Mutiny at Home Weakens Wagner in the Middle East

Mutiny at Home Weakens Wagner in the Middle East

If the Wagner Group’s mutiny has set off schadenfreude in Western capitals over the predicament of Russian President Vladimir Putin, it will spread unease through the palaces of the Middle East. The region’s rulers, reactionary autocrats almost to a man, tend to be nervous about uprisings of any kind — not least for fear they may inspire potential rebels closer home.

Leaders of the Arab world will doubtless follow the example of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in providing Putin with reassurances of support. Nowhere is that more true than in the Gulf’s petrostates, which, in addition to a dread of unrest, have strong ties to Russia through their common interest in propping up the price of oil.

But the mutiny, led by Putin’s onetime chef Yevgeny Prigozhin, puts some Arab leaders in an awkward position because of their association with the Wagner Group. And it will boost the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts to weaken the mercenary force in the Middle East and Africa.

Wagner mercenaries are active across a swathe of countries, from Libya to the Central African Republic and from Mali to Sudan. Not all of its operatives are Russian: It also recruits fighters from Syria, its largest base of operations.

While Wagner has acted mainly as a catspaw for Putin, pursuing Russian purposes while allowing Moscow to deny direct involvement in faraway conflicts, the group has also served the interests of regional leaders. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have longstanding ties to Prigozhin and his hired guns, having cooperated with Wagner in backing the Libyan rebel leader Khalifa Haftar, who has undermined efforts by the United Nations to stabilize the country. The Egyptians and Emiratis regard Haftar as preferable to a civilian government that may include elements aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that keeps Arab potentates up at night.

This partnership has been a bone of contention for the US. As far back as 2020, a report by the Pentagon’s inspector general for counterterrorism operations in Africa suggested the Emiratis were funding Wagner’s operations in Libya. (The UAE’s ambassador to the US denied this.) Having designated Wagner as a “transnational criminal organization,” the Biden administration has been pressing the UAE and Egypt to sever ties with Prigozhin. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director William Burns both raised the issue in top-level meetings in Cairo and Abu Dhabi. In a warning shot, the US has imposed economic sanctions on a UAE-based aviation company for allegedly transporting Wagner mercenaries to conflict zones.

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photo: AFP

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