Russian mercenaries in Sudan: What is the Wagner Group’s role?

The Russian mercenary group has been accused of plundering Sudan’s gold resources to bankroll operations in Ukraine.

Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin
Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has deployed his mercenaries to Sudan, where they are accused of being involved in gold smuggling [File: AP]

After battles have broken out in Sudan between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), questions have arisen over the involvement of the Wagner Group, a powerful Russian mercenary organisation that has been active in Sudan for years.

Here is what you need to know about the group and its involvement in the African country:

What is the Wagner Group?

The group first came to widespread attention in 2014 when Wagner mercenaries are thought to have been involved in the Russian annexation of Crimea and fighting in eastern Ukraine.

They are also believed to have been involved in the Syrian war, supporting Russian armed forces, which intervened on the side of President Bashar al-Assad in 2015.

The Wagner Group is headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former inmate who once catered at the Kremlin, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef”. His fortune grew and so did his private army. It soon appeared in African countries like Libya, where it fought in the civil war in support of a renegade general, Khalifa Haftar.

It has also had a presence in Mali, the Central African Republic and Sudan as Russia looks to ensure a supply of resources, such as oil and gold, from Africa.

The Wagner Group has played a very public role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is suspected of raising funds for itself and Russia during its operations overseas.

How active is Wagner in Sudan?

The Wagner Group began its deployments in Sudan during the rule of former President Omar al-Bashir, who was forced from power in 2019 during large-scale protests.

Fearing that his rule was shaky, al-Bashir travelled to Russia in 2017 to meet with President Vladimir Putin and pitch Sudan to him as Russia’s “gateway to Africa” in return for Russian support. A short time later, Meroe Gold, a new mining company owned by the Russian company M Invest, began bringing Russian experts into Sudan, Africa’s third-largest producer of gold.

In 2020, the United States Department of the Treasury sanctioned M Invest and Meroe Gold, saying that its investigations had revealed that M Invest was a cover for the Wagner Group.

The Wagner Group was “primarily aimed at guarding mineral resources, particularly gold mining resources, and acting as a support force for the Bashir government in terms of protecting it from international opposition”, Samuel Ramadi, author of the book Russia in Africa, told Al Jazeera.

Sudanese General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, head of the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, has recently formed a relationship with the Wagner Group  [File: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters]

During the 2019 protests against al-Bashir, Ramadi said, the Wagner Group went from being a “guardianship army to be[ing] an actual direct player in trying to repress demonstrations”.

After al-Bashir was removed from power, Ramadi said, Prigozhin tried to align himself with army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. However, the relationship deteriorated after the 2019 Khartoum massacre when Sudanese security services violently dispersed a sit-in, pushing the Wagner Group back into a “guardianship” role protecting its mining interests.

A CNN report from July citing official Sudanese sources and flight data said a military plane smuggling gold flew at least 16 flights from Sudan to Latakia, a Syrian port city where Russia has a military base, to help fund the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The European Union sanctioned Meroe Gold following the report. “Through its affiliation with the Sudanese army, the Wagner Group has secured the right to mine Sudanese gold and export it to Russia,” the European Council said in a statement.

Russia’s interests in Sudan do not stop at gold. Russia is set to sign an agreement with Sudan to build a military base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea. In exchange, Russia will send weapons and military equipment to Sudan.

Wagner and the RSF

Wagner has recently formed a relationship with the RSF and its commander, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. Ramadi said it is “primarily aimed at creating a smuggling route for the gold from Sudan to Dubai and then to Russia so that they can fund Wagner Group operations inside Ukraine”.

In early 2022, a day after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Dagalo flew to Moscow, ushering in a new phase in the RSF’s relationship with the Wagner Group.

Is Wagner involved in the fighting in Sudan?

It is not known if the Wagner Group is engaged in the current fighting in Sudan.

Ashok Swain, head of the Peace and Conflict Research Department at Uppsala University in Sweden, said he believes the Wagner Group is “very likely engaged in the current fight to keep its presence in the country and protect its huge business interests”.

“The US has recently pressured Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council to remove this mercenary group from the country,” Ashok said. “Thus, the Wagner Group has a considerable interest in who wins the ongoing battle for power in the country.”

“I would say they are sitting back in a more defensive position,” Ramadi noted, adding that Russia has joined many other nations, such as China, in calling for restraint and de-escalation.

“They are certainly not getting a green light from the Kremlin to play a more active role, and they are probably staying put for now,” he said.

Russia’s embassy in Sudan said it was concerned by the violence and called for a ceasefire and negotiations, the state-owned Russian news agency RIA reported.

“Obviously, if the conflict spills into civil war and Prigozhin’s mining act is threatened, we will see a more active military role,” Ramadi said.

He said the Wagner Group would face a dilemma over whether to redirect troops away from Sudan’s border with the Central African Republic, where Russia controls several mines.

Source: Al Jazeera