Representatives of Mali and Turkey declined to comment on the documents.
Despite its support from the Kremlin and its ability to secure lucrative contracts in Africa, some experts who study Wagner argue that the United States and its allies have historically had far more influence among African officials than Prigozhin and his fighters.
“There is no doubt that Wagner has a strategy in Africa … to connect neighboring states under Wagner influence. Washington is trying to disrupt that for a number of reasons,” said Cameron Hudson, an analyst and consultant at the Center for Strategic and International Studies . “But let’s not put Wagner on a level with the US government. These are not equal – the US does not see them as equals. What we have seen is that Wagner does not have an ability – by itself – to create winners and losers in these countries.”
To make inroads
Wagner is managed by Prigozhin, a former caterer for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since 2017, Prigozhin has expanded the group into an international military and influence force with tentacles spanning the globe.
The organization, which has strong ties to the Russian state, including its security services, is known for its work supporting regimes in the Middle East, in countries such as Syria. And its forces are leading the fight in parts of Ukraine, particularly in the eastern city of Bakhmut, where Russians and Ukrainian soldiers are locked in a bloody battle. Wagner is seen by US officials as having gained new prominence in the wake of Moscow’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
In recent years, Prigozhin has expanded Wagner’s operations into Africa, helping to forge relations with the Kremlin in countries such as Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Chad and Mali. The group’s work includes securing critical mineral and oil sites in Africa as well as protecting government officials.
Its presence in those countries has prompted senior officials in the Biden administration to draft a new roadmap to route the group out of the region, the US officials said.
Although Wagner has worked on the continent for years, the Biden administration has recently been concerned about the extent to which the group’s activities there not only threaten regional stability, but are also being used by the Kremlin as a way to develop long-term influential relationships — relationships that potentially may rival Washington in years to come.
Washington’s stated strategy for the Sahel region, announced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken from Africa in 2022, outlines US thinking about Russia’s influence on the continent. Without naming Wagner, the document describes how Moscow uses “private military enterprises” to foment “instability for strategic and economic advantage.”
POLITICO has obtained and reviewed a series of internal documents from Prigozhin’s empire that detail how the leader of Wagner has expanded the paramilitary group and his businesses across the continent, specifically in Sudan and the Central African Republic.
They also mention the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The documents confirm previous reporting, including by POLITICO, about Wagner’s operations in Africa. But they also provide unusual detail about the close connection between Prigozhin’s companies, Wagner and the local African governments and militaries.
Prigozhin established offices in Sudan in 2017 and in recent years has built up an extensive business network in the country.
Prigozhin established his operations in Sudan by working with officials – including former President Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted from power by the military in 2019 – and by securing lucrative mining contracts.
A CNN investigation last year revealed the extent to which Russia smuggled gold out of Sudan and used Wagner to help plunder the country’s natural resources. According to the U.S. officials who spoke to POLITICO, Wagner appears to do much of his mining through Meroe Gold. The US and Europe have both sanctioned the device. Meroe could not be reached for comment.
Wagner also has a history of supporting the country’s security services.
Prigozhin’s operatives in Sudan are also working on disinformation and disinformation campaigns in the country to influence political events on the ground, according to documents and experts studying Wagner’s work in the country.
Several of the documents from Prigozhin’s business empire outline detailed media strategies to suppress protests and pay local Sudanese journalists to promote content in support of the ruling party and against the opposition of then-President Bashir. One outlines recommendations for how to deal with protests that swept the country in 2018 and threatened to topple Bashir’s government. The New York Times reported on a similar memo in June 2022.
Among the proposals included in the memo, which POLITICO reviewed: Creating a Russian-run Internet center that would control the narrative about the government and launch a campaign that portrays protesters in a negative light. The plan also laid out plans to control the protests by blocking foreigners’ access to areas of demonstrations and infiltrating the ranks of the protest’s organizers.
Several of the documents obtained by POLITICO show the expansion of Wagner’s military activities in the country, including its ties to the country’s military. The organization has helped train soldiers over the years, the documents show.
One of the documents appears to show a request from a Prigozhin-affiliated company to pay for the use of Khartoum’s military air base to secure the arrivals and departures of employees and cargo. Another memo from 2021 outlines Wagner’s positions in the country, including at several bases. It also shows Prigozhin staff serving in other command centers coordinating with the Sudanese military and police, including Aswar, a company controlled by Sudanese military intelligence. Aswar could not be reached for comment.
It is unclear whether, or to what extent, Russia, Wagner, or any of Prigozhin’s affiliated entities are currently involved in the ongoing violence in Sudan. US officials did not respond to questions about whether they believed the paramilitary group was currently providing aid or helping support both sides of the conflict.
“Interference by external entities in Sudan’s internal conflict will only lead to more human suffering and delay the country’s transition to democracy,” a State Department official said in a statement.
To put down roots
Wagner has also set up command centers in the Um Dafuq region of western Sudan, where it has been accused of targeting civilians. It has used the city as a base to support its gold mining operations in the Central African Republic.
The paramilitary organization set up shop in CAR in 2017, creating cultural centers and other local initiatives to strike out with the government. Since then, it has moved in to protect the country’s gold mines and trains government forces, according to documents obtained by POLITICO and a U.S. official.
An 11-page document POLITICO obtained from Prigozhin’s network from 2020 details Wagner’s training of government forces and its protection of CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Another lists in detail the location of Wagner fighters, including how many soldiers are stationed at each base throughout the country. Other documents in the Prigozhin tranche describe media campaigns carried out by employees of the Wagner leader – many of which were designed to spread Russian propaganda, discredit the French and organize protests against UN peacekeepers in the country.