Wagner Group Poses Fundamental Challenges for the Protection of Civilians by UN Peacekeeping Operations

A village in Ndah, Central African Republic, where rebels provide some protection for the civilian population against mercenaries of the Russian Wagner Group, Jan. 15, 2023. (Veronique de Viguerie/Paris Match via Getty Images)

As new forms of geopolitical competition crop up around the world, a recent trend in the use of state-affiliated private military and security companies (PMSCs) has seen these actors deployed into a growing number of civil conflicts. While by no means the only PMSC active in conflict zones today, the Russian government-affiliated Wagner Group has gained widespread public attention for its brutal tactics in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, among other locales. Less well understood are the implications that Wagner’s presence on the battlefield has for United Nations (UN) peace operations and their protection of civilians (PoC) mandates. As the use of private forces in civil conflict expands to include other state sponsors such as China and the Gulf states, it is ever more important for the international community to understand the consequences of modern mercenaries for peace operations environments and the effectiveness of these missions in protecting civilians from harm.

Regime security as a commercial product

For political leaders struggling to consolidate power in states with weak security institutions and active insurgencies, the definitive military effects dubiously promised by the Wagner Group offer an appealing alternative to traditional international peace and security interventions. In CAR, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra signed a defense cooperation agreement with the government of Russia in late 2017 in an effort to expand his government’s influence beyond the limits of the capital, Bangui. In Mali, Wagner forces began deploying in December 2021 following a strategic turn away from France accelerated by interim President Assimi Goïta, who took power in a coup earlier that year.

Private military and security companies are hardly a new phenomenon in Africa, nor are they a new factor in the strategic considerations for peace operations. In the 1990s, the UN deployed peacekeeping missions in Angola and Sierra Leone in the aftermath of decisive but short-lived battlefield victories against insurgent groups delivered by the South African and British firms Executive Outcomes and Sandline International. In the 2000s, the UN became embroiled in the fallout from a scandal in the Balkans involving allegations of human trafficking by DynCorp contractors. And since the US invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, UN special political missions have struggled to investigate and promote accountability for human rights abuses carried out by Western security contractors such as Blackwater and G4S Global.

However, the recent resurgence of PMSC activity in the operating environments of UN peace operations comes at a time of unprecedented contestation within the multilateral peace and security architecture in the post-Cold War period. In this context, the Russian government’s use of the Wagner Group in CAR and Mali appears to be intended to undermine the ongoing UN presence in those countries, including through the use of disinformation and influence campaigns seeking to erode popular support for the UN. This strategy has dovetailed with frustration within many peacekeeping host states over the perceived reticence of peacekeepers to aggressively pursue insurgent groups. Indeed, Malian President Abdoulaye Maiga justified the more aggressive operations enabled by military cooperation with Russia by citing the failure of the UN operation there, MINUSMA, to impose a military solution to the conflict.

New challenges for the protection of civilians

The implications of these developments are nowhere clearer than for the protection of civilians and the promotion of human rights, where the PMSC’s counterinsurgency objectives stand in sharp contrast to the missions’ mandate to balance the restoration and extension of state authority with concerns for the safety and rights of the population. The Wagner Group’s activities in Mali and CAR pose serious and novel challenges for the missions’ PoC mandates in at least three distinct ways.

Directly threatening civilians

First and foremost, the Wagner Group poses a serious threat to the protection of civilians. Since its deployment in CAR and Mali, the group is alleged to have carried out numerous atrocities, including the massacre of approximately 300 civilians in the Malian town of Moura in March 2022. The UN has also reported serious daily violations at a lower level of intensity, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and rendition, and the occupation of protected spaces such as schools and hospitals. In CAR, the UN Panel of Experts has suggested that Wagner forces target Muslim Fulani communities in particular, seeming to indiscriminately associate them with the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia and other armed groups active in the country.

If the Wagner Group constitutes a threat for the protection of civilians, it follows that peacekeeping missions with PoC mandates such as MINUSMA and the UN operation in CAR, MINUSCA, should be using all necessary means to protect civilians from this threat, up to and including the use of force. To achieve this, MINUSCA’s mandate, for example, calls for the mission to “maintain a proactive deployment and a mobile, flexible and robust posture, including by conducting active patrolling, in particular in high-risk areas.” In practice, the security and diplomatic risks associated with the use of force or other physical PoC actions against the Wagner Group—as well as their association with national armed forces—seem to mean these options are off the table, allowing the forces to largely dictate the mission’s freedom of movement. Between February and June 2022, for example, MINUSCA recorded 23 violations of its status of forces agreement by the national forces and “other security personnel,” though the situation has since reportedly improved somewhat. While PoC activities extend well beyond the physical realm to include public advocacy, quiet diplomacy, and local capacity building, the military capacities and political status of the Wagner Group appear to constitute a distinct type of protection threat that presents UN missions with considerable limitations in the execution of their PoC mandates.

Obstructing human rights investigations and accountability

Limitations on missions’ freedom of movement have also impaired their capacity to monitor, investigate and report human rights violations, including at the sites of alleged atrocities. Moreover, the unique operating model of the Wagner Group presents novel challenges for mission efforts to attribute human rights abuses to its forces. Until recently, both the Kremlin and Russian oligarch and Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin formally denied any association with the group, making it difficult to establish command responsibility and deflecting political accountability. In CAR, Wagner’s very presence has been shrouded in ambiguity, since its personnel and equipment arrived in parallel with the deployment of Russian military trainers provided for by the 2017 security cooperation agreement between Russia and CAR. In the field, it has rarely been possible to distinguish between “Russian trainers” and Wagner personnel, though the trainers are meant to be unarmed. Amid this confusion, missions and the UN Secretariat have elected to refer to “other security personnel” to describe what is widely understood to include Wagner forces.

This is not to say that the missions in Mali and CAR have been inactive or ineffective in reporting on human rights abuses. On the contrary, jointly MINUSCA and OHCHR have courageously published accounts of abuses committed by forces believed to be Wagner—either operating independently or jointly with the Central African Armed Forces (FACA). These activities are not without risk, as was made plain in early February when the Malian government expelled MINUSMA’s long-serving human rights director after he selected a Malian civil society activist to brief the UN Security Council, who in turn echoed the recent call by UN experts working under the special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council for an independent investigation into possible war crimes committed by the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) and Wagner Group since 2021. 

Threatening the safety and security of UN personnel

The operations of the Wagner Group in CAR and Mali have raised serious new risks for the safety and security of peacekeepers. The aggressive posture adopted by these forces, their apparent disregard for the inviolability of UN personnel, and their frequent imposition of limitations on freedom of movement place UN peacekeepers and Wagner forces in regular tension with one another. Wagner’s association with the Russian government appears to render any confrontation a potentially catastrophic outcome for the mission in both security and political terms. And yet, their proximity to one another, the wanton behavior of Wagner’s forces, and the complexity of the operating environments all make an armed confrontation impossible to exclude from the realm of possibility, if only due to an accident or miscalculation.

Risks of confrontation aside, the proximity in which PMSC and UN forces operate poses significant challenges for operational coordination and deconfliction, especially when the operations have little communication with one another. In Timbuktu, for example, Russian forces have occupied a base vacated by French forces which is directly adjacent to MINUSMA’s regional sector headquarters. Unannounced and uncoordinated use of airspace raises serious risks of accidents or impediments to the missions’ logistics, medical evacuation, reconnaissance, and close air support. This is particularly true in CAR, where air traffic control outside of Bangui is limited.

Safety and security concerns such as these, in addition to political and financial considerations, have caused some troop-contributing countries to rethink their participation in UN peacekeeping missions operating alongside Wagner forces. In March 2022, Sweden announced that it would pull its forces out of the mission in Mali a year earlier than planned, following statements that the presence of the Wagner Group in the region was making the presence of Swedish forces untenable. The United Kingdom, Germany, and Côte d’Ivoire have since made similar announcements. These withdrawals, which will deprive the mission of key enablers such as special operations forces and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, reduce the mission’s effectiveness and embolden armed groups, further threatening civilians.

The way forward

The operational realities of, and political contexts surrounding, the presence of the Wagner Group in CAR and Mali offer peace operations and the UN Secretariat precious little room to mitigate the myriad risks these forces pose. With the right configuration, a diplomatic confrontation with Russia over the Wagner Group’s behavior could have a restraining effect. Some in the Security Council, especially France, have begun taking an increasingly direct tone in attacking the group’s modus operandi. However, the strength of any international diplomatic pushback related to the risks they pose to peace operations will likely depend heavily on the diversity of the coalition of states involved in such action, with non-Western troop-contributing countries such as Bangladesh, China, and Rwanda holding important sway. While these countries’ interests in safety and security issues are clearly being affected, these concerns will inevitably be overshadowed by the international politics surrounding member states’ responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China will no doubt be watching the response to the Wagner Group closely as its security presence in Africa grows, including through the recent sale of military drones to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, reportedly to be operated by European security contractors.

Second, UN peace operations can continue to take important steps to adapt their PoC strategies to maximize their impact wherever possible, particularly at the political level through advocacy with host governments and their security forces that work with and, ostensibly, exert control over the Wagner Group. Missions will need to adapt to manage the constraints and risks the group poses to POC activities, particularly for the safety and security of personnel. This could include efforts to establish technical deconfliction and information mechanisms to avoid transportation accidents and crossfire incidents, although any such move would need to take into account the risk of lending legitimacy to Wagner forces.

Finally, it is critical that UN peace operations continue to steadily monitor, investigate, and report on the human rights abuses of the Wagner Group as actors in the conflicts, even if these activities are made more difficult by limitations on missions’ freedom of movement. In the short term, these reports help to raise awareness of the impact of Wagner operations on civilians and counter disinformation campaigns that aggrandize the group. In the longer term, as the evolving politics surrounding the Wagner Group’s activities in Ukraine have shown, the PMSC’s legal and political status may change over time, potentially opening up room for future efforts at accountability. Indeed, politics far away from Bamako and Bangui are likely to be decisive in the future of the Wagner Group’s presence in the countries, their posture toward UN peace operations, and the viability of these missions’ efforts to protect civilians at risk.

Dirk Druet is Adjunct Professor at McGill University and Non-resident Fellow at the International Peace Institute (IPI).