Peace Magazine: The Wagner Group in Ukraine

Peace Magazine

The Wagner Group in Ukraine

By John Bacher • published Jul 01, 2022 • last edit Jul 21, 2022

At last, those who get most of their news from television are becoming aware of the sinister Wagner Group. While it has only been mentioned on television news since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it has been a formidable force in global affairs since its invasion of Crimea on February 20, 2014.
The Wagner Group made its debut as the uniformed “Little Green Men” who effectively secured the Russian annexation of Ukraine almost without firing a shot. Since then, it has developed an insignia resembling the Nazi storm troopers’ skull and crossbones. This logo was the work of its founder and chief, Dimitry Utkin, who has Nazi tattoos and admires the German composer Richard Wagner. Utkin rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in Russian Military Intelligence and served in the Chechen War.

beating the sanctions

While Utkin directs the Wagner Group, its financier is Russian businessman Yevgeny Priozhin, who developed a catering business around his friendship with Russian ruler, Vladimir Putin. The Wagner Group protects gold, uranium, and diamond mining operations which Priozhin has a stake in several African countries, including Sudan, Mali, and the Central African Republic. Revenues from these operations have helped Russians evade economic sanctions since they were first imposed following the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The Wagner Group’s operations are so extensive that I will limit these descriptions to its backing of resource-rich dictatorships in Africa and of a subnational Libyan strongman, Khalifa Harfa, who dominates eastern Libya. Harfa has opposed efforts by the United Nations to broker a peace settlement. Here I will not explore Wagner Group activities in Syria (which were relatively small in comparison to those of Russia’s regular military) or in Mozambique and Madagascar, where it has attempted to influence events but failed.

harfar’s army

The Wagner Group is allied with Harfar’s eastern Libyan government, which controls Libya’s richest oil fields. Harfar’s army, the Libyan National Army, (LNA), has 7,000 regular full-time soldiers, slightly more than the Wagner Group’s current strength of 6,000 troops. While not controlling most of Libya’s population, its power extends over vast stretches of the Sahara Desert, with its valuable gold deposits.

The biggest role that the Wagner Group has played was aiding the LNA’s failed attempt to capture Tripoli, the capital of the United Nations-recognized government of Libya, in 2020. It introduced hidden landmines and booby traps in Tripoli and its suburbs. Its technicians helped provide defenses against Turkish drones. It provided sniper teams and these efforts were bolstered by Syrian allies and Serbian Wagner fighters. Air strikes were also provided.

the sudan tragedies

One of the most tragic impacts of the Wagner Group has been its activity in Sudan. This began initially to support the dictatorship of Omar-al-Bashir until he was overthrown on April 11, 2019. It employed propaganda tactics in news and videos to discredit its opponents, such as smears that they were supporters of Israel and LBGT rights.

Since Bashir’s ouster, the Wagner Group has been backing his successor, General Mohammed Dagalo, who is widely known as “Hemeti.” Credible analysts see Hemeti in a power-sharing relationship with the chair of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant General El Burhan (Hemeti is Deputy Chair).

the putin veto

After a coup on October 25, 2021 disrupted the country’s democratization process, Russia vetoed a motion in the US Security Council to impose sanctions on Sudan, which has supported Russia in the General Assembly since its invasion there.

The 2021 Sudanese coup was quite brutal, resulting in 53 deaths, hundred of injuries, and the subsequent tear gassing of hospitals to disrupt medical care for wounded protesters. This has been carefully detailed in contrast to continuing human rights violations in isolated Darfur, where international journalists have been excluded.

Hemeti, who had earlier been associated with infamous massacres in Darfur through his command of Sudan’s Rapid Response Force (RRF), obtained control over Sudan’s gold mining industry in 2017 with the help of the Wagner Group and Prigozhin. Their troops protected gold, diamond, and uranium mines in Sudan.

Hemeti and Russian gold mining interests in Sudan are benefiting from interventions by the Wagner Group in the neighboring Central African Republic. The Group began operating in the Central African Republic in 2017. A United Nations report quoted in the New York Times noted its involvement in “excessive force, indiscriminate killings, occupation of schools, and looting on a large scale.”

gold and violence

The Wagner Group arrived in the Central African Republic after gold and diamond mining concessions there were granted by the government of President Faustin-Archange Toudera to a Prigozhin-linked company. Initially its services were limited to providing security around its diamond mines, operating in rebel controlled territories.

Three Russian journalists, Okan Dzhemal, Alexander Paastoguyuv, and Krill Radchenko, attempted to make a film on the activities of the Wagner Group in the Central African Republic. Shortly after being barred from entering their base, all three were killed in an ambush.

Intensified sanctions on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine have resulted in Wagner Group military actions against thousands of artisanal small-scale gold and mining operations in the Central African Republic. Wagner Group soldiers with attack helicopters, tanks, and armed four-wheel vehicles have driven out the families of thousands of these miners into Sudan.

While the Wagner Group in Mali was able to muscle out a long-standing French military mission there, it has been limited through an inability to establish a lucrative mining base. The country has extensive areas of artisanal mining, but the miners are armed and organized.

In Mali and throughout the Sahel region in Africa, the Wagner Group has gained support among military elites by promising not to be restrained by the human rights norms of the United Nations Peacekeepers sent to reduce Islamic extremist insurgencies. This dynamic was evidenced in a massacre of an estimated 300 civilians carried out between March 27 and March 31 in Moura. Wagner Group helicopters launched the attack when hundreds had gathered for the community’s livestock market.

a real (but undeclared) world war

Following a failed request by the commander of MINUSMA, El Ghassim Wade, for access to Moura for an investigation, France made a request for an inquiry to the United Nation’s Security Council. It was vetoed by Russia and China.

The Wagner Group’s brutality in Libya and the Sahel region of Africa helped finance Russia’s occupation of much of Ukraine before the current war. It shows how since the invasion of Crimea the world has been in a real, but undeclared, Third World War.

John Bacher is a peace and environment activist in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.38, No.3: Jul-Sep 2022
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