Source: New York Times
By Declan Walsh
Declan Walsh is the Chief Africa correspondent and first reported from Sudan in 1998.
- June 5, 2022 Updated 9:00 a.m. ET
AL-IBEDIYYA, Sudan — In a scorched, gold-rich area 200 miles north of the Sudanese capital, where fortunes spring from desert-hewn rock, a mysterious foreign operator dominates the business.
Locals call it “The Russian Company” — a tightly guarded plant with shining towers, deep in the desert, that processes mounds of dusty ore into bars of semi-refined gold.
“The Russians pay the best,” said Ammar al-Amir, a miner and community leader in al-Ibediyya, a hardscrabble mining town 10 miles from the plant. “Otherwise, we don’t know much about them.”
In fact, Sudanese company and government records show, the gold mine is one outpost of the Wagner Group, an opaque network of Russian mercenaries, mining companies and political influence operations — controlled by a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia — that is expanding aggressively across a swath of Africa.
Best known as a supplier of hired guns, Wagner has in recent years evolved into a far broader and more sophisticated tool of Kremlin power, according to experts and Western officials tracking its expansion. Rather than a single entity, Wagner has come to describe interlinked war-fighting, moneymaking and influence-peddling operations, low-cost and deniable, that serve Mr. Putin’s ambitions on a continent where support for Russia is relatively high.
Wagner emerged in 2014 as a band of Kremlin-backed mercenaries that supported Mr. Putin’s first foray into eastern Ukraine, and that later deployed to Syria. In recent months, at least 1,000 of its fighters have re-emerged in Ukraine, British intelligence has said.
The linchpin of Wagner’s operations, according to Western officials, is Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch known as “Putin’s chef” who was indicted in the United States on charges of meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
In 2017, Wagner expanded into Africa, where its mercenaries have become a significant, sometimes pivotal factor in a string of conflict-hit countries: Libya, Mozambique, Central African Republic and most recently Mali where, as elsewhere, Wagner has been accused of atrocities against civilians.
But Wagner is far more than a war machine in Africa, and a close look at its activities in Sudan, the continent’s third largest gold producer, reveals its reach.
Wagner has obtained lucrative Sudanese mining concessions that produce a stream of gold, records show — a potential boost to the Kremlin’s $130 billion gold stash that American officials worry is being used to blunt the effect of economic sanctions over the Ukraine war, by propping up the ruble.
In eastern Sudan, Wagner is supporting the Kremlin’s push to build a naval base on the Red Sea to host its nuclear-powered warships. In western Sudan, it has found a launchpad for its mercenary operations in neighboring countries — and a possible source of uranium.
And since Sudan’s military seized power in a coup in October, Wagner has intensified its partnership with a power-hungry commander, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, who visited Moscow in the early days of the Ukraine war, which began in February. Wagner has given military aid to General Hamdan and helped Sudan’s security forces to suppress a fragile grass-roots, pro-democracy movement, Western officials say.
“Russia feeds off kleptocracy, civil wars and internecine conflicts in Africa, filling vacuums where the West is not engaged or not interested,” said Samuel Ramani of the Royal United Services Institute, a defense research group in London, and the author of a forthcoming book on Russia in Africa.
Sudan, Mr. Ramani added, typifies the kind of country where Wagner thrives.
The Kremlin and Mr. Prigozhin deny any links to Wagner, which is said to be named after Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer, by a founding commander who was fascinated by Nazi symbolism and history.
Mr. Prigozhin shrouds his activities in secrecy, trying to mask his ties to Wagner through a web of shell companies and traveling the African continent by private jet for meetings with presidents and military commanders. But the U.S. Treasury Department and experts who track Mr. Prigozhin’s activities say that he owns or controls most, if not all, of the companies that make up Wagner.
And as his operations in Sudan show, those companies have left a paper trail.
Read more about the Wagner Group and its operations in other African countries.
Russian and Sudanese customs and corporate records, obtained through the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a nonprofit in Washington, as well as mining documents, flight records and interviews with Western and Sudanese officials, reveal the extent of his business empire in Sudan — and the particular importance of gold.
The Wagner Group has “spread a trail of lies and human rights abuses” across Africa, and Mr. Prigozhin is its “manager and financier,” the State Department said in a statement on May 24.
Most officials spoke about Mr. Prigozhin and Wagner on the condition of anonymity, citing the confidentiality of their work or, in some cases, fears for their safety. General Hamdan and Mubarak Ardol, Sudan’s state regulator for mining, declined to be interviewed.
In a lengthy written response to questions, Mr. Prigozhin denied any mining interests in Sudan, denounced American sanctions against him and rejected, with a hint of a wink, the very existence of the group he is famously associated with.
“I, unfortunately, have never had gold mining companies,” he said. “And I am not a Russian military man.
“The Wagner legend,” he added, “is just a legend.”
The ‘Key to Africa’
Wagner’s operations in Sudan began in 2017 after a meeting in the Russian coastal resort of Sochi.
After nearly three decades of autocratic rule, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan was losing his grip on power. At a meeting with Mr. Putin in Sochi, he sought a new alliance, proposing Sudan as Russia’s “key to Africa” in return for help, according to the Kremlin’s transcript of their remarks.
Mr. Putin snapped up the offer.
Within weeks, Russian geologists and mineralogists employed by Meroe Gold, a new Sudanese company, began to arrive in Sudan, according to commercial flight records obtained by the Dossier Center, a London-based investigative body, and verified by researchers at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies.
The Treasury Department says that Meroe Gold is controlled by Mr. Prigozhin, and it imposed sanctions on the company in 2020 as part of a raft of a measures targeting Wagner in Sudan. Meroe’s director in Sudan, Mikhail Potepkin, was previously employed by the Internet Research Agency, the Prigozhin-financed troll factory accused of meddling in the 2016 United States election, the Treasury Department said.
Meroe Gold’s geologists were followed by Russian defense officials, who opened negotiations over a potential Russian naval base on the Red Sea — a strategic prize for the Kremlin, suddenly within reach.
Over the next 18 months, Meroe Gold imported 131 shipments into Sudan, Russian customs records show — mining and construction equipment, but also military trucks, amphibious vehicles and two transport helicopters. One of the helicopters was photographed a year later in Central African Republic, where Wagner fighters were protecting the country’s president, and where Mr. Prigozhin had acquired lucrative diamond mining concessions.
Incongruously, the shipments also included a vintage American car — a 1956 Cadillac Series Sixty-Two, documents show.
But the Russians soon found themselves advising Mr. al-Bashir on how to save his skin. As a popular revolt surged from late 2018, threatening to topple his government, Wagner advisers sent a memo urging the Sudanese government to run a social media campaign to discredit the protesters. The memo even advised Mr. al-Bashir to publicly execute a few protesters as a warning to others.
This memo and other documents were obtained by the Dossier Center, which is financed by Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, a former oil oligarch and a longtime nemesis of Mr. Putin’s. Through interviews with officials and business leaders in Sudan, The New York Times confirmed key information in the documents, which the Dossier Center said were provided by sources inside the Prigozhin organization.
When Mr. al-Bashir was ousted by his own generals and placed under house arrest in April 2019, the Russians swiftly changed course.
A week later, Mr. Prigozhin’s jet arrived in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, carrying a delegation of senior Russian military officials. It returned to Moscow with senior Sudanese defense officials, including a brother of General Hamdan, who was then emerging as a power broker, according to flight data obtained by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Six weeks later, on June 3, 2019, General Hamdan’s troops launched a bloody operation to disperse pro-democracy protesters from central Khartoum in which at least 120 people were killed over the next two weeks. On June 5, Mr. Prigozhin’s company, Meroe Gold, imported 13 tons of riot shields, as well as helmets and batons for a company controlled by General Hamdan’s family, customs and company documents show.
Around that time, a Russian disinformation campaign using fake social media accounts sought to exacerbate political divisions in Sudan — a technique similar to the one used by the Internet Research Agency to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election. Facebook shut down 172 of those accounts in October 2019 and May 2021, linking them directly to Mr. Prigozhin.
But neither those measures nor the American sanctions deterred the Wagner Group from its main goal — capturing a slice of Sudan’s gold boom.
The Gold Miners
Poor men hoping to strike it big stream to al-Ibediyya, the gold mining town north of Khartoum, on the banks of the Nile.
After hacking gold-rich rock from the desert, they bring it to be crushed at the town’s ramshackle market, extracting gold using a crude, mercury-based technique that poses great risks to their health.
But far greater profits can be earned by running the same ore through a second, more complex gold extraction process at a cluster of industrial plants 10 miles away. One of the largest is run by Meroe Gold.
In interviews, traders described how Russians come to the market to take samples and buy gold ore, paying up to $3,600 for a nine-ton truckload. Sometimes, they said, the Russians were protected by troops from General Hamdan’s Rapid Support Forces.
When a team from The Times approached the gate of the Meroe plant, Ahmed Abdelmoneim, a Sudanese engineer, wanted to be helpful. About 30 Russians and 70 Sudanese worked there, he said, motioning to the living quarters, workshops and gleaming metal towers. The Russians were unlikely to speak with a reporter because of the company’s reputed “link to Wagner,” which he dismissed as untrue.
Before he could elaborate, a message in Russian crackled over the radio. A small bus pulled up outside, driven by an athletic-looking white man who wore shorts, sunglasses and a khaki-green T-shirt. He avoided eye contact with our team.
The bus drove away with Mr. Abdelmoneim, and we were invited to leave.
Gold production in Sudan soared after 2011, when South Sudan seceded and took with it most of its oil wealth, but only a handful of Sudanese have gotten rich. General Hamdan’s family dominates the gold trade, experts and Sudanese officials say, and about 70 percent of Sudan’s production is smuggled out, according to Central Bank of Sudan estimates obtained by The Times.
What Is the Wagner Group?
A paramilitary group with ties to Russia. The Wagner Group is a private military force with close links to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. It gained prominence in recent months when its forces began appearing in Ukraine, presumably to fight alongside Russian troops.
How did Wagner get its start? Wagner operatives were first deployed during Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The U.S. government has said that the organization is financed by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and a close associate of Mr. Putin.
How did the group get its name? The group is reportedly named after the nom de guerre of its leader, Dmitry Utkin, a retired Russian military officer. Mr. Utkin is said to have chosen Wagner to honor the composer.
Where is the group based? The group is not registered as a legal entity anywhere in the world, and mercenaries remain illegal under Russian law. According to analysts, Wagner is a “proxy force” of Russia’s ministry of defense; its shadowy existence allows the Kremlin to play down its battlefield casualties and distance itself from atrocities committed by Wagner fighters.
Where do they recruit? Some of the fighters appeared to have been recruited from Syria and Libya, according to the Pentagon. Russia appears to have used mercenaries from those countries to bolster its troops in the east of Ukraine because of their experience fighting in the Donbas region for the past eight years.
Where have Wagner forces been deployed? Wagner operatives have fought in Syria, Libya, Central African Republic, Ukraine, Sudan, Mali and Mozambique. U.N. investigators and rights groups say these mercenary troops have targeted civilians, conducted mass executions and looted private property in conflict zones.
Most of it passes through the United Arab Emirates, the main hub for undeclared African gold. Western officials say that Russian-produced gold has likely been smuggled out this way, allowing producers to avoid government taxes and possibly even the share of the proceeds that is owed to the Sudanese government.
“You can walk into the U.A.E. with a handbag full of gold, and they will not ask you any questions,” said Lakshmi Kumar of Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based nonprofit that researches illicit financial flows.
Halting the flow of Russian gold has become a priority for Western governments. In March, the Treasury Department threatened sanctions on anyone who helps Mr. Putin launder the $130 billion stash in Russia’s central bank.
Some Sudanese gold might be going directly to Moscow.
From February to June 2021, Sudanese anticorruption officials tracked 16 Russian cargo flights that landed in Port Sudan from Latakia, Syria. Some flights, operated by the Russian military’s 223rd Flight Unit, originated near Moscow. The Times was able to verify most of those flights using flight-tracking services.
Suspecting the planes were being used to smuggle gold, the officials raided one flight before it took off on June 23. But as they were about to break open its cargo, a Sudanese general intervened, citing an order from Sudan’s leader, General al-Burhan, said a former senior anticorruption official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals.
The plane was moved to the military section of the airport, he said, and left for Syria a couple of hours later without being searched.
The anticorruption body, set up to dismantle Mr. al-Bashir’s network inside Sudan, was disbanded five months later, after October’s military coup.
General al-Burhan declined to be interviewed for this article. Lt. Gen. Ibrahim Gabir, a fellow member of the ruling Sovereignty Council, played down accounts of Russian smuggling.
“People are talking,” he said. “But you need evidence.”
From Russia With Cookies
Since 2016, the United States has imposed no fewer than seven rounds of sanctions on Mr. Prigozhin and his network, and the F.B.I. is offering a $250,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. Those measures have done little to stem his expansion in Africa, where he sometimes feels emboldened to flaunt his ties.
In a splashy bid for Sudanese support, Mr. Prigozhin donated 198 tons of food to poor Sudanese last year during the holiday month of Ramadan. “A gift from Yevgeny Prigozhin,” read the packets of rice, sugar and lentils, under a slogan that recalled the depths of the Cold War: “From Russia With Love.”
The donation, made through a subsidiary of Meroe Gold, included 28 tons of cookies that had been specially imported from Russia. “They were meant for children, but everyone enjoyed them,” said Musa Gismilla, the head of the Sudanese charity that distributed the aid.
But there was a hitch. Mr. Prigozhin insisted on diverting 10 tons of the food to Port Sudan, where Russia was lobbying for naval access, instead of to more needy regions. Mr. Gismilla was disturbed.
“It suggested the gesture was more about politics than humanitarianism,” he said.
In his response to The Times, Mr. Prigozhin wrote that he had “nothing to do with Meroe Gold,” yet added that he had learned that the company was “currently in liquidation.”
He confirmed the charity donation, which he said was at the behest of a Sudanese woman with whom he had “friendly, comradely, working and sexual relations” — apparently a mocking explanation most likely to cause particular offense in a conservative Muslim society.
Wagner’s main military ally in Sudan, General Hamdan, is also reaching for public support. Since betraying his onetime patron, Mr. al-Bashir, in 2019, General Hamdan has sought to distance himself from his reputation as a ruthless commander in the Darfur conflict that led to an estimated 300,000 civilian deaths in the 2000s.
Instead, Mr. Hamdan has signaled his ambition to lead Sudan, building a support base among traditional leaders he has courted using money and vehicles, diplomats said, and with friendly foreign powers like Russia.
Two senior Western officials said that Wagner organized General Hamdan’s February visit to Moscow, where he arrived on the eve of the war in Ukraine. Although the trip was ostensibly to discuss an economic aid package, they said, General Hamdan arrived with gold bullion on his plane, and asked Russian officials for help in acquiring armed drones.
On his return to Sudan a week later, General Hamdan announced that he had “no problem” with Russia opening a base on the Red Sea.
Supporting a Coup ‘to Steal Gold’
The murkiest part of Wagner’s Sudan drive is in Darfur, a region riven by conflict and rich in uranium. There, Russian fighters can slip into bases controlled by General Hamdan’s Rapid Support Forces, Western and United Nations officials say — and sometimes use the bases to cross into Central African Republic, Libya and parts of Chad.
This year, a team of Russian geologists visited Darfur to assess its uranium potential, one Western official said.
Since the war in Ukraine began, Russian disinformation networks in Sudan have churned out nine times as much fake news as before, trying to generate support for the Kremlin, said Amil Khan of Valent Projects, a London-based company that monitors disinformation flows.
That message is not welcomed by everyone. Several protests against Meroe Gold operations have erupted in mining areas. A Sudanese YouTube personality known only as “the fox” has attracted large audiences with videos that purport to lift the lid on Wagner’s activities. And pro-democracy demonstrators theorize that Moscow was behind last October’s military takeover of the Sudanese government.
“Russia supported the coup,” read an unsigned poster that appeared in Khartoum recently, “so it could steal our gold.”