[UPDATE] Wagner PMC Activity in the Central African Republic: A Geospatial Analysis

By Alec Smith, Max Goldstein and Samuele Minelli

Background

The Russian mercenary group PMC Wagner gradually expanded its influence in Africa as the result of years of ingratiation with governments and local governance networks. The purpose of Wagner’s presence in Africa is widely accepted to be related to the objectives of the Russian government and the desire to chip away at Western geopolitical influence on the continent.

This report will focus on the physical and detectable presence of Wagner in the Central African Republic. By analyzing the infrastructure and present locations of the group, an assessment of the group’s capabilities in Africa will be made in the context of regional security and the fight against extremism.

More specifically, this report will examine the impact of the War in Ukraine on Wagner’s ability to operate in CAR. Given the prevalent conditions in Ukraine and the observed data gathered from geospatial imagery, we conclude that Wagner operations in CAR have contracted due to the war in Ukraine.

Key Judgment 1: There is a realistic probability that Wagner will retain the ability to conduct sophisticated operations in the Central African Republic in the next 12 months.

Key Judgment 2: It is likely that Wagner PMC operations in the Central African Republic will heavily rely on rotor-wing capabilities and light fixed-wing aircraft in the next 12 months.

Key Judgment 3: It is highly likely that Wagner will continue to diversify its income revenues in CAR over the next 12 months.

Sources of Geospatial Analysis

  • Maxar
  • Google Earth
  • Esri Landsat and Sentinel-2
  • Sentinel-2 L2A (Sentinel Hub)

Key Judgment-1: There is a realistic probability that Wagner will retain the ability to conduct sophisticated operations in the Central African Republic in the next 12 months. 

  • Early in February, Wagner mercenaries fought in protracted and bloody engagements along the CAR’s borders [source]. However, they sustained “heavy casualties” during these operations [source].
  • Declassified American intelligence reports indicate an increase in operational capabilities outside of Ukraine, including in the CAR [source].
  • Wagner forces in Ukraine lack essential equipment and are experiencing severe attrition rates [source], [source]. This in turn will increase the level of Moscow’s material support for Wagner [source].
  • Wagner has reportedly stopped recruiting prisoners [source]. In order to make up for losses, it may redeploy its CAR expedition to Ukraine, which would decrease operational effectiveness [source].
  • Wagner recruited Syrian and ex-Afghan special forces, who may deploy to the CAR or Ukraine [source]. The former development would see operational effectiveness increase if the troops currently in the country remain.
  • A Wagner forward operating base near Bambari appears to have been abandoned [see Fig. 1].
  • However, Wagner still occupies and operates a similar compound 3km northeast of Kotanguisa. The base was constructed between 28 April 2021 and 18 May 2021 [see Fig. 2].
  • The government of CAR claimed that a Chadian aircraft conducted a night raid on Wagner installations in Bossangoa. However, this claim is difficult to substantiate for several reasons [source].
  • Wagner almost certainly operates a base at Bossangoa [see Fig. 3]. Media sources claim that the aircraft significantly damaged the base as well as nearby residential buildings [source]. However, there is no visible damage to any structures which would suggest the occurrence of an air raid.

Name: Suspected Wagner PMC Forward Operating Base Near Bambari, CAR

Location: 5°49’52.14″N, 20°36’59.28″E

Description: A suspected base of operations for Wagner PMC fighters. A wall encloses a compound made up of 10 barracks and 5 support buildings arrayed in the centre. 5 utility vehicles are present near the southwest corner and a guard post is visible to the northwest outside the compound perimeter.

Fig. 1

Name: Suspected Wagner PMC Base Near Kotanguisa

Location: 5°50’53.57″N, 20°27’46.51″E

Description: A large walled compound with 3 administrative buildings arrayed along the central axis, and a watch tower set into the northeast corner. There are at least 4 barracks, the largest of which is 60 meters in length.

Fig. 2

Name: Bossangoa Airport

Location: 6°29’42.36″N, 17°25’35.89″E

Description: A moderately sized regional airport with a suspected annex base for Wagner PMC fighters. A series of barracks are immediately to the north of the aircraft curtain and a helipad is off the left-hand side of the curtain itself. We observe multiple utility vehicles and a well near the centre of the compound. The base sits directly on the RR8 highway which in turn feeds into other arterial roadways in the country.

Fig. 3

Key Judgment-2: It is likely that Wagner PMC operations in the Central African Republic will heavily rely on rotor-wing capabilities and light fixed-wing aircraft in the next 12 months.

  • After the French military abandoned their military base at M’poko Airport in 2022, CAR military forces occupied the site [source].
  • The Central African Republic Air Force itself is highly degraded and operationally ineffective, with no combat aircraft [source].
  • The Central African Republic Air Force is able to field 2 AL-60CS light utility aircraft, 1 AS 3508 Ecureuil and 1 Falcon 20C for personnel transport and at least 1 Mil Mi-8 “Hip” helicopter [source].
  • An SA341/342 Gazelle helicopter crashed in February of 2021 on its way to conduct a CASEVAC mission for Wagner fighters [source].
  • The runways of the 60 airfields available to aircraft in the Central African Republic are in a state of complete disrepair and would pose a substantial danger to any fixed-winged aircraft attempting to land on these surfaces [see Fig. 5].
  • As a result of this inadequate infrastructure, Wagner utilizes several Mi-8 helicopters for logistical and transportation purposes [see Fig. 6, Fig. 7, Fig. 8].
  • A UAE-based entity, Kratol Aviation, provides much of Wagner’s light fixed-wing air transport with An-28s and L-410s [source]. We observed an L-410 aircraft at Bossangoa in December of 2022 [see Fig. 3].

Name: Bria Airport

Location: 6°31’35.46″N, 21°59’28.48″E

Description: A small regional airport with an unpaved runway of approximately 1,750 m in length. To the immediate north, we observe a walled compound with support buildings, adjacent to which is a walled compound with barracks suspected to be occupied by Wagner operators. The compound on the left-hand side of the runway is surrounded by a dirt embankment and wall with at least 3 guard towers. The airport hosts a pre-existing military installation used by CAR forces. To the south of the flight staging area is an additional walled compound which holds dozens of white utility vehicles.

Fig. 4

Name: Berengo Air Field

Location: 4° 2’37.84″N, 18° 8’12.45″E

Description: A large air field with a formerly paved runway which underwent a gradual degradation from 2014 to present day. A large military compound is located to the immediate west on the former site of the Imperial Palace. The site is known to be a training facility for CAR army units under the supervision of Wagner. We note the presence of an aircraft apron at the northeast corner which disappeared after February 2022.

Fig. 5
Fig. 6

Key Judgment-3: It is highly likely that Wagner will continue to diversify its income revenues in CAR over the next 12 months.

  • In 2019, Midas Resources obtained a 25 year concession on the Ndassima gold mine in the Ouaka region [source].
  • Wagner was instrumental in re-capturing this mine in 2020, establishing complex mining operations in the region as a result [source].
  • Mine workers may be possibly clearing vegetation to expand or dig new pits into the rock [see Fig. 7, 8, 9].
  • Lobaye Invest and Diamville have direct links with Prigozhin’s network and deal with mineral exploitation, particularly diamonds [source].
  •  Bois Rouge operates in the logging sector in the Lobaye region. [source], [source].
  • The First Industrial Company, registered to Dmitry Sytyi, engages in beer and whisky production [source], [source].
  • Doula port, in Cameroon, is the principal international trade hub for Wagner-related companies operating in CAR [source].
  • Potential expansion opportunities could include the sugar and coffee sectors both in CAR and Cameroon [source].

Name: Ndassima Gold Mine

Location: 6°10’1.72″N, 20°48’29.67″E

Description: A small town located to the west of a river system, along which are gold mining operations linked to Wagner. Exposed subsurface rock is visible alongside the river, where the ore is extracted. The following 2 images were captured on 18 February from Sentinel-2 L2A using natural colour bands 4, 3 and 2 and SWIR (shortwave infrared) captured on bands 12, 8A, and 4. We suspect that the smoke and corresponding heat signature indicate efforts to expand the scope of mining activities by clearing vegetation in order to dig new pits. Figures 8 and 9 show a more extensive view of the whole complex.

Fig. 7
Fig. 8

Analytical Summary

We are relatively confident in our assessment that Wagner PMC is able to muster sufficient capabilities to continue operations in CAR throughout the next 6 months. Given Russia’s strategic reorientation towards Africa, it is increasingly apparent that the Kremlin places a high degree of value on its security relationship with CAR. It is possible that a severe degradation of Wagner forces in Ukraine may compel Prigozhin to redeploy battle-tested Wagner units to eastern Ukraine.

We are also confident in our assessment that Wagner is reliant on rotor wing capabilities to fulfil transport and logistics requirements. The degraded state of CAR civilian airfields would pose an immense hazard to larger fixed-wing aircraft on take-off and landing. The lack of apparent maintenance and re-fueling facilities at many air installations supports that assessment. The only air installation capable of accommodating larger fixed-wing aircraft is M’poko International Airport, were a Russian An-124-100 was observed in October of 2020.

We are moderately confident in our assessment that the claimed air raid at a Wagner base in Bossangoa did not take place. It is our assessment that CAR and Wagner are engaging in a disinformation campaign against French-aligned Chadian forces. However, we allowed for the possibility we were unable to find the actual Wagner installation and misidentified the base seen in Figure 5. We note that the operating base of Chad’s Su-25 aircraft is in Ndjamena, just within the combat radius of the Su-25.

Annex

2 additional Mil Mi-8 Helicopters were located at an airstrip near Bambari, within range of the Wagner-operated gold mine of Ndassima. It is possible that the enclosed compound is utilized by Wagner as well as CAR military units. (Fig. 8)
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