Wagner in Africa: Russia’s Non-State State Actor’ Part I


    Wagner in Africa
    Russian Soldiers from the KSSO/SSO In Syria. Source: Russian MOD

    This is the first of a series of articles concerning the Russian security company, Wagner in Africa. In 2013, an advertisement for security jobs started appearing on Russian websites with a military content. The advertisement promised $5,000 a month for going to Syria to do guard duty on military bases and energy infrastructure for a company named the Slavonic Corps. Slavonic Corps was registered in Hong Kong by senior managers at the Moran Security Group, which was run by Russian military veterans. The Slavonic Corps sought contracts to provide energy security in Syria, and their first mission to Syria took place in 2013.

    When the group arrived in Syria, however, they learned that not everything was what it seemed. They had been told they were there on contract by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, cleared by the Federal Security Services (FSB) agency, to protect Syrian oil assets and would be given the tools to do so. Upon arrival, they were given outdated equipment, learned that the mission was to recapture areas rich in oil and that the contract was for individuals, not the Syrian government. The mission went awry and some of the Russian mercenaries credited their escape from the superior jihadists to a sandstorm. The mercenaries were sent back to Russia within a month, ending the original five-month contract.

    State or Private?

    One of the returning mercenaries was Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin. Utkin, originally from Ukraine, is a former brigade commander of a unit in Spetsnaz GRU. A special forces unit controlled by Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) based in Molkino, in Krasnodar Krai. Utkin had retired from service in 2013, then joined Moran Security Group. Two other returning mercenaries of the Slavonic Corps were arrested by FSB after landing in Moscow.

    The two have later declared that they were recruited by Vyacheslav Kalashnikov, a lieutenant colonel of the FSB reserves, and president of Moran Security Group. Meanwhile, Vadim Gusev, a deputy director of Moran, is one of the names who registered the Slavonic Corps in Hong Kong and happens to own all 10,000 shares of the company. Moran Security Group has earlier been linked to and seized for accusations of involvement in the illegal arms trade, as well as providing rogue nuclear technology for Qaddafi’s courier service. Despite the ties with FSB and possibly facilitation of weapons trade, it is unknown if the Russian state or security apparatus have any involvement with the company.

    A few months after in 2014, Utkin resurfaced in Luhansk Oblast in Eastern Ukraine, fighting for a new company, Группа Вагнера – Wagner Group. Utkin is, allegedly, a Nazi sympathizer and it is assumed that the name Wagner stems from Hitler’s favourite composer, Richard Wagner. In 2016, Utkin attended an event organised by the Kremlin marking the Day of Heroes of the Fatherland, an event attended by military and civilians who have demonstrated courage and heroism in service to Russia. This is believed to be one of the key links between Utkin and the Kremlin. Additionally, Wagner mercenaries have received medals awarded by the state, typically given to soldiers fighting with the Russian insignia. They train and live with GRU soldiers, and they have been flown to and from Syria on Russian military planes.

    Another alleged head of Wagner is reported to be Yevgeny Prigozhin, also known as Putin’s Chef. Prigozhin has made a fortune running a catering company, yet reports are starting to surface that he is Putin’s main man to do the dirty work. Prigozhin owns a company called Evro-Polis who made a deal with Syria’s state-owned oil company that it would receive 25% of oil revenues from recaptured territories. He owns the Internet Research Agency, better known as the Troll Factory, accused of meddling in the US 2016 elections. He has also been accused of orchestrating assassinations among political opposition individuals. Additionally, American intelligence claim they have recordings of Prigozhin and Syrian officials which has led them to conclude that Prigozhin ‘almost certainly’ controls Wagner in Africa and Syria.

    Mobilising in Africa

    Wagner is an unregistered paramilitary company, which is illegal by Russian law. It has access to army resources, and Putin has in interviews stated that they are, as a company, free to operate in any corner of the world. It has strong ties to the Russian security apparatus and to Prigozhin, and Prigozhin and the Russian security apparatus have close ties with Putin. Today, we see Wagner operating in several corners of the world – Syria, Ukraine, Sudan, C.A.R, and most recently in Venezuela. Wagner can be seen as an extension of Russian foreign policy, a state agency operating without the limitations and oversight of a state agency. Russia through Wagner is heavily involved on the African continent, which raises the concern, what is Russia seeking in Africa, and is Wagner the mean deployed to achieve its foreign policy ambitions?

    Wagner in Africa

    Map displays Russia activities in Africa and Wagner in Africa

    Image: RUSVESNA (link)

    This article was first published on 11-01-2019

    Fredrik Hellem
    Fredrik Hellem
    Served in the Norwegian Military Intelligence Batallion. Former student at Aberystwyth University and St Petersburg State University, currently studying MA Intelligence and Security Studies at Brunel University London.

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