TOs troops of rival military strongmen clashed in Sudan, reports emerged that Merowe airport, some 320 km (200 miles) north of Khartoum, was preparing for the arrival of transport planes carrying a large shipment of weapons. .
The lethal supplies were allegedly sent by the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary army that has swept across a swath of Africa after deploying to Libya and Syria, and whose forces are playing a major role in Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. .
Wagner’s soldiers have massed in Bakhmut, where bloody street fighting has continued for months. An example of brutal violence in the Donbas city came this week when two fighters, Alexey Savichev and Azamat Uldarov, admitted they had killed 400 civilians, including around 40 children, who were sheltering in a basement. The couple were among the recruits who make up a significant part of the company’s fighters in the conflict.
It is not known if Wagner landed weapons in Merowe, which has been captured by his Sudanese ally Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, whose Rapid Support Force (RSF) is involved in the violent confrontation with the country’s main army led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. .
Some US security officials say Wagner has been fueling violence in Sudan in response to Washington’s attempts to expel him from the country. However, others, including Western and Sudanese officials, question whether Moscow really wants such destabilization given that it must make a substantial military investment in Sudan, including a naval base on the Red Sea.
What is known is that Wagner has forged highly lucrative links with the RSF and Dagalo, including setting up chains of gold smuggling from Sudan to Russia via Dubai and Syria.
A large portion of the money earned went to finance operations in Ukraine that cost Wagner an estimated $100 million (£81 million) each month. Its owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, accused the Russian military high command of “treason” for failing to provide its fighters with adequate weapons and ammunition. According to the US State Department, Wagner has begun obtaining weapons directly from other states, including rockets and missiles from North Korea.
Dubbed “Putin’s Chef” after a catering company he owned won lucrative government contracts, Prigozhin is also said to own M Invest, which controls Meroe Gold, South Africa’s third-largest gold producer and a company rapidly expanding mining company in Sudan. . Both companies have been sanctioned by the US Treasury and the European Union.
A CNN investigation documented 16 military flights from Sudan to Russia via the Syrian port city of Latakia and the Central African Republic (CAR). These are believed to have moved nearly $2bn (£1.6bn) worth of bullion over 18 months, it reported.
Under an agreement signed in 2019 with former Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the Kremlin agreed to export weapons to the country and build a base in Port Sudan. Moscow’s calls for a ceasefire in the current violence may be genuine, if self-serving.
RSF leader Gen Dagalo has strong ties to the Russian government and to Wagner. He visited Moscow on February 24, 2022, the day of the invasion of Ukraine, and again in September, as John Godfrey, the US ambassador in Khartoum, was pressuring the Sudanese regime to cancel the naval base deal.
Samuel Ramani, a Russia watcher and international relations tutor at Oxford University, believes Wagner is keeping his gunpowder dry in Sudan. “I would say they are sitting in a more defensive position; they are not getting the green light from the Kremlin to play a more active role, they will probably stay put for now,” he said. “Obviously, if there is a civil war and Prigozhin mining is threatened, we will see a more active military role.”
But the interests of Wagner and the Kremlin hierarchy are increasingly divergent. Prigozhin, who in the past has kept a low profile as his fighters are deployed abroad, has increasingly begun to seek the spotlight, attacking the Russian military over strategy and tactics in Ukraine. He has joined the strident criticism of Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, whose troops are also in the war, and some of Russia’s aggressive and influential military bloggers.
Russia’s high command in Moscow has begun to retaliate. A prisoner recruitment drive by Mr. Prigozhin (himself sentenced to 13 years on robbery and aggravated robbery charges) has been stopped. The higher-ups are calling for Wagner to be placed under the command of the National Guard, removing it from direct relationship with the Russian Defense Ministry.
General Valery Gerasimov, former chief of the general staff and now commanding general in Ukraine, has called on political and military bloggers to reduce their coverage of Wagner; this seems to have an effect with some of the more prolific bloggers like Rybar.
Vladlen Tatarsky, a blogger promoting Prigozhin, was killed in a directed explosion in St. Petersburg last month. Authorities accused Russian opposition figures of carrying out the assassination with Ukrainian collusion, but many of Tatarsky’s publications exposed Russian military shortcomings and it is hard to see what Kiev will gain from his death.
Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, the head of the Russian Airborne Forces and who at one point appeared to support Prigozhin’s criticism, was recently filmed sitting in his office with a portrait of Gen Gerasimov and a screen saver with a photo of the defense minister. Sergey Shoigu. This was seen as an indication of a change in the balance of power.
Competing for a position in Moscow has meant little to Wagner’s fighters on the Ukrainian front lines. Talat Nazarbekov, a young Uzbek man captured by Ukrainian forces in the Donbass, spoke of deep frustration and disappointment at losses being suffered for little gain.
“We have had a hundred people killed and injured over a hundred meters. This doesn’t make any sense,” he told her recently in a detention center in Ukraine. “We started realizing that a long time ago. The quality of the mobics (newly mobilized soldiers) was not acceptable, especially those in prisons. We don’t understand the thinking of older people, what they’re trying to do, where they’re going with this.”
Trying to gauge what the future holds for Prigozhin inevitably raises questions about his relationship with Putin. Some Russian reports maintain that Prigozhin’s increasingly loud protests about the military are an attempt to get a hearing from the president through direct channels that are no longer available.
According to some, Prigozhin himself has political ambitions, possibly even to replace President Putin in the future. The independent Russian news site Meduza reports that he is trying to gain control of the A Just Russia party, whose leader Sergei Mironov has praised Wagner as “heroic”.
But Viktor Nikitin, a former Wagner employee who left last fall and now lives in southern Europe, dismisses the idea that Prigozhin will seek to rule Russia.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said. “He is a stranger and the establishment will not accept him, the establishment will protect itself, he knows that. Would Prigozhin directly challenge Putin? That would be very foolish and dangerous.”
Nikitin added: “He has had a lot of money for a long time, and now he has power in wartime. But this kind of power will not last in peacetime inside Russia. You can gain political power abroad. You can try to run a small country in Africa through puppets, for example. But I think he will stay in Russia and try to restore good relations with the government. You will need them to make your money in foreign countries.”
Wagner’s overseas deployments have been followed by very rewarding business deals. In Syria, the Kremlin has approved a deal for Russian trading companies to receive oil, gas and mining rights to sites seized from Isis. Wagner was hired by the companies to take over the sites and received the share from him.
Prigozhin then struck deals directly with the Assad regime. A company owned by him, EvroPolis, generated $162m (£130m) in revenue in a year from the al-Shaer gas plant and three other sites. It is also now under US sanctions.
In 2018, Moscow sent Wagner to support Khalifa Haftar, a rebel general; most of the mercenary forces are now based in oil fields owned by General Haftar.
Fighter jets, air defense systems and armored vehicles are stationed at the main military bases at Al-Khadim airport, Sirte and Al-Jufrah and at General Haftar’s headquarters in Al-Rujma.
Washington has been seeking Wagner’s expulsion from Libya. William Burns, the CIA director, personally traveled to Benghazi to meet with General Haftar to make the demand in person two months ago.
According to US officials, General Haftar has agreed to consider Wagner’s withdrawal, but has asked that the US provide a replacement and that Turkish forces based in Libya also leave. Washington considered such terms unrealistic.
Libya is a hub for Wagner’s operations in Mali, where he is replacing French, British and Western forces, and the Central African Republic. The company first deployed to Mali in a deal worth $11m (£8.9m) a month to train and support local forces. Moscow has also supplied Sukhoi fighter jets and military helicopters to the Bamako government. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Mali in February, following a trip to Sudan.
It is unclear how cash-strapped Mali will pay Wagner, or for military purchases. Opposition and civil society groups say secret deals have been made over mining rights and diamonds and gold are being smuggled out.
Wagner took over an artisanal gold mine in CAR in 2020 and turned it into an industrial complex; in the same year, the country’s ministry of mines canceled the license of a Canadian company and instead awarded a 25-year concession to a Madagascar-registered company called Midas Resources, owned by Prigozhin. Wagner’s mining profits from CAR so far are estimated at $1bn (£810m)
Wagner has also switched to wood. He has been granted a 30-year forest permit in the Congo Basin to Bois Rouge, a St. Petersburg-based company owned by people close to Prigozhin, and has dealt with Meroe Gold in Sudan.
The Congo Basin is one of the largest tracts of undeveloped rainforest in the world. Developing 30 per cent of it would be an environmental calamity, analysts say, but would also generate around $900m (£725m) on international markets.
Another former Wagner employee, Roman, whom I first met in Simferopol in Crimea in 2014, pointed out how much the company had changed since then.
Roman, who now lives in the Balkans, said: “At the time we were very calm, we didn’t want publicity. But the wars made Wagner a lot of money, and Prigozhin decided to become famous. He has also decided to make enemies with powerful people, and that is always dangerous ”.