On the Frontlines: Unveiling the hegemon’s toolbox

by Alexander Chang (’23) | March 31, 2023

Flags of countries that have been plagued by coups. Art by Katherine Winton (’25)

This final edition of On the Frontlines deviates from its traditional format to illustrate a broader geopolitical situation that has only grown more and more prevalent in recent years—exploiting instability for leverage. Each of the following attempted or successful coups highlights one of many reasons that powerful nations have embarked on aggressive foreign policy doctrines as well as aspects that have been integral to coups in the 21st century.

Montenegro (October 16, 2016): Security

On the evening of October 16, 2016, twenty armed Serbian, Russian, and Montenegrin extremists were arrested by Montenegrin authorities for attempting to organize a coup d’état which would have seen the assassination of Montenegro’s then-current prime minister as well as a direct attack on Montenegro’s National Assembly. Although it was initially assumed to be a one-off event, in the months following, Montenegrin prosecutors continued to unveil growing amounts of evidence that it was actually Russian intelligence services that had militarized the group and initiated the plot.

The Kremlin denies these allegations, but investigations have highlighted Russian agencies such as the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) as key groups in devising the plan. Paired with suspicious Russian activities during and following the failed coup, such as unscheduled diplomatic visits to Belgrade by Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Putin’s firing of RISS and SVR figureheads, it seems evident that Russian intelligence forces played crucial roles in attempts to destabilize the Balkan state.

The motivation behind Russian meddling was likely Montenegro’s push to join NATO, as it had been formally invited by the alliance in December 2015. It was then that Russian intelligence forces initiated planning for the coup—all as a means of preventing NATO’s expansion as well as preventing the crucial access that Montenegro would provide NATO forces in the Adriatic Sea. 

Zimbabwe (November 14-21, 2017): REMs and Raw Resources

Following the occupation of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare and arrest of its then-president Robert Mugabe by the Zimbabwean military, current Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa took full control of the nation. The coup was a successful bid by Mnangagwa and the military to retake influence over key national industries as well as to cement power within the party (ZANU PF) away from Grace Mugabe, Robert Mugabe’s wife and his then-chosen successor. 

But it is the involvement of Chinese influence in Zimbabwe that should draw the most scrutiny of the coup. As Zimbabwe’s second-largest trading partner, China has increasingly grown its influence within the nation, building large-scale infrastructure projects and establishing under-the-table deals that have allowed it to secure record levels of rare earth minerals (REMs) and other valuable ores such as gold. The extent of Chinese involvement in the coup, however, is unknown, but it is certain that efforts have been made on both sides to resume and strengthen their ties despite the nation’s political instability.

Chinese military forces were believed to have worked extensively with Zimbabwean commanders to both supply training and weaponry that was used in the insurrection. In addition, in days prior to the coup, pro-Mnangagwa Zimbabwean officials met with Chinese diplomats, although the content of their discussions is unknown. Nevertheless, Beijing’s selective diplomatic opportunism shined clearly in the transfer of power in Zimbabwe—Chinese officials had originally thrown a majority of its support and resources to Mugabe but immediately switched allegiances to Mnangagwa following the coup, reinforcing China’s trademark utilitarian diplomacy. 

Venezuela (May 4, 2020): PMCs (Private Military Contractors)

In an attempt to oust Nicholas Maduro, Venezuelan dissident Clíver Cordones, in support of the mostly internationally recognized “President of Venezuela” Juan Guidó, and Jordan Goudreau, an American private military contractor, planned Operation Gideon, which would have seen the capture and likely assassination of current Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro. 

The operation was a spectacular failure, resulting in the capture or killing of almost all participants in the coup within a day, as the conspirators all lacked the resources and training to fully complete the operation. Goudreau’s PMC group, Silvercorp USA, claims that it had originally expected backing from the State Department—a claim the Trump Administration rejects.

Although the coup’s connection to the United States is unclear, it is certain that the State Department was at least aware of Silvercorp USA’s activities, possibly holding out hope that the group would manage to overthrow the dictator, which would have been a clear political win for Trump as well as American oil interests. 

Mali (May 24, 2021): REMs and Raw Resources, PMCs

On May 24, 2021, the Malian Army, led its second coup within the year against figureheads of the civilian transitional government. Bolstered by forces sent by the Wagner Group, a private military contracting agency with deep ties to the Kremlin, the Malian Army quickly overthrew the Prime Minister, President, and Minister of Defense and simultaneously cracked down on protestors. 

The use of the Wagner Group to achieve political gains is not unique. Across Africa, which has experienced a record number of coups within the past few years, the Wagner Group has been ever present in either supporting government forces or overthrowing them. The growth in the usage of PMCs is likely due to both the deniability they provide as well as the ease of deployment compared to military operations. 

It is evident that the Kremlin had significant involvement in arming and establishing Wagner strongholds within Mali as a means of securing economic and geopolitical gains for Russia within the region. Mounting evidence has suggested that the Wagner Group and Malian military had conducted increasingly violent war crimes during the operation, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians. Although proceedings to hold Russia accountable for those war crimes were established, Russia denied involvement in Mali, arguing that the acts of private military forces were not under the purview or jurisdiction of the Russian state. 

Beyond the crimes of the Wagner group itself, Russia has increasingly expanded its misinformation campaigns within the continent as a whole. In fact, UN reports have presented photographic evidence that Wagner troops had staged fake French war crimes as a means of stoking even more local dissatisfaction against French peacekeeping forces to bring African nations closer to Russia. 

Operations by the Wagner group and other similar PMCs will only continue to grow, forcing the international community to begin to rethink how hegemons will change their extensions of power into the 21st century.

Categories: Column, Opinions

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