deputy-defense-minister-meets-with-libyan-commander/2975834 on 01 February 2024.

(15) Julia Stanyard. X. 25 January 2024. Accessed at https://x.com/juliastanyard/status/1750450402338787639 on 1 February 2024.

(16) Mikhail Ivanov. African Initiative. 21 November 2023. Зачем Россия расширяет военное присутствие в Африке. Accessed at https://afrinz.ru/2023/11/marshruty-afrikanskogo-korpusa-zachem-rossiya-rasshiryaet-voennoe-prisutstvie-v-afrike/ on 01 February 2024.

(17) Bloomberg. 30 January 2024. Russia Recruiting Africa Army to Replace Wagner Group’s Mercenaries. Accessed at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-01-30/russia-recruiting-africa-army-to-replace-wagner-group on 01 February 2024.

(18) Ivan Loshkaryov. Russian International Affairs Council. 21 December 2023. The Alliance of Sahel States: Initial Difficulties as a Resource for Development. Accessed at https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/the-alliance-of-sahel-states-initial-difficulties-as-a-resource-for-development/ on 1 February 2024.

(19) Kaan Devecioglu. LSE Blogs. 27 July 2023. Algeria wants deeper relations with Russia. Accessed at https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2023/07/27/algeria-wants-deeper-relations-with-russia/ on 1 February 2024.

(20) AP. 31 August 2023. The Wagner mercenary group’s second-in-command is buried in a quiet Moscow ceremony. Accessed at https://apnews.com/article/russia-dmitry-utkin-prigozhin-dc38b54c23546cd5ab476197abd66cac on 01 February 2024.

(21) The Wall Street Journal. 2 November 2023. How Russia Is Restructuring Wagner Group’s Africa Operations. Accessed at https://www.wsj.com/video/series/in-depth-features/how-russia-is-restructuring-wagner-groups-africa-operations/32272869-3B47-4037-9135-1FA4F2004B4E?mod=hp_lead_pos7 on 1 February 2024.

(22) KorpusAfrica. Telegram. 20 December 2023. Untitled Telegram post. Accessed at https://t.me/KorpusAfrica/9 on 01 February 2024.

(23) KorpusAfrika. Telegram. 20 December 2023. Untitled post. Accessed at https://t.me/KorpusAfrica/11 on 01 February 2024.

(24) KorpusAfrika. Telegram. 21 December 2023. Untitled post. Accessed at https://t.me/KorpusAfrica/13 on 01 February 2024.

(25) KorpusAfrika. Telegram. 21 December 2023. Untitled post. Accessed at https://t.me/KorpusAfrica/16 on 01 February 2024.

(26) Ilya Lakstygal. Vedomosti. 22 December 2023. Что известно об «Африканском корпусе» России. Accessed at https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2023/12/22/1012398-chto-izvestno-ob-afrikanskom-korpuse-rossii on 01 February 2024.

(27) Vedomosti. 26 January 2024. Песков отказался комментировать информацию о российских военных в Буркина-Фасо. Accessed at https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/news/2024/01/26/1016930-peskov-otkazalsya-kommentirovat on 01 February 2024.

(28) Yuriy Safronov. Novaya Gazeta. 21 December 2023. Последние следы «Вагнера» в Африке. Российское руководство создает новый «бренд» для «работы» на африканском континенте. Accessed at https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2023/12/21/poslednie-sledy-vagnera-v-afrike on 01 February 2024.