In the action film “Tourist,” military instructors with the Russian mercenary group Wagner deploy to the Central African Republic and find themselves reluctant fighters against rebels and a corrupt ex-politician ahead of a presidential election.
Then there’s “Granit,” another big-budget action film whose title character, a grizzled but idealistic Russian military trainer, sacrifices himself to protect the southern African country of Mozambique from ISIS-like bandits.
And in the more recent “Best in Hell,” Wagner fighters duke it out with an unnamed enemy — clearly meant to be Ukrainians — in an unspecified location that’s an obvious stand-in for Donbas, Ukraine’s war-torn eastern heartland. The film starts and ends with the lines: “We have a contract—a contract with the company, a contract with the motherland. … We know we’re going to hell. But in hell, we’ll be the best.”
Welcome to the Wagner-verse, a multimedia propaganda project that includes action films, documentaries, pro-war social media channels, animated shorts, cartoons and even children’s cartoons – all aimed at building the brand of Russia’s notorious private army and promoting Kremlin policies while is started.
The group, a security contractor that in some ways resembles the US private military company Blackwater, is making headlines at the forefront of Moscow’s open-ended battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. In Ukraine, its cadres – whose ranks include prison recruits – stand accused of horrific abuses against their enemies and sometimes against their own fighters.
Earlier this month, two videos surfaced of suspected Wagner mercenaries beheading the bodies of two Ukrainian soldiers. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky condemned the perpetrators as “animals” and promised an investigation. The Kremlin said it would also look into the matter.
It followed footage last year of the apparent summary killing of a former prison inmate turned Wagner conscript who was bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer after deserting and returning to Russia. Indeed, the sledgehammer has become the group’s calling card after its members filmed themselves clubbing a Syrian army deserter in 2017, cutting off his hands and head with a shovel and then setting his body on fire.
But that is not the picture you get in the Wagner verse. The fighters are far from brutal mercenaries portrayed as heroes who go above and beyond the call of duty to help imported countries fend off agents of chaos often linked to the West, who are held in contempt.
By contrast, not surprisingly, Russia is proving to be a reliable friend. A cartoon for children in French, “Lion and Bear”, depicts a Russian bear racing across continents to help a lion in the Central African Republic fight back hyenas that are raiding a village’s crops.
In another animated short film, a Wagner paratrooper comes to the aid of a soldier in Mali – another African country where the company has been active — and helps him fend off hordes of zombies wearing helmets emblazoned with the French flag; a figure in the French presidential palace clenches his fist in frustration.
“Americans are fighting for democracy. But we are fighting for justice,” says a Russian coach in “Tourist.”
It is a piece of Russian propaganda, especially in Africa, where Moscow has long played on anti-colonial sentiment against France and other European powers, said Ovigwe Eguegu, a Nigerian policy analyst at Beijing-based consultancy Development Reimagined, who wrote a report. evaluating what he called Russia’s “private military diplomacy.”
“In Mali there was a lot of anti-French rhetoric before Russian influence. But what Russian strategic communications and outlets were able to do was fan the flames,” he said. “What it did was really position Russia as a natural ally.”
There is evidence that the messages, though ham-handed, have played well in many of the places where Wagner operates. For example, “Tourist” had a red carpet premiere in the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, attended by more than 10,000 people; the film has received tens of millions of views on YouTube. (“Granite” and “Best in Hell” are also available on YouTube.)
During a coup in Burkina Faso in September, supporters raised Russian flags as they cheered the ouster of a president deemed unable to quell an insurgency by rebels linked to Islamic militants. One protester told the Voice of America news network: “We are here because we want the defense of Russia,” adding that former colonial master France had been unsuccessful in fighting the rebels during its multi-year deployment of troops in Burkina Faso.
The welcome to Wagner continues despite allegations of abuses by its fighters in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Mali and Ukraine, including reports of summary executions, kidnapping, torture during interrogations and looting, Eguegu said.
Many Africans know their governments’ relationship with Wagner is purely transactional and have become desensitized to human rights abuses in their strife-torn countries, Eguegu said.
“There is awareness of all these problems, but you have to understand: If you have mercenaries killing seven to 10 people, it’s Tuesday in the Central African Republic,” he said.
Wagner’s military operations have benefited Moscow diplomatically. Many African nations chose not to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, either because of economic or military ties, historical links with communist figures or anger at the West for dismissing African concerns.
Wagner’s multimedia propaganda campaign represents a marked change from the group’s past behavior, where it maintained a largely enigmatic (journalists’ favorite word was “shady”) profile as a paramilitary organization whose existence was not acknowledged.
Only last year, Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch and former hot dog vendor close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, publicly identified himself as the head of the Wagner, formally called PMC Wagner, private military company. Although Prigozhin is under US and EU sanctions, he is bankrolling films through Aurum Productions, a company he controls, to tarnish Wagner’s image – and smear the West.
Take “tourist”. The main character is a former police officer – call sign Tourist – who lands in the Central African Republic as one of 300 trainers (presumably Wagner employees) for the national army. The assignment is not meant to include combat, until rebels rush into a village on their motorbikes and terrorize the inhabitants as part of a Western-linked coup attempt. The trainers – naturally outnumbered – join their charge to defeat their enemies. The hero is seriously injured and is being evacuated by helicopter, while a female soldier from the Central African Republic looks at him with sad but adoring eyes. Cue credits.
The Wagner fighters are portrayed as an elite group of commandos who value each member of the team – a vision that is not always reflected in reality.
Despite what “Granit” would have you believe, Wagner had to leave Mozambique in defeat a few months into his deployment after the local Islamic State affiliate ambushed and beheaded a number of its men. And far from taking care of its cadres, the group has used human-wave tactics in Ukraine, throwing in successive groups of fighters – usually prison recruits for the initial assault – to breach Ukrainian defense lines.
“We did not expect in the 21st century to have an opponent who used such tactics,” said Sensei, a commander in the Ukrainian army’s 3rd Mortar Brigade, which is now fighting in the areas around Bakhmut. “They step over the bodies of their comrades on their way to us.”
Wagner previously had experience in Ukraine. In fact, its mercenaries first appeared in 2014 alongside pro-Russian separatists in Crimea and Donbas, led by a retired special forces commander with a penchant for Nazi lore named Dmitry Utkin, call sign Wagner.
A year later, it appeared in Syria, fighting a rebel uprising alongside government troops and defending oil infrastructure. As of 2017, it made inroads into Africa and supported beleaguered dictators, while also commandeering gold, diamond, uranium, manganese and oil extraction projects. In Libya, it fought with the forces of a rogue general – and former CIA operative – to defeat the internationally recognized government.
At the same time, it moved from being a well-functioning private military company contracted by African governments to being an instrument of the Kremlin — but one that can be kept at arm’s length, said Lucas Webber, a researcher focusing on violent non-state actors and founder of the website Militant Wire.
“It was a way to create some distance between the Russians, have plausible deniability and be force multipliers by training troops,” he said, describing the group as more of a semi-governmental organization than a traditional private one. military contractor.
In the past few years, Wagner has become part of a wider network of companies centered on Prigozhin, its boss. These include a so-called social media manipulation troll factory, Prigozhin’s original Concord catering company, Aurum Productions and the Paritet Film studio, and even a car wash.
And the Wagner verse must be expanded. In November, Prigozhin opened a new headquarters in St. Petersburg intended to house IT developers and entrepreneurs and provide them “a comfortable environment to generate new ideas aimed at increasing Russia’s defense capabilities,” according to a statement he released at the time. .
Gone is any reticence about the group’s existence or its name. At the front of the headquarters is a glass-clad tower; At the top are the words “PMC Wagner Center”.