BERLIN — It was late May, as 10,000 spectators arrived at Barthélemy Boganda Stadium in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, for a special film premiere. There was a red carpet for the VIPs arriving for the film "Tourist" — a feature that glorifies the use of Russian mercenaries, who heroically defend the local population from murderous rebels in a fictional African conflict.
According to the Russian media, the propaganda film was financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Kremlin-linked oligarch is considered the mastermind behind Russia's best-known mercenary outfit, the Wagner group. But their real activities in the Central African Republic contradict the movie script.
For example, CNN uncovered apparent war crimes in a mosque in the city of Bambari on February 15. Eyewitnesses reported indiscriminate shots and at least 12 deaths, heavily implicating Russian mercenaries and the Central African army. There were no rebels among the dead, they said, citing multiple other similar incidents.
Moscow uses "state-financed military contractors" in at least 16 African countries to "disguise and plausibly deny Moscow's direct role."
This coincides with findings of the United Nations Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries. The Working Group is "deeply concerned" about the connection between mercenaries and a series of brutal attacks in the Central African Republic. One receives "reports on significant human rights violations." The UN emphasizes the role of the Wagner Group, whose activities are also documented in Libya.
The West is also watching the growing influence of the Russian organization in other parts of Africa. The U.S. warned that Moscow uses "state-financed military contractors" in at least 16 African countries to "disguise and plausibly deny Moscow's direct role."
The German daily Bild quotes from a secret paper of the German Federal Foreign Ministry which was released in 2019. According to the paper, the Wagner group is a Russian "hybrid instrument to exert political, economic and military influence." Its capabilities are "of great interest to autocratic regimes in a possible use against their own population."
The Wagner group was also expected to be talked about this week in Berlin, at the second international conference on the future of Libya. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had invited Moscow to the meeting. The first Libya summit in Berlin in January 2020 was a response to the internationalization of the conflict: the Gulf States, Turkey, Russia — the list of participants is long.
A preview for the movie, Tourist, an action film about a group of Russian mercenaries in Central African Republic
An end to military support for civil war parties was agreed at the conference. Admittedly, the new transitional government in Libya gives cause for hope. But the withdrawal of foreign troops and mercenaries, which was agreed in the ceasefire, is still an issue. The German foreign ministry says that the Libyan transitional government had repeatedly reiterated its call for the withdrawal to be completed.
According to information from Die Welt sources, there are currently 7,191 mercenaries from the Wagner group deployed around the world, the majority in Syria, partly for onward travel to other countries. These include counter-terrorism units, telecommunications battalions, air defense and eight "political scientists" — most likely working on disinformation campaigns. The mercenaries had supported the advance of renegade General Khalifa Haftar towards the capital Tripoli, a mockery of international efforts for peace.
So far, there is no sign of a withdrawal. "The Wagner group has not left the country," says Paul Stronski from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The mercenaries are a "low-cost instrument for power projection" for Russia. They are dealing with a "semi-independent actor" who, although controversial with the Russian army and Foreign Ministry, acts in the interest of President Vladimir Putin. "Otherwise, he would stamp out Wagner the way he did with other Russian military companies."
Putin is focused on regaining Russia's lost influence in Africa
Formed around 2014, the group is said to have been involved in the wars in eastern Ukraine and Syria, always in line with Putin's interests. Wagner commander Dmitri Utkin, a former Russian intelligence officer with a fondness for the composer Richard Wagner, personally received a medal of valor from the Russian president.
But the mastermind and main financier is probably Yevgeny Prigozhin. The oligarch is nicknamed "Putin's cook" because he once personally served the ruler in one of his restaurants. At that time, he made millions with lucrative catering contracts from the Kremlin. In the meantime, he is believed to have brought in billions by providing strategic services. According to U.S. investigators, he influenced the 2016 U.S. elections with his notorious "troll factory" in Saint Petersburg. For the services of the Wagner Group, he is apparently paid handsomely — often with concessions of raw material.
For Wagner, autocratic countries are a prime target for new business. Putin is also focused on regaining Russia's lost influence in Africa. Since Russian trade volume on the continent is low, Putin relies on military cooperation. The Wagner Group is his handy instrument for delicate operations in which political responsibility and too much attention are to be avoided — but which, as in Libya, give him weight at international negotiating tables.
Equipment from Russian Armed Forces'in 2016 that would be sent to to be sent to Palmyra, Syria — Bobylev Sergei/TASS/ ZUMA
Sometimes the mercenaries wear weapons, sometimes laptops. The focus is often on who is in charge — or could be in charge in the future. Facebook deleted numerous pages in 2019 that were intended to influence politics in eight African countries. The social network announced that the campaigns could have been traced back to companies associated with Prigozhin.
In Zimbabwe, the opposition accused Russian advisers associated with the Wagner group of exerting influence in favor of the government. And in Madagascar, according to media reports, consultants of the company supported several presidential candidates — without success, none of them won.
Denials are coming from the Russian side. "Wagner's influence on local conflicts is often significantly exaggerated and misinterpreted," says Andrei Liakhov. The Russian lawyer advises military companies in Africa. "Wherever Russian companies have a project to develop mineral resources, you will also find a military company that monitors it," he says.
According to Liakhov, companies such as the Wagner Group are not prepared for warfare, which has been seen in Mozambique. There, Liakhov admits, the Wagner group tried to fight Islamic terrorists two years ago in the hope of finding gas fields. After considerable losses, they withdrew.
The force is also active in Sudan and tried to keep long-term dictator Omar Hassan Al-Bashir in power
But flight details seen by Die Welt appear to point to an uptick in activity throughout Africa. On Jan. 4, 160 mercenaries of the Wagner group landed at 3.50 a.m. at the Libyan Al Khadim airport. The contingent included snipers, members of combat units and the alleged head of the Libya mission, known as "Blanket." Around one-third of the fighters moved directly to the Central African Republic and the fifth combat unit (238 people) was relocated to the Libyan city of Sirte.
The force is also active in Sudan and tried to keep long-term dictator Omar Hassan Al-Bashir in power. "The government has hired them to suppress demonstrations more effectively," says Hafiz Mohamed, director of the human rights organization Justice Africa Sudan.
The Wagner group defends the former militia leader Hemeti, whom many consider Sudan's new strong man. The Russians help train young Sudanese who send Hemeti to Yemen for war. There they fight alongside Saudi Arabia, the majority of the wage remains with the warlord.
Mohamed says: "Wagner helps those who can afford to pay."
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