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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Prigozhin's Profit Model: How Wagner Cashes In On The Non-Stop Business Of War

The Wagner mercenaries, who came to the world's attention for their involvement in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and more recently in the coup attempt, have been operating in Africa and elsewhere for years with a profitable formula to cash in on ongoing conflict.

Image of Russian mercenaries provide security for convoy with president of the Central African Republic.

Russian mercenaries provide security for convoy with president of the Central African Republic.

Clément Di Roma/VOA
Sergio Pascual


The next move remains unclear for Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group fighters, who drove an armored column to within a few hours of Moscow, took over a key Russian city and shot down Russian military aircraft during a recent coup attempt. The uncertainties have only heightened with the announcement Thursday by Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, that Prigozhin — previously exiled to Belarus — has now returned to Russia.

But whatever the future holds, the guns-for-hire outfit has plenty to keep it busy, further afield in Africa, where Wagner mercenaries have been involved in conflicts for years, selling their signature brutality to dictators and corporations looking to hold onto power and exploit contested resources.

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Back in February 2022, just before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, about 30 protesters had gathered outside a foreign company's headquarters in Bambari, a city on the Ouaka River in the Central African Republic (CAR). The protesters, part of the Christian militia Anti-Balaka Touadéra, were demanding the payment of overdue salaries, owed to them by the Wagner mercenary group.

According to Alain Nzilo, editor of the Central African media outlet Corbeau News, the militia had been formed to support President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. It's one of at least 16 armed groups operating in CAR, a republic where a simmering civil war has been going on for years.

The militiamen, known in the country as the "Black Russians," demanded payment for their regular work for the Russian corporation, including the killing of 15 civilians in December 2021 in the municipality of Boyo, and the decapitation of the former mayor of Bambari, Didier Wangay, along with his family in the nearby town of Gallougou.

"It was a sit-in organized in front of Wagner's base in Bambari," Nzilo recounts. "The media were not present, except for our correspondent, who simply introduced himself as a passerby because it was very risky if they knew he was a journalist."

Wagner mercenaries involved in atrocities

Two former mercenaries and commanders of this private army, Azamat Uldarov and Alexei Savichev, recently told publication Gulagu.net that they killed civilians, including children, in Ukraine. In his account, Uldarov stated that his orders were to "sweep and eliminate anyone in my way" and that the mandate came directly from Wagner's leader, Prigozhin. Wagner, on the other hand, denied through its Telegram channel what the mercenaries had stated, claiming that "No one ever shoots at civilians or children; no one needs this. We went there to save Ukrainians from the regime they are subjected to."

Enrica Picco, the Central Africa Director at the International Crisis Group, points out the different origins of these private contractors, who, in addition to Russia, come from the Middle East, Syria, Libya and elsewhere in Africa — a region which, Picco notes, "would represent a huge market opportunity, as many Russian soldiers refuse to fight in scenarios like Ukraine." Journalist Alain Nzilo also agrees that there are African mercenaries among the Wagner troops: "Those who say that there are no Africans among Wagner's men are very mistaken."

Nzilo explains the different ranks and salary scales established by companies like Wagner: "The first (rank) consists of fighters whose bodies won't be claimed if they die. They earn between $300 and $500." The next rank, comparable to "an army officer, can range from $1,000 to $2,000 per month." Finally, there are "the bosses, those who make more decisions on the ground, who can earn between $4,000 and $5,000 per month."

Image of  Wagner Group soldiers seen by a damaged building in the city of Artyomovsk (Bakhmut).

April10, 2023: Wagner Group soldiers are seen by a damaged building in the city of Artyomovsk (Bakhmut).

Valentin Sprinchak/TASS/ZUMA

At the service of the

Where does the money come from to finance these private armies? In the case of Wagner and other companies, payment is shared between the contracting company and the state requesting their services. "Authoritarian regimes that, in order to consolidate their power, need a security provider, and that's when they call (the mercenaries)" continues the Central Africa expert.

But what if state funds are not enough to pay for the protection or, directly, the war? "What (governments) do is exchange the presence of mercenaries for access to natural resources and give them a blank check to exploit whatever they want," concludes the analyst.

Those who say that there are no Africans among Wagner's men are very mistaken

"These contracting companies emerged at the end of the Cold War, and they are not only private armies but also suppliers of weapons, strategic military assistance and protection services for dictators, hierarchs and warlords," explains researcher and founder of the Centre Delàs d'Estudis per la Pau, Pere Ortega. To illustrate the ubiquity of contractors, Ortega gives an example: "The President of the United States himself, when he travels, does not rely on his armed forces for protection, but brings a private security team."

Researcher at the Escola de Cultura de Pau, Iván Navarro, points out three common forms of protection offered by contractors: "The first is combating insurgency when the armies are defeated; the second is protecting presidents, and the third is protecting natural resources such as oil wells or mines." Added to all of this is the profitable business of rebuilding a country after a conflict, as highlighted by antimilitarist expert Juan Carlos Rois: "The same ones who rebuild countries are the ones who participated in the war."

The exploitation and protection of various natural resources such as coltan, gold, diamonds, or uranium are key factors in understanding the strong expansion of mercenary groups worldwide, in the context of the pressing energy crisis. "Mineral resources are always protected by companies, and surely human rights violations are committed against the populations where these resources are exploited," asserts Ortega.

Image of A screen grab of Russian Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner Group of mercenaries broadcasting from inside the Russian Military Southern District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.

June 24, 2023: A screen grab of Russian Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner Group of mercenaries broadcasting from inside the Russian Military Southern District headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.

Pool /Wagner Group/ZUMA


Mercenaries "go where there is an opportunity," emphasizes Picco, who observes how the increasing presence of military companies like Wagner and their agreements with different African countries "is replacing multilateralism." This strategy, she argues, is based on Russia's discourse of "new pan-Africanism" where each country "is free to choose its security ally and free itself from former colonies," according to the researcher from the International Crisis Group.

This industry is driven by one concept: impunity.

According to Ortega, the collusion between private security companies and various African governments is the main novelty in the commodification of war: "They have infiltrated Africa and are providing support to governments like those in Mali or Burkina Faso, even though these countries had previously expelled French armed forces."

This war industry is usually driven by one concept: impunity. "There is regulation, conventions, and legal mechanisms, but the opacity of these types of companies makes them difficult to control," adds researcher Iván Navarro from the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

On the justice system's non-response to the murder of the former mayor of Bambari and his family, Nzilo says: "There is no judicial process. The perpetrators, although known, are not being prosecuted. We are in the Central African Republic."

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

On The Donetsk Frontline, Where Kamikaze Drones Are Everyone's Weapon-Of-Choice

In Ukraine, kamikaze drones have gradually overtaken artillery as the main threat to soldiers — on both sides of the frontline. Meanwhile, a bitter winter is taking over life in the trenches.

On The Donetsk Frontline, Where Kamikaze Drones Are Everyone's Weapon-Of-Choice

Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline.

Guillaume Ptak

DONETSK — In the chilly pre-dawn hours, a mud-stained pickup truck drives along a potholed road in Ukraine's eastern region of Donetsk. Despite the darkness and the ice, the vehicle travels with its lights off, its interior illuminated only by the reddish glow of a lit cigarette.

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Throughout the early morning last Monday, the cracking sound of artillery can be heard echoing intermittently in the distance, followed by the bright trail of a projectile soaring into the cloudy sky.

Inside the truck, four soldiers from the 28th brigade of the Ukrainian army have just left the relative comfort of a small country house to go to the frontline, towards Bakhmut. After a short journey through overgrown fields and devastated villages, the car stops at the edge of a forest.

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