by David Isenberg
Some things don’t go together: water and electricity, science and religion, Donald Trump and basic human decency. The latest entry is journalists and Wagner, the Russian private military company.
Wagner is the increasingly prominent Russian private military company, which has been in the news the past few years for fighting in Ukraine and Syria. Wagner, which has close links to the Russian government and to President Putin, is very much a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Reporters have discovered that trying to report on it is a risky business.
In April, Russian investigative journalist Maksim Borodin “fell” from his fifth-floor apartment balcony. He was investigating Wagner’s involvement in Syria, where some of its soldiers are believed to have been involved in a firefight with US forces that produced hundreds of casualties for the Russians.
And now, three filmmakers have died in the Central African Republic (CAR). This time there was no question of an accident. They were clearly murdered. The main question, although not the only one, is whether Wagner did it, or had anything to do with it.
To be clear, there is no definitive proof at this point that Wagner was involved. But the reports of what happened have thus far been inconsistent enough to make such supposition plausible, at the very least.
On July 30, three Russians, Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev and Kirill Radchenko, were shot dead in an ambush in CAR. The group was there on an assignment for the Investigation Control Center to make a documentary about Wagner, which is said to be active in the country. The Investigation Control Center is financed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled oil tycoon and prominent Putin critic who now lives in London after spending 10 years in a Russian prison.
The bodies were reportedly found on a road about 14 miles from the central town of Sibut. Their driver survived the incident.
The Russians landed in the capital, Bangui, on the morning of July 28. The next day they unsuccessfully tried to enter a military base where they thought Wagner mercenaries were training the country’s army. On July 30, they set out on a 230-mile drive to the city of Bambari, where they hoped to arrange government contacts and a visit to a gold mine. They were apparently killed during that drive, but on a road north of the route they were expected to take.
Russia has taken an increasingly active role in CAR. Last December, Russia received UN approval to train and arm the country’s army, and Moscow has supplied at least 5,200 Kalashnikov submachine guns and smaller numbers of handguns, grenade launchers and other hardware. Early this year the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it sent five military and 170 civilian instructors to train CAR service personnel. The “170 civilian instructors” are widely believed to be from Wagner.
Of course, nobody believes that Russia is in CAR because of its humanitarian commitment to ending civil wars. One report noted that:
A French international relations expert Didier Francois told Europe 1 the Russian “instructors” deployed close to mineral deposits, such as gold, diamonds and uranium. Didier explains this by actions of “oligarchs close to the Putin clan” and suggests Russia is “killing two birds with one stone,” acting for both economic interests and a new strategy of presence in Eastern and Central Africa. “Oligarchs close to Putin” could mean Evgeniy Prigozhin, the man who allegedly runs the Wagner group and has entered a contract with Syrian authorities to “liberate” gas fields in exchange for a share in production and could hope for similar contracts in the CAR.
According to media reports, financial organizations supposedly close to Prigozhin already registered two companies in CAR in 2017. These companies were a mining company, Lobaye Invest, and a security firm, Sewa Security Service. In January 2018, Russian instructors arrived in the country. Meanwhile, production resumed at diamond mines now controlled by employees of Lobaye Invest. The company, according to Africa Intelligence, is a subsidiary of the St. Petersburg firm M Invest, founded by Prigozhin.
Reportedly, Russia already agreed to develop another field—the Ndassima gold mine. The Russian journalists who were killed had made plans to film at that gold mine on the day they were attacked. Wagner troops provide security and transportation of equipment for mining at those locations with Russian interests.
The Russian government said that it was not involved and that the death of the journalists may have been their own fault. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that local officials had reported that the journalists had ignored warnings that they were entering a dangerous area. “What they were really doing in CAR, what their goals and tasks were, is an open question,” Zakharova said in a Facebook post. She said that the journalists had entered the country on tourist visas—without proper accreditation—and that they had failed to seek security advice from the Russian Foreign Ministry before their trip.
Of course, it has not escaped the attention of Russian reporters that the Russian state media has largely avoided mentioning Wagner in stories about the killing of the three Russians.
If Wagner had anything to do with the killing of the filmmakers, it will likely generate blowback for both Wagner and the Russian government because it will only increase scrutiny of Russian activities in Africa.
In 2017, Moscow signed military cooperation agreements with Guinea, Niger, Chad, and Nigeria. At the end of 2017, Prigozhin’s companies and Wagner appeared in Africa. A deal was made with the government of Sudan: Prigozhin’s companies receive concessions to gold deposits in exchange for their services, and Wagner’s troops are engaged in training the local Sudanese army.
Aside from gold, CAR diamonds are also a valuable commodity. In the 1960s, the country exported half a million carats of diamonds a year, making it the seventh-biggest exporter in the world.
Regardless of whether or not Wagner was involved with the deaths of the Russian filmmakers their deaths underscore that Wagner is increasingly serving as a tool of a mercantilist Russian foreign policy. In CAR, Russia uses Wagner to obtain gold, uranium, and diamonds. It does the same in other African countries. Wagner does not, unlike U.S. or European private military contractors, feel any need to talk about fostering “stability” or helping with “reconstruction efforts. For Wagner, it’s about the resources.