A Russian military contractor indicted last year by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller for meddling in domestic American politics is emerging as a key figure in a wide-ranging Kremlin influence operation aimed at boosting Russian clout in Africa at the expense of Western powers, according to documents obtained by an investigative unit funded by an exiled critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Nicknamed “Putin’s cook’ because of his lucrative Kremlin catering contracts, the 57-year-old Yevgeny Prigozhin emerges from a tranche of documents as the go-to oligarch for Moscow’s ambition to turn sub-Saharan Africa into a strategic hub and to reduce Western influence.
The documents, first reported by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, detail the activities and goals in various African countries of the Wagner group, a military contractor that supplied Russian mercenaries to Kremlin allies for combat in Syria and Ukraine.
The St. Petersburg-based Prigozhin has denied in the past the existence of the Wagner group, but both were sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2016 for supporting pro-Moscow separatists in the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The Treasury Department said Prigozhin provided extensive support to the separatists, including constructing a military base near Ukraine for Russian troops to use for deployments into the Donbas. Some Russian opposition leaders and independent military analysts suspect Wagner is a disguised unit of Russia’s defense ministry.
Who is cooperating?
The documents, internal communications shared between Prigozhin’s employees, outline what Wagner has accomplished and plans to do in 13 African states, including the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Libya and South Africa.
There are also ratings of the level of cooperation already achieved with local political authorities, the armed forces and police as well as evaluations of current political and economic ties with Russia.
In CAR, the group credits itself with reducing the influence of local politicians who it describes as “orientated to France” and of strengthening the armed forces. The group also brags about setting up newspapers and a radio station. It accords a five out five for the level of cooperation already achieved in CAR.
In July last year three Russian journalists who were investigating Wagner’s involvement in the CAR were found dead outside the capital city of Bangui.
Madagascar is also marked as a five out five for cooperation already reached. In the internal documents Wagner’s achievements listed on the island include helping to secure the election in 2018 of 45-year-old Andry Rajoelina as president. Other accomplishments noted are stabilizing the political situation, counteracting anti-government protests, training the police and producing and distributing the country’s biggest mass-selling newspaper.
Wagner’s activities are coordinated with top officials inside Russia’s foreign and defense ministries, suggest the documents, which were obtained by the Dossier Center, an investigation team set up and financed by Mikhail Khodorkovksy, a businessman and philanthropist who was imprisoned in Russia for a decade and now lives in exile in Switzerland.
Last year, Robert Mueller, who led a probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, secured from a grand jury an indictment of the 57-year-old Prigozhin for overseeing a troll factory that spearheaded Russian meddling in the elections. A dozen other Russians were charged at the same time.
According to the indictment Prigozhin controlled the entity behind a troll factory, known as the Internet Research Agency, which waged “information warfare against the United States” by “creating fictitious social-media personas and spreading falsehoods.”
European intelligence agencies have also accused the Internet Research Agency of conducting social-media based disinformation campaigns designed to magnify and aggravate social and political divisions in the West.
Prigozhin mocked the Mueller indictment, telling the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti: “The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. I have a lot of respect for them. I am not upset at all that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”
The Kremlin’s hand
But Russian opposition politicians and rights activists describe Prigozhin as Putin’s go-to oligarch for sensitive and unsavory missions that advance Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions. The documents obtained by the Dossier Center suggest Wagner is nurturing relations with existing African rulers and identifying and grooming likely future leaders, as well as striking military deals and advising on disinformation campaigns.
One of the documents proposes establishing a database of Africans residing in the U.S. and Europe to help spot “future leaders” and those who could be developed to become “agents of influence” with the eventual aim of shaping a “loyal chain of representatives across African territory.”
Wagner has also been advising some African leaders on how to undermine anti-government protests, although its counsel is not always taken, apparently. In a letter purportedly written by Prigozhin, the Wagner boss berates the former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted earlier this year, for failing to heed Russian advice on how to combat the pro-democracy protests imperiling his rule.
Prigozhin reprimanded al-Bashir at the “lack of activity” and the government’s “extremely cautious position.” He had urged the ousted leader to be more aggressive and to smear the demonstrators as being pro-Israel and pro-gay and anti-Islam.
In March 2009, al-Bashir became the first sitting president to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, for allegedly directing a campaign of mass killing, rape, and pillage against civilians in Darfur.
Kremlin officials have regularly denied any Russian government connection with the activities of the Wagner group. But last November supporters of Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army, who launched this year an assault on Tripoli, posted a video showing Prigozhin attending a meeting in Moscow between top Russian officials and the Libyan general.
A recent investigation by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta found that a private jet linked to Prigozhin had flown back and forth between Russia and Africa frequently in 2018.