How al-Bashir and Putin pressed the self-destruct button

The RSF and Wagner’s rebellions demonstrate how dangerous the mercenary game can be for dictators.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) mshakes hands with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia July 14, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 14, 2018 [Sputnik via Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin]

When in 2003, a rebellion erupted in Sudan’s Darfur region, triggered by decades of oppression and neglect of African communities, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir resorted to local armed Arab groups to suppress it. Known as the Janjaweed, they soon became a formidable force which managed to put an end to the revolt, earning al-Bashir’s trust and largesse.

A decade later, when Ukrainians rebelled against the diktats of Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to punish them by illegally annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and starting a conflict in the eastern part of the country. To mask his invasion, he had one of his cronies, Yevgeny Prigozhin, create a mercenary force to send across the border into Ukraine. The force, which came to be known as Wagner, proved quite effective and became a trusted military tool for Putin to use in his foreign policy adventures.

Both al-Bashir and Putin perhaps thought that resorting to mercenaries was a smart move in their pursuit of power consolidation. But their violent creations inevitably turned against them, demonstrating just how dangerous playing a mercenary game can be, even for seasoned dictators.

From coup-proofing to a civil war

It would not be an understatement to say that al-Bashir’s decision to rely on mercenaries to crush the uprising in Darfur eventually led to his political demise.

The Janjaweed – along with the Sudanese army – engaged in a wide variety of war crimes against Darfuris which earned al-Bashir an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court.

Fearing what could happen to him if he were to lose power, the Sudanese president pursued policies which he thought would ensure the stability of his regime. Having survived a coup in 1990, al-Bashir was naturally suspicious of his own army.

So in 2013, he decided to turn the Janjaweed militia into an official force, renaming it the Rapid Support Forces and installing one of its commanders, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, as its head. The force was directly attached to the presidency.

The decision to legalise the Janjaweed militia and support Hemedti’s rise to the higher echelons of the armed forces was part of a calculated plan to fragment the military sector and “coup-proof” al-Bashir’s regime.

In return for his loyalty, al-Bashir allowed Hemedti to take over precious gold mines in Darfur and start amassing abundant personal wealth.

In the following years, the RSF expanded its operations abroad as its forces were sent to fight in Libya and Yemen. This gave Hemedti the opportunity to establish new sources of revenue, forge ties with regional powers, and, ironically, bolster his independence from his complacent principal.

Al-Bashir’s fraught and reckless balancing act between various military structures did not preserve his regime for long. In December 2018, thousands of people took the streets across Sudan, demanding his resignation.

The Sudanese president could no longer appease the military elites, which in April 2019, moved against him. Hemedti – who al-Bashir used to call “my protector” – faced a choice between standing by his wildly unpopular benefactor and siding with the Sudanese military; he threw his lot in with the latter.

By empowering the RSF, al-Bashir not only sealed his own fate but also of the whole country. In the following years, power-hungry Hemedti and the military elite undermined the civilian protest movement and its attempts to transition the country to democracy. After carrying out a coup against the provisional civilian government, tensions between the RSF and the army escalated and in April, war broke out between them.

Thousands of civilians have been killed, civilian infrastructure has been devasted, homes have been looted and some four million people have been displaced, with over 800 000 people seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

There are also worrying reports of genocide in Darfur, as the RSF and allied Arab militias target African communities. The months-long conflict is, without doubt, a disaster of monumental proportions, which could lead to the collapse of the Sudanese state.

All of Sudan is now paying the price of al-Bashir’s folly.

From foreign adventures to mutiny

Watching from Moscow the events in Sudan in 2019, Putin likely did not consider that there may be parallels between the RSF and Wagner to consider, and lessons to learn. By then, the Russian president had used his mercenaries to wreak havoc not just in Ukraine, but also in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic.

In the process, Prigozhin’s wealth and business empire grew exponentially, and so did his appetite for power – much like Hemedti’s.

When Putin decided to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine – to the shock of a significant part of the political elite in Moscow – Prigozhin loyally stood by him, sending his experienced mercenaries to fight some of the bloodiest battles.

But as the war did not progress according to plan and tensions between commanders intensified, Prigozhin started attacking the military leadership, especially Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

The open feud continued for months, with the Wagner founder blaming the army chiefs for war setbacks and accusing them of sabotaging his forces. Putin stood on the sidelines of this escalating dispute and did nothing, as usual, trying to stay above intra-elite infighting in order to blame it for whatever failures take place.

But Putin underestimated Prigozhin’s political ambitions and greed, and his silence laid the groundwork for a deadly national crisis in Russia.

On June 24, Wagner mercenaries launched a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s top military leadership, staging the most formidable threat to Putin’s 23-year rule.

Wagner fighters easily managed to take control of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, and a Wagner convoy reached within 200km (124 miles) of Moscow in an attempt to remove Shoigu and Gerasimov. Several army helicopters were shot down, killing their crew members.

Meanwhile, some Rostov residents were seen cheering on the defiant mercenaries.

Although Prigozhin eventually called off the armed rebellion after he had negotiated a deal with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Putin’s meticulously crafted “tough guy” image had already been crushed in an open and embarrassing manner.

While Prigozhin and his mercenaries departed from Russia, they left behind an even more divided military and security apparatuses. Prigozhin had apparently gained the implicit support or sympathies of senior army officials.

General Sergei Surovikin, for example, who led the Russian war effort in Ukraine, allegedly had advanced knowledge of the mutiny.

Wagner’s rebellion validated the growing anger within ranks and file, but also among the general population, against decision-makers at the top. And while Putin tried once again to stay above the fray, sooner or later, it would be too hard for him to deny that his decision-making is ultimately responsible for major failures.

Russia did not descend into civil war as Sudan did due to Wagner’s rebellion, but it did shake the regime to its core.

The rebellion exposed Putin as a weak, indecisive and compromised president, who does not dare to punish rebellious loyalists. Despite calling Prigozhin a traitor, the Russian president met with him and other Wagner leaders five days after the abandoned rebellion. On July 27, a relaxed and smiling Prigozhin was seen socialising with delegates on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit in Saint Petersburg.

All this has brought into question Putin’s firm hold on power ahead of the presidential elections in 2024, when he will seek to extend his rule for yet another six years. Like al-Bashir, he may eventually lose control over military and security structures and his loyalists may turn against him.

These mercenary games should serve as a cautionary tale for other leaders with plans to outsource government responsibilities to murderous collaborators like Hemedti and Prigozhin.

A private militia is a certain recipe for self-destruction.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.