After fighting broke out in Sudan between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), questions have been raised about the involvement of the Wagner Group, a powerful Russian mercenary group that has been active in Sudan for years.
Here’s what you need to know about the organization and its involvement in African countries:
What is Wagner Group?
The group first gained widespread attention in 2014, when Wagner mercenaries were believed to be involved in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fighting in eastern Ukraine.
They are also believed to be involved in the war in Syria, supporting the Russian armed forces, which intervened in 2015 on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.
The Wagner Group is led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former prisoner who catering at the Kremlin, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef”. His wealth increased, as did his private army. It soon emerged in African countries such as Libya, where it fought in the civil war in support of rebel general Khalifa Haftar.
It also operates in Mali, the Central African Republic and Sudan as Russia looks to secure supplies of resources such as oil and gold from Africa.
The Wagner Group played a very public role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is suspected of raising money for itself and Russia in its overseas operations.
How active was Wagner in Sudan?
The Wagner Group began deploying in Sudan during the rule of former President Omar al-Bashir, who was forced out in 2019 amid mass protests.
Concerned about the instability of his rule, Bashir traveled to Russia in 2017 to meet President Vladimir Putin and sell him Sudan as Russia’s “gateway to Africa” in exchange for Russian support. Soon after, Meroe Gold, a new mining company owned by Russia’s M Invest, began bringing Russian experts to Sudan, Africa’s third-largest gold producer.
In 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned M Invest and Meroe Gold, saying its investigations showed M Invest was a front for the Wagner Group.
Samuel Ramadi, author of “Russia in Africa,” told Al that the Wagner group was “primarily aimed at protecting mineral resources, especially gold, and in protecting al-Bashir’s government from international opposition. side acts as a support force for Bashir’s government,” Al Jazeera.
During the 2019 protests against Bashir, the Wagner Group went from a “protection army to a[ing] actual direct participant in the attempt to suppress the demonstration”.
Ramadi said that after Bashir stepped down, Prigozhin tried to form an alliance with army chief Abdul Fattah al-Burhan. However, after the Khartoum massacre in 2019, the Sudanese security services violently dispersed the sit-in demonstrations, and the Wagner Group was forced to resume the role of “guardian” protecting its mining interests, and the relationship between the two countries deteriorated.
A CNN report in July, citing official Sudanese sources and flight data, said a gold-smuggling military plane made at least 16 flights from Sudan to Latakia, a Russian-owned military base. Syrian port city to help fund Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Following the report, the European Union imposed sanctions on Meroe Gold. “Through its association with the Sudanese army, the Wagner Group has acquired the rights to mine Sudanese gold and export it to Russia,” the European Council said in a statement.
Russia’s interests in Sudan go beyond gold. Russia will sign an agreement with Sudan to build a military base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea. In exchange, Russia will send weapons and military equipment to Sudan.
Wagner and Reporters Without Borders
Wagner has recently developed a relationship with the RSF and its commander, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. “The main purpose was to create a smuggling route for gold from Sudan to Dubai and then to Russia so that they could fund Wagner Group operations in Ukraine,” Ramadi said.
In early 2022, the day after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Dagalo flew to Moscow, opening a new phase in the relationship between RSF and the Wagner Group.
Was Wagner involved in the fighting in Sudan?
It is unclear whether the Wagner Group is involved in the current fighting in Sudan.
Ashok Swain, head of peace and conflict studies at Uppsala University in Sweden, said he believed the Wagner group was “likely involved in the current struggle to maintain its presence in the country and protect its huge commercial interests”.
“The United States recently pressured Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council to drive this mercenary group out of the country,” Ashok said. “The Wagner Group is therefore very interested in who wins the ongoing power struggle in the country.”
“I would say they are in a more defensive position,” Ramadi said, adding that Russia had joined many other countries, including China, in calling for restraint and de-escalation.
“They certainly didn’t get the green light from the Kremlin to play a more active role, and they’re probably going to stand still now,” he said.
The Russian embassy in Sudan expressed concern about the violence and called for a ceasefire and talks, state news agency RIA reported.
“Obviously, if the conflict turned into a civil war and Prigozhin’s mining operations were threatened, we would see a more active military role,” Ramadi said.
He said Wagner’s group would face the dilemma of whether to move troops away from Sudan’s border with the Central African Republic, where Russia controls several mines.