Russia pulls some Wagner forces from Africa for Ukraine: Townsend

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U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), delivers comments during a change of command ceremony at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, May 14, 2022. (Tech. Sgt. Lynette M. Rolen/US Air Force)

WASHINGTON: Some troops from the Russian mercenary force known as the Wagner Group have been called to fight in Ukraine where the private fighters are taking on new frontline roles, according to American and British military officials.

“We’ve seen Wagner draw down a little bit on the African continent in the call to send fighters to Ukraine,” Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of US African Command, told the Defense Writers Group Thursday.

Townsend said most of the Wagner Group’s drawdown as come from Libya, where the US says Kremlin-backed Wagner fighters have been a destabilizing force for years. Notably, the troops haven’t come from new Wagner operations in Mali, Townsend added, where the group began operating earlier this year.

Townsend’s comments came hours before the British military said the Wagner fighters in Ukraine appeared to have taken on new frontline roles in the Russian offensive in the east, a change that most likely came because the official Russian military “has a major shortage of combat infantry.”

Though Wagner has long been reported to be active in Ukraine, the UK Ministry of Defence said on Twitter that the private fighters now operate “in a similar manner to normal army units” and “in coordination” with the Russian military. The new integration, it continued, “further undermines” the Kremlin’s continuous assertion that has nothing to do with the private military group. Russia also previously denied Wagner was active in Ukraine at all. During the roundtable, Townsend said that the group is closely linked to Russia.

“No one should be dissuaded by the Kremlin’s propaganda,” Townsend said. “The Kremlin directs the broad actions of Wagner, not day to day certainly, but [Wagner Group leader Yevgeny] Prigozhin is doing what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants him to do with Wagner.”

Ukraine May Be Putting Strain On Wagner Ambitions In Africa

In Mali, Wagner Group forces are filling a void left by the French military after several years of counter-terror missions in the West African nation ended. Earlier in the year, Townsend went to Mali to voice his concern to the president there about inviting in Wagner, known to the US for further destabilizing countries instead of helping. However, in light of Ukraine, Townsend said he hasn’t seen Wagner operations in Mali increase as he expected beyond the approximately 1,000 fighters there.

“What we haven’t seen is their operations in Mali grow,” Townsend said. “The number of stabilized there and we expected it to grow a bit and it didn’t, and I suspect that’s also a function of Ukraine.”

Townsend also said that he is “alert” to the possibility that Russia will up its operations in Africa to distract from its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but that he’s not “losing sleep” over it.

“Russia is very stretched… as they’re doing what they’re doing in Ukraine so I don’t think they have a lot of bandwidth to launch new adventures in Africa,” Townsend said.

In the last few years, Wagner’s troops have been present in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Central African Republic, and Mali, according to a report from the Brookings Institution earlier this year. In May, the head of US Special Operations Command said he considered the Wagner Group to be a “terrorist organization.”

Though Wagner has been a cause for concern for the US in Africa, the British MoD didn’t seem particularly perturbed by their purported new role in Ukraine.

“Wagner forces are highly unlikely to be sufficient to make a significant difference in the trajectory of the war,” the MoD tweeted.

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