Wagner boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin publicly mocked a top U.S. diplomat Tuesday for trying—and apparently failing—to simmer tensions in Niger with the military junta that detained President Mohamed Bazoum.
U.S. acting deputy secretary of state Victoria Nuland traveled to Niamey earlier this week to negotiate with the military junta, with hopes that the United States could help serve as a mediator in the aftermath of a military coup that saw Bazoum deposed. She bluntly told reporters that the trip wasn’t going according to plan.
The conversation was “at times quite difficult,” Nuland told reporters on a call.
During the trip, she urged General Moussa Salaou Barmou, who has been named chief of staff of the military after the coup, to not make deals with Russia’s Wagner Group, Prigozhin’s mercenary fighting group, she said.
Prigozhin was quick to respond to the comments in a Telegram post Tuesday: “This brings joy, Mrs. Nuland,” Prigozhin said.
“I am proud of the boys from Wagner,” he added. “Just the thought of them makes ISIS and Al Qaeda small, obedient, silky boys. And the U.S. has recognized a government that it did not recognize yesterday just to avoid meeting the Wagner PMC in the country.”
Prigozhin, for his part, is chomping at the bit to get involved. In the days after the military junta detained the president, Prigozhin offered up Wagner mercenaries’ services to help out.
The mercenary boss’ taunting comes as prospects for a negotiated outcome in Niger look slimmer by the hour. Nuland admitted that even after more than two hours of conversations and side bars, the meeting in Niger left a clear impression that the military junta has a different vision for how to proceed. She added that her conversations in Niamey did not shed light on how the junta is planning around possible collaboration with Wagner.
“There was some side conversations. After that, I hope they will keep the door open to diplomacy. We made that proposal. We’ll see,” Nuland told reporters. “As I said, they have their own ideas about how this goes forward. They do not – their ideas do not comport with the constitution, and that will be difficult in terms of our relationship if that’s the path they take.”
“It is trash talk, but it’s trash talk with a purpose.”
A faction of soldiers from the presidential guard detained the Nigerien president, Bazoum, on July 26, and dissolved the constitution. The group has since claimed to install a new leader in the country. European countries and the United States have condemned the action, and neighboring countries threatened to use force to resolve the conflict if the military junta didn’t reverse their plans by Sunday—threats that have failed to materialize.
Prigozhin’s decision to weigh in Tuesday on tense talks between the State Department and the military junta is just the latest sign that he is working to wedge his way into the crisis and come out on top.
It’s not clear if the coup-plotters and Wagner fighters have reached any kind of conclusion on working together, according to the State Department.
Some of Prigozhin’s rhetoric, though, might help provide clues about whether coordination is looming, according to Sean McFate, a former paratrooper and officer in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division who has previously dealt with African warlords.
Prigozhin is likely still in the process of casting his net within Niger and working to get Niger coup-plotters to take him up on his offer, McFate told The Daily Beast.
“It is trash talk, but it’s trash talk with a purpose. He wants to publicly show the world and the Nigerien coup-makers whose side he’s on and in a very anti-Western manner, and let’s not forget that there’s a lot of anti-Western anti-French sentiment already in Niger and across the Sahel,” McFate said. “It’s a well-organized campaign that’s part of his playbook that is meant to message his potential client, ‘I am really on your side.’”
U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken warned that Wagner would be bound to try to leverage the situation.
“What happened and what continues to happen in Niger was not instigated by Russia or by Wagner, but to the extent that they try to take advantage of it—and we see a repeat of what’s happened in other countries, where they’ve brought nothing but bad things in their wake,” Blinken told the BBC in an interview.
“The indicators suggest that Prigozhin and the junta leaders in Niger are going to probably work out some arrangement that will look something like his neighbors in Mali and CAR,” McFate predicted.
After reaching a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to exile in Belarus, however, Wagner Group has continued recruitment, and in all likelihood has reached a sort of symbiotic arrangement to continue operating in African countries so long as it continues to provide benefit to Moscow, McFate predicted.
“Putin and Prigozhin also have a need for each other. Putin wants to extend his global reach into Africa… It gets around sanctions, it directly funds the war, it does all sorts of things and Prigozhin needs the financial infrastructure of Russia,” McFate said.
And although negotiations don’t seem to be going well, even by the State Department’s usually discreet take on matters, Prigozhin is still trying to sell himself in Niger, an indication that the military junta may still be weighing its options, said McFate.
“If it were a sealed deal, I’m not sure Tori Nuland would go all the way out there—or if she did it would just be sort of like a last resort,” McFate said. “But I don’t think her presence and her rank from the State Department is going to move the needle much in Niger amongst the generals.”
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