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Russian Private Military Companies in Africa: What Are They Doing There?

"PMC Wagner" in Africa. Why Russia is increasing its presence in the region.

A recent thorough investigation by the Le Figaro journalists Tanguy Berthemet and Alain Barluet regarding the activity of mysterious Russian military forces on the Black continent had a sound resonance in Europe and directed the public attention to the large-scale Kremlin game in a fight for influence and resources in this region.

Of course, the interest on influential French media to what’s happening in the far away Africa is not accidental. Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali (a former French Sudan), Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire), Niger, Burkina Faso (a former Republic of Upper Volta), Benin (a former Dahomey), Togo, Gabon, Central African Republic (a former Ubangi-Shari), Chad, Cameroon — is a just an incomplete list of old and recent past of colonial France. And the events in their former colonies cannot leave France indifferent. France is especially sensitive to growing influence of Russia on political situations in these former French enclaves.

Central African Republic in Focus of Attention

Central African Republic, a small state in Central Africa, always had a special place in French and European foreign relations. No matter the small population, the geopolitical location of this country let it to influence a lot on the neighboring African states, such as Sudan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Chad, and even to shape a political agenda of the whole African continent, to some degree. That’s why the interest of Russia to this small state causes a certain anxiety between Western politicians. Since the growing presence of Russia military forces in CAR directly affects the destabilization in the whole region.

A Russian influence was quick to be felt in this small country. A known for his lack of will president of CAR removed the Rwanda’s “blue helmets” which provided his security. Thus, the security of president Faustin-Archange Touadéra consists of no less than 40 Russians. In October 2018 president Touadéra met Sergey Lavrov in Sochi. Russian minister suggested a gifts to Touadéra, consisting of 5200 AK-47s, 840 machine guns, 270 grenade launchers. All the UN has to do is to ratify this gift, and in the beginning of 2018 the weaponry was already in Bangui. More even, Moscow officially sent to CAR 175 instructors: 5 military and 170 “civilians” to train the government military forces (FACA). Russian military members, their quantity unknown, now live in Bangui, in the capital of Central African Republic. In the same October 2018 Moscow proclaimed that will be sending to Bangui 60 more instructors for FACA.

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At the moment the biggest danger to CAR stability would be assorted rebel groups from “Séléka”, a Muslim rebel militia at the north of country, which aim for legalization and for getting to the power. The interfaith conflict between Muslims and Christians lasts since 2013, and in October the crisis went to a new round because of removing Abdou Karim Meckassoua from the post of President of the National Assembly — Abdou Karim Meckassoua being a Muslim, while the president of CAR Faustin-Archange Touadéra is a Christian. Considering all this, President Touadéra, who came to power after a civil war of 2001-2003, needed some help from the outside. And that’s when Russia “accidentally” came into sight…

It is not France alone who is worried by the activity of Russian military (most of which are in fact a mercenaries of a private military company) in CAR, even though France is worried the most. Though CAR is not a French colony any more, France influence in the country is at high. The abundance of Russians in the country is deemed to be an intention of dislodging France from this region of Africa. And these concerns are well founded. The military presence is but one sign of Russian attempts to secure its positions in Africa. The unprecedented anti-French propagandist campaign is spreading in the country. Not only local Central African media are criticizing the French policies, but “Russia Today” joined them, as well as TV channels of the neighboring Cameroon. For example, the September 1979 French “Barracuda” operation is now widely covered in the negative light — an operation when French commandos overthrown the cannibal dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa, which in turn lead to series of coups and takeovers on the background of social instability and lowering of living standards, as much as civil war with a numerous victims among the civil population.

Who’s Listening to Wagner?

The appearance of armed Russians has shaken the relative stability in Central African Republic of last years. What’s more important, Russian diplomats started a secret negotiations with rebel groups regarding the division of authority and shares of ore mining profits between rebels and government.

But apparently there is little hope for the fruits of peaceful negotiations between opposing forces in CAR. That’s why Putin, as often, as it was in Syria and Ukraine, relied on solving the problem in his usual ways.

And of course he immediately remembered of the Wagner Group (also known as PMC Wagner, ChVK Wagner, or CHVK Vagner), which shined both in Ukraine (where its mercenaries fought against Ukrainian army since 2014) and in Syria (where the private military company fights on the side of Syrian regime). Using mercenaries is very convenient for Putin. First of all, private military companies allow for more or less plausible denial of Moscow being involved into the ambiguous international conflicts. This also helps to avoid the public discontent because of military losses.

As, mercenary doesn’t exist from the official point of view. And if one will perish, this is not counted for military losses of aggressor state.

A team of Moscow visitors travelled by a flight Damascus—Bangui in the April of 2018, set its training camp in Berengo, a former residence of emperor Bokassa, 65 kms from the capital. A part of soldiers are living in Bangui. And if military instructors (according to a reliable source in Bangui) are simply doing their job and nothing more, the goals of “civilians” are completely unknown, even though their number increased from 170 to 400. According to French journalists, these “civilians” are official representatives of mysterious company “Sewa Security Services”, established in November 2018 in Bangui. But it became known that “Sewa Security Services” is nothing but a cover for PMC Wagner, infamous with their involvement in Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts.

It is known that the idea of using mercenaries for “dirty ways” of solving Kremlin’s political issues in other countries (without direct involvement of true beneficiary) was suggested by Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of the Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. It was an investigation into such activities that led to a mysterious deaths of three Russian journalists in CAR in the end of July 2018. After “having their shift” on Donbass and in Syria, a mercenaries of PMC Wagner came to CAR — obviously, not to take part in the rebuilding of local industry. They joined another Russian mercenaries, who came from Sudan, where Moscow is also especially active in the recent years. People from PMC Wagner have since been seen in different regions of country, including eastern city of Bria, rich in gold and diamonds. And this is not an accident. Political goals of Russians in Central African Republic are supported by a financial interest, directed onto the exploitation of matural resources, as French and Libyans did once. Deposits of diamonds, uranium, gold, oil, forest and hydroenergy sources — all good reasons for the Putin expansion into Africa.

The economic expansion (with a military support of Wagner group) now is complemented with the official registration of Russian presence in CAR, which is helped greatly by a strong influence of Russian Federation on the highest officials of the country. A Russian citizen Valety Zakharov serves as a national security advisor to CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. It is well known in CAR that Zakharov answers not only to President Touadéra but also to Moscow. Mikhail Bogdanov, a deputy minister of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, is often visiting CAR as well, as he is authorized to conduct affairs in Africa. And he gets some results. As the consequence, Ministry of Finance and Budget of Central African Republic issued documents providing the “Lobaye Invest” mining company with rights for prospecting and developing of natural resources. Documents state that “Lobaye Invest” got a right for its operations in CAR for three years, starting July 2018. It conducts the exploration of gold deposits on two territories, one with an area of 385 km2, second 3712 km2. Both territories are located west of the Bangui, a capital of CAR, and are under control of Christian militia group “Anti-balaka”, which opposes the Muslim group “Séléka”. PWC Wagner fighters were needed to solve the issue of Muslim group.

The “Lobaye Invest” itself was created in 2017 by someone Yevgeny Khodotov, a 54-year-old security forces veteran from St. Petersburg; but many consider a real boss to be noone but Yevgeny Prigozhin. And it is not an accident again that the activities of the company are classified, and there are some radical measures taken to anyone who try to investigate the details of the Russian presence in CAR. That was Ndassima, a location place of “Lobaye Invest”, which Russian journalists Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguev and Kirill Radchenko intended to visit in July. They were making a film about private military companies, and they were killed. In the end of September a freelance journalist from CAR Louis Kottoy, who was investigating the deaths of Russian journalists and the activities of PMC Wagner mercenaries, were attacked and beaten up by the unknown not far from his home in Bangui. Two weeks before attack on Kottoy, Pyotr Verzilov, a member of anti-Kremlin protest group “Pussy Riot”, was poisoned while waiting for results of private investigation of deaths of journalists in Sibut. In addition, Russian military instructors who are living in Sibut and training CAR military, warned a local people, especially those living next to a place where dead bodies of journalists were found, that they will be punished if will give interviews about the murders.

As we can see, Russia is able to protect its secrets in Africa.

While officially denying the allegations of using PMC Wagner in the implementing of Kremlin hegemony designs, in practice Russian government is more than sympathetic to a private military companies. For example, Mikhail Bogdanov, a Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa, and a deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, in his interview to a French newspaper “La Croix” openly supported such structures, only bothered by their official legal status: “We have no issues with PMC Wagner. This is an organization created by former soldiers, which use their military skills for security tasks. Many companies of this kind exist. We were way behind of Americans and Brits. Perhaps we should make some legal clarification of such companies actions.”

There is no doubt that economic activities of Russian Federation in CAR, aside from everything else, also counts on a “chain reaction” from another African countries rich in natural resources. Russian activity already intensified in Angola and Equatorial Guinea — another two states with rich deposits.

Today Russia is building up on its presence in Africa more and more. They actively use the propagandists’ cliché of economic dependency of African states from the former colonial states, and of necessity of changing this. Kremlin propagandists put a particular hopes into a network of engineers, teachers, politicians, policemen and soldiers, who were studying in Soviet Union; into a tempting propositions of Russia to restructure debts inherited from Soviet Union into investments, which can be arranged as a transfer of rights of usage of Russian companies in the oil sector, agricultural sector, energy market, fishing, metal processing industry. Another point is made that Kremlin is ready to cooperate with any governments which would want this, no matter their political system or ideology. With the very same aim, about a year ago Russia made a generous gesture of annulation of debts of some African countries, over 20 billion dollars of debts total.

Putin’s Russia aims to restore the influence it had in the Soviet era through the developing countries, and Russian activity in Africa will not be limited with Central African Republic. We should expect to hear about Russian concessions “protected by PMC Wagner” in other countries, such as Sudan, Chad, Rwanda and Gabon.

Ukraine, Syria, CAR —And Beyond

So, what is PMC Wagner?

We know that Russia uses similar structures outside of all legal conventions. But when we speak of “private military companies” we must understand that these are nothing but mercenaries.

Whenever the PMC Wagner is discussed, there is one name mentioned, that would be Dmitry Utkin, a former GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate) officer. Back in 2013 Utkin became one of the leaders of another private military company “Moran Security Group”, under the codename “Wagner”. “Moran Security Group” was using a St. Petersburg organization “Slavonic Corps” to hire Russian former soldiers to protect the oil deposits and pipelines and Syria. Some claim that mission was a disaster, and “Slavonic Corps” suffered tremendous losses because of inferior training and the lack of weaponry. In 2014 Utkin founded the “Wagner Group” for solving of “delicate problems” outside the Russia borders. Its fighters were engaged in the Crimea annexation in spring of 2014, later on Donbass on the side of pro-Russian separatists, and starting 2015 they are represented in Syria. Mercenaries of Wagner were engaged in the Palmira reclamation in March 2016 on the side of Syrian army with the help of Russian aviation.

Wagner’s fighters are mostly the former soldiers of Russia military and task forces, which have enough of experience from trouble spots from Afghanistan to Vietnam, and from Chechnya to Nagorno-Karabakh. When signing the contract, Wagner mercenaries also sign the memorandum of their obligations. For example, they must state that they act on their own free will and personal beliefs, that they will not be used in military conflicts, they must swear to keep silent about their professional activity for ten years. Mercenary is also required to not have any accounts in social media, and to not make any photos or videos during the service.

A middleman company “Evro Polis” is in charge of signing contracts with the Wagner “volunteers”, as well as of financial operations; it also hosts all the documents on PMC and all the documents of mercenaries. In this (supposedly purely private) company Yevgeny Prigozhin owns a big share, and in fact serves as a connection and coordination link with the clients from Kremlin and Russian Ministry of Defense. It is he who informs the leadership of PMC Wagner of tactical tasks agreed with Ministry of Defense of Russia, of tasks and means of particular special operation, and he is also in charge of supplying the mercenaries with the weapons, ammunition and equipment. According to the available data, the salary of mercenaries present on the battlefield abroad is between 1350 and 3600 Euros, depending from the position and the rank.

The history of “Evro Polis” is also of some interest. This Moscow-based company, first being in the restaurant business, in 2016 suddenly switched to oil and gas deposits development, and then opened an office in Damascus. In 2016 Yevgeny Prigozhin signed a contract with Syrian government which guarantees to him a 25% share of all oil deposits which would be taken by PMC Wagner from Jihad group “Islamic State”.

The connections of Utkin with the highest levels of Russian government are not proclaimed, but neither are they hidden. In December of 2016 Utkin, together with other fighters of PMC Wagner was accepted by Vladimir Putin in Kremlin during the ceremony for Russian “heroes” in Syria.

In November 2017 Dmitry Utkin became a CEO of “Concord Management & Consulting” company, which also is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin. This is the very same company accused by USA in the financing of Internet trolls with a goal of disruption of presidential elections in USA in 2016.

The Disappointing Conclusion

It is clear that Russian state tries to distance itself from the mercenaries akin to PMC Wagner, yet still Kremlin has no intent of discharging or recalling them, because that would call for replacing them with regular army, and therefore, to admit the real losses in personnel. PMC Wagner is one of many paramilitary organizations on the service of Kremlin, which is used to promote the Russian interests without the direct affiliation of government. Using such groups makes it easier for Kremlin to mask the military operations and to hide the real numbers of losses. Perhaps this is an important argument for Moscow to preserve this semi-legal zone and to postpone the legislative regulations of private and partially-governmental military companies.

It is natural that Russian activities like these are not dangerous to CAR, Syria and Libya alone, but poses a danger for the whole African continent.

And what’s most important is that the covert diplomacy of Russia discredits the work of UN and undermines the principles of international security.

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