There’s nothing secret about Russia’s presence in the Central African Republic. The streets are plastered with propaganda posters proclaiming “Russia: hand in hand with your army!” A local radio station churns out Russian ballads and language lessons. New recruits to the army are being trained in Russian, using Russian weapons.
But the Russian campaign in this war-torn country is anything but straightforward, drawing on a mix of guns-for-hire and clever PR to increase Moscow’s influence, outmaneuver its rivals and re-assert itself as a major player in the region.
A months-long CNN investigation has established that this ambitious drive into the heart of Africa is being sponsored by Yevgeny Prigozhin — an oligarch so close to the Kremlin that he is known as President Vladimir Putin’s “chef.” He was sanctioned by the US for funding the Internet Research Agency that meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
Prigozhin’s conglomerate includes a company called Lobaye Invest that funds the radio station in the Central African Republic (CAR). It also finances the training of army recruits in the CAR by some 250 Russian mercenaries, with more on the way. The dividend for Lobaye Invest: generous concessions to explore for diamonds and gold in a country rich in mineral wealth.
Our road to the CAR starts with a witness thousands of miles away in a drab Soviet-era apartment.
A Russian mercenary sits in the gloom, chain-smoking and preparing to talk for the first time about his life in a secret army that officially doesn’t exist.
He has fought in Chechnya against separatist rebels and in Syria to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
He asked for his identity to be concealed, afraid of reprisals for speaking about the shadowy force that is helping to extend Russian power and influence in unstable areas of the world.
He was paid, he says, by Wagner.
“It’s just a fighting unit that will do anything that Putin says,” he adds.
It is a charge the Kremlin denies. In June, Putin said of military contractors in Syria: “These people risk their lives and by and large this is also a contribution in fighting terrorism … but this is not the Russian state, not the Russian army.”
But analysts say it’s inconceivable that Wagner would exist without Putin’s approval. Indeed, its training camp in Molkino in southern Russia is attached to a Russian special forces base, guarded by regular soldiers who do not welcome visitors.
Prigozhin has previously denied being connected to Wagner. Neither he nor anyone from his companies would talk to CNN, but after mixed fortunes in Ukraine and Syria the oligarch appears to have turned his attention to Africa, with various subsidiaries at work in Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic.
Prigozhin is no stranger to the world of mercenaries, or private military contractors (PMCs) as they are known in Russia. He’s thought to be the driving force behind Wagner, a secretive contractor whose soldiers of fortune played a role in Syria and eastern Ukraine. One of his veteran accomplices heads the company.