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.
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.
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.
In the CAR, the mercenaries’ headquarters are on the grounds of a now dilapidated former presidential palace at Berengo, a two-hour drive from the capital Bangui.
In 2017, the UN Security Council approved a Russian training mission, but other governments did not expect Prigozhin’s men to fill the void. Not surprisingly, the trainers covered their faces and refused to speak to us.
The one man who is interviewed is Valery Zakharov, a cheerful and florid former military intelligence officer who spent time in Chechnya in the 1990s and is now in charge of the training.
He views his role simply, telling CNN: “Russia is returning to Africa.”
“We were present in many countries during the time of the Soviet Union, and Russia is coming back to the same position. We still have connections and we are trying to re-establish them,” he said.
Zakharov describes the instructors as “reservists.” But neither he nor anyone else could explain who sent them and who pays them. And his own role in the country is somewhat unclear.
Zakharov told CNN he works as a security adviser for the Central African Republic’s President Faustin-Archange Touadéra.
“He pays me a salary, therefore, I work for him,” Zakharov said.
He added that he had never met Prigozhin and insisted Wagner did not operate in the CAR.
“Let’s be clear again what we mean by Wagner — if we mean the composer?” he joked. “Legally it does not exist and therefore we are going to consider that it does not exist. As regards the Central African Republic at the current time, there is no PMC (Private Military Contractor) Wagner.”
But CNN has obtained documents showing Zakharov has been paid by a Prigozhin company, M-Finans, at least once, in July 2018.
He lives at the headquarters of Lobaye Invest, in a walled compound outside the capital, Bangui. A solitary Russian flag flutters nearby; an ammunition box with Cyrillic script sits atop the wall.
Zakharov’s employer, President Touadera, told CNN there was no link between the support Russia provided in military training and “other sectors.”
But CNN obtained documents showing that Lobaye Invest had won exploration rights at seven sites to look for diamonds and gold.
And a trip to a mining site near Yawa — an arduous two-day journey from Bangui — suggested a close connection between the mercenaries and minerals.
A teenage villager there named Rodriguez told CNN the Russians started arriving 18 months ago, the same time the military trainers began to arrive. And he said the Russians had come from Berengo, the mercenaries’ headquarters.
The only people digging through sand and stone for a precious fragment during our visit were local youths. Rodriguez explained that hundreds of people in the area now work for the Russians. Anything they find, he said, must be handed to the Russians’ local agents.
After leaving Yawa, we saw a 4×4 vehicle with no license plate and four men inside, an unusual sight in that area. The car drove off when we approached, and three of the four men hid their faces from our camera.
The car appeared again close to our base in a nearby town, and again left hurriedly when we spotted it.
The local police chief told us he had questioned the men and confirmed they were Russian.
From photographs of the one man we did see, we were able to identify him as a translator with a Prigozhin firm.
With the help of the London-based Dossier Center, run by exiled Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, we established the man had been in contact with one of Prigozhin’s senior executives who had been indicted in the US for his part in running the Internet Research Agency.
As CNN prepared to publish this report, a site linked to Prigozhin released a 15-minute propaganda video about our trip to the CAR, featuring surreptitiously filmed video of the team at our hotel and false accusations that we bribed locals to say bad things about Russians.
The Dossier Center funded an investigation last year by three Russian journalists into the activities of Russian mercenaries and specifically Wagner in the CAR.
The three men were ambushed and killed on their way to a huge gold mine in a remote and volatile part of the country. No one has yet been charged in their murder. The country’s justice minister told us that investigations were continuing.
Both the US and France, the CAR’s former colonial master, have expressed concern at Russian activities in this part of Africa.
The new head of US Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend, describes the mercenaries at Berengo as “quasi-military” and closely linked to the Kremlin.
“They are using them to train some of the local armed forces,” Townsend told a US congressional hearing in April. “Some of that could be benign. Some of that is probably less than benign.”
However, the US is reducing its troop presence on the continent while Russia deploys a unique hybrid of the Kremlin’s clout and an oligarch’s pursuit of profit to spread its influence.
Moscow now has some 20 military agreements with African countries. And where the opportunity arises, Prigozhin provides the mercenaries and funding to deepen Russia’s presence and in return wins access to unexploited riches.