The assignment was tough but do-able. The brief: to shoot a documentary film about the activities of the Wagner Group, a notorious Russian mercenary outfit. Where to start? The group’s ghost army was everywhere and nowhere. It had been seen in eastern Ukraine, in Syria and Sudan – fighting on the side of Moscow-backed rebels or shoring up Kremlin-friendly dictators. Now it was making inroads all across Africa.
Wagner’s soldiers were elusive. They didn’t work officially for the Russian state. In fact, private military companies didn’t exist in Russia, at least not in any formal sense. As Dmitry Peskov, press spokesman for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, put it, choosing his words with care: “De jure we do not have such legal entities”.
And so everything Wagner’s gunmen did was deniable. If they were killed while fighting overseas – something that happened in Syria, after a disastrous encounter with US forces near the city of Deir Ezzor in 2018 – that had nothing to do with Moscow! No need to explain to the press, or to answer questions in bilateral forums.
Nor could a direct link be drawn with the man who allegedly funded the Wagner group and masterminded its myriad secret affairs. His name was Evgeny Prigozhin. He wasn’t a government person. So far as the Kremlin was concerned, he was a talented entrepreneur from Saint Petersburg.
Despite these disavowals, Prigozhin’s mercenaries popped up in all of Moscow’s wars. In 2014 they appeared in Donetsk and Luhansk, the rebel provinces of Ukraine whose anti-Kyiv ‘uprising’ Moscow armed and propelled. In Syria, they supplemented regular Russian troops sent from 2015 to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And in 2018, Wagner operatives and advisers worked closely with Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan’s Putin-backed leader.
Journalists seeking facts had few options. The group didn’t have a website, or a press department. Its commander was said to be Dmitry Utkin, a lieutenant colonel with Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency. Utkin’s call sign was Wagner, a name chosen because of his enthusiasm for the helicopter scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Other Wagner contractors had links with Russia’s far-right, and the group Russky Obraz, I was told. Few knew how many armed men Utkin controlled. Was it 1,350, or perhaps 2000?
In summer 2018, a group of Russian journalists began an investigation into Wagner’s global activities. They included Orkhan Dzhemal, an experienced correspondent; producer Alexander Rastorguyev; and cameraman Kirill Radchenko. The trio were working for an independent media outlet set up and funded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the onetime Russian oligarch and critic of the Kremlin.
The first step was to shoot secret footage of Wagner’s base near Krasnodar, in southern Russia. It was there that mercenaries were recruited, vetted, and trained. Regular Russian troops guarded the territory in the village of Molkino. It had a tank polygon – a criss-cross of black tracks across a green field – multiple shooting ranges, and accommodation tents.
There was a small chapel on the road south from the base: a grey cube with a gold dome and arched window, dedicated to fallen Wagner ‘volunteers’. Near to it was a mawkish statue of a mercenary, dressed in full body armour and holding a weapon. A small girl clung to his right leg. The statue honoured Wagner employees who died in Syria. On the base was a black cross set against a red background and the words: “For blood and bravery”.
In 2018 the same mercenary shrine appeared in other cities where Wagner has been active: in a main square in Luhansk and at a regime complex near the Syrian city of Palmyra.
Military insignia, posthumous medals, statues and chapels … the Wagner group had all the symbols and rituals of a regular army. Except, of course, it wasn’t one. It was a phantom brotherhood, made up of invisible killers working for money. They could be used for shadow-state projects and then made to vanish, as if by witchcraft.
The Russian reporters wanted to track down Wagner soldiers to Syria or Sudan. Syria was problematic, though. Russian intelligence was closely embedded with Assad’s military. The presence of journalists in the country might be swiftly detected. Syria was dangerous, for its long-suffering civilian population, first and foremost, but also for visiting TV crews seen as ‘enemies’.
Meanwhile, there were intriguing rumours that Wagner had begun operating in one of Africa’s most downtrodden states, the Central African Republic (CAR). In October 2017, CAR’s President Faustin-Archange Touadéra flew to Russia and met foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Moscow got permission from the UN to begin supplying CAR with weapons as part of a peace-keeping operation. It would send trainers to the region.
Out of sight, the CAR delegation held talks with Prigozhin representatives. A deal was signed: a new gold and diamond mining company would be established in the prefectures of Lobaye and Haute-Kotto, guarded by Wagner staff. In return, Wagner would run the president’s personal security and provide in-country training for troops and gendarmes. Cut-price precious stones would flow in one direction; rifles and deadly heavy weapons in another.
A broke Central African Republic was in the grip of a sectarian war, fought by Christian and Muslim militias among dirt-poor rural settlements. Evidently, Russia was seeking to boost its presence in a weakly ruled country and to squeeze out France, the former colonial power. This appeared to be part of a bigger Russian push across the continent. From late 2017 Moscow begin delivering arms to Touadéra’s government. It sent military personnel. The president got a Russian national security adviser, a former intelligence officer from St Petersburg, Valery Zakharov.
Signs of growing Russian influence were there, if you looked carefully. According to South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, an unmarked vehicle paid weekly visits to the Grand Cafe in central Bangui. The cafe served western-style coffee and croissants. The occupants picked up an order of baguettes and quickly headed off. Their destination was the Berengo palace. This used to belong to the country’s emperor Jean-Bédél Bokassa. It was now home to 175 Wagner mercenaries, camped out amid crumbling grounds.
Senior Wagner staff rented an office in the capital, nicknamed the “Bangui Hilton”. There was a map of the republic on the wall and a pile of weapons. From time to time, Zakharov would drop in for a snooze, photos suggest. One of Prigozhin’s senior political advisers, Evgeny Kopot, posed for another snap, holding a Kalashnikov. Kopot is wearing aviator shades and a T-shirt in Arabic with the logo of RT or Russia Today, the Russian government’s international propaganda TV channel.
The journalists decided to dump the Syria plan and fly to Bangui via Casablanca. They arrived in July 2018, two days earlier than scheduled. Their local fixer “Martin” – recommended by a journalist from Moscow – had agreed to provide a pick-up from the airport. Strangely, he wasn’t there. The journalists made their way to the Hotel National. Eventually, “Martin” got in touch and said he would send them a driver.
The journalists had a few days left to live.
The next day Dzhemal, Rastorguyev, and Radchenko set off to Berengo, 75kms from the capital. Inside the once-elegant palace, Wagner mercenaries were training more than 1000 Central African soldiers. The trip was a disappointment: the guard on duty who spoke Russian and English refused to let them in.
On July 30, the group hit the road again. Their destination was Bambari, a town not far from gold mines guarded by Utkin’s mercenaries. The Russians told the receptionist they would be back in a few days and left a suitcase. By early evening they had reached the town of Sibut. From there, they were supposed to continue east towards Bambari. Instead, their driver took them north, in the direction of Dékoua.
The scenery along the route was attractive: a vivid orange dirt road running between green forest and lush savannah, with villages along the way. Dzhemal sat in the front, Rastorguyev and Radchenko in the back. At 7pm the journalists exited Sibut and reached an army checkpoint. The local soldiers radioed the Russian base at Sibut and were ordered to let the car pass. Unbeknown to the group, an SUV had crossed the same checkpoint minutes earlier. In it were five people, three of them white.
The ambush took place 23kms down the road.
The killers halted the journalist’s vehicle. They dragged the passengers out. Dzhemel was beaten and shot in the back seven times as he crawled along the ground. Rastorguyev was executed with a direct shot to the heart. Radchenko made a run for it, was caught and then gunned down amid tall grass. His body was discovered meters away from Dzhemel and Rasorguyev, who were clumped together in death.
The murderers used AK-47s. Between four and six gunmen opened fire from close range. They appeared to be professionals who – Khodorkovsky suggested – had fought in eastern Ukraine and Syria. The journalist’s personal effects, including Dzhemal’s laptop, were untouched. The gunmen left behind three cans of gasoline, loaded onto the back of the pick-up – a valuable commodity in one of the poorest places on earth. The driver survived. He escaped.
At 8pm the SUV recrossed the Sibut checkpoint, local soldiers said. It disappeared into the dark. The reporters’ bodies were found the next day and taken to the morgue. Unknown persons set light to the ground where they had lain, destroying possible evidence and leaving behind black shapes.
The journalists were doomed from the beginning, it emerged. The Russians had walked straight into a well-planned trap, set before they even left home. In Bangui, they were under surveillance. A member of the gendarmerie, Emmauel Kotofio, monitored their movements. Kotofio had worked with Wagner instructors in Sudan. On the night of the murders, he was seen sitting in the SUV that left Sibut ahead of the journalists’ car. (When reached by the Associated Press, Kotofio hung up.) Their fixer “Martin” disappeared.
There were links too between officials in Central Africa and Prigozhin employees. Cellphone records show that Kotofio was in contact with the journalists’ driver, who subsequently vanished as well. Kotofio made calls to Alexander Sotov, a Wagner instructor. Sotov spoke to other Russians inside the country, including Zakharov, the national security adviser.
The brutal slaying of three Russians created a headache for the Wagner Group – and for the foreign ministry back in Moscow. How to explain the murder of journalists probing a mercenary firm? Prigozhin’s back office in Saint Petersburg came up with an answer. It invented a fake account: ten bandits speaking Arabic stopped the car and shot its occupants. The motive had nothing to do with politics. It was a robbery. Russian officials repeated this version, avoiding any mention of Wagner – the reason the team flew to Africa in the first place.
In November 2018, a group of generals arrived in Moscow. Their leader was Khalifa Haftar, commander of the self-styled National Army, and a man who controls two-thirds of Libya and much of its oil. Waiting for him was Russia’s top brass. There was Varlery Gerasimov, chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces. And Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, and a person whispered as a possible future president. Haftar and Gerasimov shook hands in front of a marble bust of Peter the Great.
All of those present, Libyans and Russians, were wearing uniforms—all, except one. A video posted by the Libyan delegation shows a bald civilian, dressed in a suit and tie, waiting by the door. This anomalous figure joins the Russian army officers and takes a chair in the middle. It is Prigozhin, sitting in on a top-level government meeting, his prestige seemingly enhanced by the tumultuous events in America of two years before.
According to special prosecutor Robert Mueller, Prigozhin spearheaded an unprecedented campaign in 2016 to interfere in US democracy. His Internet Research Agency (IRA) had run a vast online campaign to mess with the heads of American voters. The goal: to support Donald Trump and to denigrate Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic Party adversary. The operation was wildly successful, wholly unnoticed by Facebook and Twitter, and carried out on the virtual battlefield of social media.
For Haftar, meanwhile, the trip to Moscow was good PR and an opportunity to present himself as an international statesman. For the Russians, Haftar was one of several political partners in Libya. Another was Saif al-Islam, son of the country’s late dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Russia’s goal was clear: to boost its influence in North Africa and the continent, from Sudan and the CAR, all the way to South Africa and Madagascar.
Apparently, America failed to stop Prigozhin’s multifarious projects. The Obama administration sanctioned him over Ukraine. In 2018 Mueller indicted a group of operatives working out of the IRA’s office in St Petersburg and blacklisted Prigozhin’s various media outlets, part of a sprawling disinformation empire. The following year the US Treasury sanctioned Prigozhin’s private jets. They flew to Libya, Sudan and CAR – as well as to Syria and Lebanon. Plus Germany and Spain.
With support from the Kremlin, Prigozhin’s business empire flourished. The Saint Petersburg back office which coordinated its Africa activities was located in an anonymous flat. Employees in the field were given pre-paid credit cards. Extensive use was made of front companies, designated with an “M”. Staff sent messages via encrypted channels. There were old-school touches: Prigozhin approved invoices with a personal seal, stamping them with a vivid blue swirl in the manner of a colonial administrator.
Prigozhin’s global operations were referred to internally by a potent single word: the “Company”. The Company encompassed the mercenaries based at camps in Berengo, Sudan, and in Libya, where a team of 17 contractors were sent to fix up Haftar’s broken tanks. It meant the IRA, as well as employees working for English language pro-Kremlin media outlets such as USA Really.
Prigozhin multiple activities around the world were a form of hybrid warfare. They were simultaneously state and non-state, sanctioned and freelance, real and yet deniable. This twenty-first-century phenomenon was much discussed. In a chat with a colleague, one IRA employee went back to the eighteenth century to sum up the Prigozhin blend of public politics and rapacious self-interested business. “Welcome to the new version of the East India Company,” the employee wrote in late 2018, in one of hundreds of messages and documents seen by Khordorkovky’s Dossier Center, an investigative unit based in London.
The East India Company conquered large swathes of India and South Asia, using a ruthless militia. At one point, it controlled almost half the world’s trade. As Edmund Burke put it, this mighty corporation was ‘a state in the guise of a merchant’.
Now Prigozhin was attempting something analogous in Africa and elsewhere. Like its celebrated English predecessor, Prigozhin’s Company had a fuzzy relationship with power. And its own brute force component. His soldiers of fortune came from Russian military structures but didn’t formally answer to them. The Company authored its own analytic papers and shared them with top-level contacts within Moscow’s defence and foreign ministries.
As well as mercenaries, Prigozhin dispatched political technologists to countries of Kremlin interest. These advisers brought with them methods used at home, crude ones. The aim was to shore up existing rulers and to undermine their pro-western opponents. Leaked company documents published in the Guardian show a desire to strong-arm the US out of the region, as well as France and Britain, the former imperial powers. And to establish a new generation of Moscow-orientated African “leaders” and undercover “agents”.
That was the theory. In reality, Prigozhin’s ’s attempts to meddle in Africa’s affairs weren’t always as successful as in the US. In Madagascar, a group of Prigozhin political advisers arrived on tourist visas six months before the presidential elections. They backed the incumbent and other candidates. All lost. The Russians eventually threw their support behind the eventual winner, Andry Rajoelina. In spring 2019, a different team travelled to South Africa to boost ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa and to smear his pro-western opponents. Their impact was negligible.
Still, Russia was on the way to turning Central Africa into a twenty-first-century quasi-colony. Prigozhin employees drew a map showing the Company’s activities, which the Dossier Center passed to me. I was struck by the sheer range: it included at least 13 African countries, ranging from Zimbabwe to the Comoros islands. (A team visited Comoros to see if the long-standing territorial dispute with Paris there might be stirred up). The Company claimed credit for removing CAR politicians sympathetic to France. It saw Central Africa as strategically important, and a jumping-off point for future military and political expansion.
In October 2019, Putin held a Russia-Africa forum in Sochi, the first of its kind, attended by more than 40 African heads of state. In the face of US and EU sanctions, Moscow was keen to find new markets and to strike new partnerships. It had signed military-tactical agreements with more than 30 African states, Putin told his guests. The summit confirmed Putin’s conception of Russia as a great power, ready to take advantage of US weakness and retreat.
Election manipulation, alliances with dictators, arms deliveries and a shadow army … Russia might be late to the super-power party in Africa, but it was taking strides to catch up with Europe, the US and China. Its route in was a blend of capitalism and sneaky power politics. Putin’s approach was one of opportunism. His methods were rarely subtle. But with the western world in disarray, these were frequently effective.
Luke Harding is an award winning Foreign Correspondent for the Guardian. He is a New York Times bestselling author, and has recently published Shadow State.