Private Russian mercenary companies such as the Wagner Group have established themselves in Africa. They buy influence and access to raw materials for themselves and the Kremlin. Exclusive satellite images from Mali and the Central African Republic show how the Wagner Group is expanding.
For years he has denied his activities in the background, but that’s over: The chef admits to his cuisine. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with the best connections to Vladimir Putin and nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of his former catering business, made it public at the beginning of the week that he, Prigozhin, had founded the Wagner Group. This is a paramilitary network of Russian mercenaries, from which the Putin confidant had always distanced himself until now – although there was hardly any doubt about the connection.
There was and is little dispute that the Kremlin uses such private security and military companies to consolidate its political and economic influence in unstable states. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, the number of countries in which groups like Wagner operate militarily has risen to nearly 30 in recent years. Among them are mainly African states, but also countries like Venezuela. The deal: weapons and highly trained security forces in exchange for access to raw materials. Exclusive satellite photos from LiveEO now show how obviously and offensively the Wagner group is operating in Mali and the Central African Republic, and in some cases in the immediate vicinity of the Bundeswehr.
Bamako, capital of Mali. The Wagner camp at the airport is located next to a Malian military base. Satellite images show that the mercenaries pitched their tents here almost a year ago. In the most recent photo, which WirtschaftsWoche had taken at the end of September, it is clear to see how the number, arrangement and quality of the dwellings for the security advisors and fighters have changed. Since Mali expelled all international forces that were supposed to secure operations from the airport in mid-August, the Wagner people are now the rulers at the airport. Whether they also run it de facto is not known.
Images: Bilder: LiveEO/Maxar/Google Earth, LiveEO/Planet Labs PBC SkySat
One thing is certain: Russia is increasingly using private security and military contractors for irregular warfare. Catrina Doxsee, deputy director of CSIS, says the Wagner Group and others “typically provide military training and operational services” to African states with the goal of “expanding Moscow’s influence, extending the reach of Russia’s military and intelligence services, and securing economic gains.”
Even the presence of foreign armies such as the Bundeswehr apparently does not deter the mercenaries. A few weeks ago, Russian fighters arrived at Gao airport, within sight of the Germans. There, the mercenaries set up a hub for their operations in the country. Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD) condemned the arrival of the Wagner group and said they were monitoring the situation at the airport very closely.
Most of the approximately 1,000 Bundeswehr soldiers in Mali are stationed in Gao. From there, they support the UN mission Minusma. The Bundeswehr camp has grown significantly in recent years, as satellite photos show. Exactly how close and where the Wagner mercenaries are cannot be said. The Bundeswehr would not comment when asked by WirtschaftsWoche.
Russia’s Mercenaries in Africa
Selected locations of the Wagner Group
The New York Times reported that the group had sent people to 15 Malian military bases. Some of the bases were recently operated by French soldiers. But with the comprehensive withdrawal from the country, the French officially handed them over to the Malian army. A void occupied by Russia’s mercenaries.
Catrina Doxsee says the military companies often implement official agreements between Russia and partner countries on security cooperation. At the same time, the use of the private army allows the Russian state to reject any responsibility if the mission is “somewhat more comprehensive. In other words, the Wagner Group does far more than advise the military and train soldiers. It intervenes in conflicts itself, according to the United Nations.
This can also be observed in the Central African Republic (CAR). The U.S. news agency Bloomberg wrote in mid-August that military contractors were prospecting for gold and sowing chaos. According to witnesses, 100 people have already been killed by them this year.
According to the CSIS, the Wagner Group has been in the country since 2018. The camp in Berengo, for example, is located 80 kilometers southwest of the capital Bangui. For many years, the former estate of former ruler Jean-Bedel Bokassa lay fallow. How the foreign mercenaries have restored the site can be clearly seen in the satellite photos.
In many sub-Saharan countries, private military companies have secured mining concessions. They often use shell companies in the countries for these deals. The CSIS deputy director says access to resources such as gold, gems and energy reserves secures them additional revenue in addition to the contracted terms with the respective state. “This increases the wealth of the companies and Russian oligarchs like Yevgeny Prigozhin who run them.”
Expansion of the Kremlin Fighters
Countries where Wagner and other Russian mercenaries are active
A deal recently reported by a European journalists’ network: CAR sold forest rights to a dubious company with links to the Wagner Group. Precious tropical timber could thus also reach Europe.
Just how closely the Russian military and intelligence apparatus are linked to the companies is demonstrated by a location in Krasnodar, Russia, where the mercenaries are prepared for foreign missions. It is located in the immediate vicinity of a base of the GRU military intelligence service and was built between 2015 and 2016. From there, they go all over the world.
Images: LiveEO/Maxar/Google Earth, LiveEO/KompSat-3a, LiveEO/Planet Labs PBC SkySat
Mali and the CAR exemplify the machinations of the Wagner Group and its affiliated companies. Business in Africa also helps Russia finance the war in Ukraine: according to Catrina Doxsee, Moscow uses smuggled Sudanese gold to cushion the impact of Western sanctions on its own money pots.