White supremacism, Nazi tattoos, mafia-style business model, accusations of rape and crimes on the edge of war crimes… Slowly but surely, the Russian PMC Wagner weaves its web across Africa.
Beheadings, rapes, torture… While some African governments see in Wagner the one and only solution against insurgency or terrorism, the paramilitary company keeps showing its true face. Its henchmen, deployed to plunder resources as much as to actually fight, often prove to be as dangerous – if not more – than the armed groups they are hired to combat. And the toll is paid by the local populations.
All the while, both the Central African Republic and Mali have successfully fallen for Wagner’s false promises of security, before getting trapped by its predatory system. Yet everything was written. The private military company (PMC) was already infamous for its horrors in Syria. Hired to support a weakened Syrian army, they have been deployed in the oil and gas rich regions of the east. Very soon, accusations of murder and war crimes followed. Syrian civilians revealed these exactions by sharing a video to the independent Russian newspaper « Novaya Gazeta ». The document shows Russian-speaking men hitting an alleged deserter with a hammer and sever his limbs before setting him on fire while hanging his head on a stick.
Manipulation and terrorist-like methods
In parallel, the group was used to prepare the ground for attacks against the Syrian regime, itself accused of crimes against humanity. They reportedly used guerrilla methods akin to those of ISIS (torture, forced recruitment, threats against one’s family…). By executing these deeds on behalf of Damas, Wagner allowed its employer to restore its status in the international community to a certain extent. As a payment, Wagner Group receives 25% of the benefits from the oil fields it contributed to liberate.
This business model, similar to that of a mafia, is consistent with PMC founder Evgeny Prigozhin. This oligarch served 9 years in prison in the 2000’s for theft, fraud, and involvement of teenagers in criminal activities. Upon release, he developed a catering empire in Russia, doing business among others with the Ministry of Defence. This strategic position allowed him to become a close advisor of Vladimir Putin.
With this access to Russia’s restricted circle of power, Prigozhin created the IRA (Internet Research Agency), a disinformation factory massively using false accounts on various social networks to promote the Kremlin’s propaganda. The IRA is widely suspected to be behind manipulation operations in the UK during the vote for Brexit, and for interference in the 2016 US presidential campaign.
In Africa, the IRA reportedly conducted psychological operations to hide Wagner Group’s atrocities. By spreading a false narrative among local populations, they create a parallel reality where Wagner mercenaries are heroes.
The operational leader of Wagner is Dmitry Utkin. This former member of Russia’s special forces is widely known as a Third Reich admirer. On a picture which went viral, he can be seen bearing Nazi tatoos.
This fascination for Nazism is widely spread within the ranks of the PMC. Adolf Hitler’s « Mein Kampf » was found in a tablet in Libya, which used to belong to a deceased Wagner fighter. Many of these mercenary don’t hide their ideology online, with references to WWII, neopagan symbols associated to Russia’s far right, white supremacism, identification with Viking culture…
The BBC estimated in 2021 that 10 000 men had fought within Wagner’s ranks. Most of the mercenaries originally employed by Wagner were former members of the armed forces, veterans of Afghanistan and Chechnya. But since then, many of the employees are young people without military training (many of them have a judiciary background preventing them to join the army), and are sent to theatres of war with only a month of training. As can be expected, Wagner mercenaries therefore failed to accomplish their mission in many countries : Mozambique, Sudan…
Despite it all, the Central African Republic called on the PMC in 2018 to help counter an insurgency threatening Bangui, the country’s capital. The 800 to 2000 mercenaries have indeed repelled the rebels from the capital area, but since then commit crimes in the CAR on a weekly basis. The United Nations counted at least 1 221 victims of crimes, execution, torture, sexual violence and child abuse. One of the biggest atrocities to date was the massacre, on January 16th 2022, of 65 civilians in the village of Aigbado. Most of the victims were shot with heavy weapons, while some were executed in the bush. 14 corpses, including women and children, were found by local fishermen is the Kotto river.
To pay for their services, the exploitation of gold and diamonds mines is not enough. In addition to payment for their military support, the PMC collects state revenues directly through a mission under which they assist national customs. At some border posts, the merchandise flux is directly controlled by Russian speaking agents. This control over the state is supervised by Yuri Liamchkine. Before landing in CAR, this former director of the Federal Customs of Russia had been convicted to 3 years of prison by the Court of Justice of St Petersburg.
A plague that keeps spreading
While the European Union and the UN have sanctioned the personalities linked to Wagner, it seems now to late for the government of CAR to go back and recognize its errors. Wagner has got its hands on the levers of political power and covers its traces, even if it means killing journalists. Three Russian reporters paid for their curiosity with their life near Sibut, in the center of the country, in July 2018.
It is now the turn of Mali to fall prey to the PMC. A deal has been struck in December under the guise of a military partnership with Russia. While their number in the country was evaluated at 40, concentrated near Bamako’s airport before Christmas, it reached 1000 across the whole country in early February. As soon as early March, the mercenaries are already suspected to have set up a torture center in one of their camp in Niono. The UN also suspect them to be responsible for the massacre of 30 shepherds in the same area.
Who’s next ? Other resource-rich countries with similar political troubles such as Burkina Faso might also fall in the trap. But now, head of states cannot pretend they don’t know about the risks for their own population.
But for now, Wagner has its eyes elsewhere : Ukraine. Kyiv’s Intelligence services have confirmed that the PMC was now active in the invasion as suppletive for the Russian army. Given their dire record in dealing with civilians, this is very bad news. This war may continue with its worrying dynamic.