Is Russia Purging Wagner Group Troops in Africa?

Hundreds of soldiers from the paramilitary organization Wagner have been seen flying out of the Central African Republic in recent days, raising questions about whether Moscow is purging the group after its mutiny in Russia last month.

More than 600 Wagner employees were spotted departing from the airport in the capital Bangui this week, according to members of non-governmental organizations and analysts who follow events in the African country.

NBC News has obtained video that appears to show dozens of uniformed Wagner operatives at a military base in Bangui this week. Gathered near a helipad, they sorted through bags and other personal belongings strewn on the ground around them.

A still from video obtained by NBC News that appears to show dozens of uniformed Wagner operatives at a military base in the capital, Bangui.  (Obtained by NBC News)

A still from video obtained by NBC News that appears to show dozens of uniformed Wagner operatives at a military base in the capital, Bangui. (Obtained by NBC News)

French-language regional newspaper Jeune Afrique first reported the departure of hundreds of Wagner staff on Thursday.

The thefts came as the Kremlin sought to reassert its authority over the organization two weeks after a short-lived rebellion in which Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin openly defied Russian President Vladimir Putin and ordered his troops fighter in Ukraine to march on Moscow.

The June 23-24 rebellion ended after Belarus brokered a deal between Wagner and Putin’s government. But how the Russian president will handle the group’s sprawling military and commercial operations in the Middle East and Africa remains an open question.

It was unclear whether the departure of Wagner’s staff from the Central African Republic was part of a routine troop rotation, a large-scale sacking by Moscow aimed at reducing Progozhin’s influence, or whether loyalists de Wagner refused to work under the Russian Defense Ministry.

Moscow may be trying to reestablish its control over Wagner’s forces, but it’s still too early to draw any firm conclusions, according to Nathalia Dukhan, senior investigator for The Sentry, a nonprofit advocacy group that reports on corruption, repression and human rights. abuses.

Other experts agreed. “Purges are very likely, as loyalty is the burning issue for Putin at the moment,” said Alia Brahimi, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.

In the days following the mutiny, Putin praised Russian military leaders for repelling the Prigozhin mutiny and for averting a “civil war”. Russian authorities raided Wagner’s headquarters in St. Petersburg.

Fidèle Gouandjika, adviser to Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, said there had been “no change” in the presence of the Wagner group in recent days. The Russian “instructors” were still on the ground, as well as the organization’s top official, Vitali Perfilev, Gouandjika told NBC News.

The mutiny led by Prigozhin two weeks ago was “an internal Russian affair”, he said, adding that the Central African Republic had an agreement with the Russian Federation, not with the Wagner Group.

A senior representative of Wagner in the country, Dmitry Sytii, who heads the Russian cultural center, also implied that the paramilitaries had not been ordered to leave the country, telling NBC News: “I didn’t started to pack my bags again. When is the plane?

Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said it was unclear if Wagner faced a major upheaval in the African nation.

“We are hearing rumors from several sources, including some people at the airport, but the movement of Wagner’s forces in and out of Bangui M’Poko International Airport is not unusual in itself,” Mudge said. “So at the moment it’s still a wait and see situation.

The White House National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment. Last week, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said there was “no indication that Wagner is reducing his intent to exploit African countries.”

Wagner’s mercenaries first arrived in the Central African Republic in 2018 as military advisers and worked alongside the country’s armed forces to fight a rebellion threatening the government. The US government and human rights groups have accused Wagner of committing atrocities in Africa and exploiting the countries’ gold and diamond mines. In January, the United States designated Wagner as a transnational criminal organization.

The Kremlin will likely change Wagner’s name and oust some figures deemed too close to Prigozhin, said Colin Clarke, senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonprofit research center focused on global security issues.

But even with a “rebranding,” Russia is unlikely to walk away from Wagner’s security contracts, disinformation operations and mining ventures that have bolstered Moscow’s reach in North and sub-Saharan Africa, officials said. Clarke and other experts.

“The services Wagner provides to Russians in Africa are essential,” Clarke said. “It’s not going to go away. They need it.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a recent interview with Russia Today that Prigozhin’s revolt would not affect Moscow’s relations with its “partners and friends”, and that Wagner’s agents would remain in the Central African Republic. , Mali and other African countries.

“At their request, several hundred servicemen are working in the CAR as instructors – this work, of course, will continue,” Lavrov said.

In public remarks after the mutiny, Putin thanked the military and law enforcement for stopping the rebellion and said for the first time in public that the government had funded the Wagner Group, providing 86 billion rubles , or about $1 billion.

“Even though Wagner is considered a private military company, it’s not really a fully private military company. It really is a creature of the Russian military intelligence agency,” said Kimberly Marten, a professor at Barnard College and Columbia University.

Experts said Putin’s admission means Russia will have no way to deny responsibility for Wagner’s abuses in Africa and other parts of the world.

“The Wagner Group’s exploitative and security model, which involves rapacious economic policies and atrocities against civilians, is now imputable to the Russian state,” said Brahimi of the Atlantic Council. “The veil has been lifted and Putin will have to take personal ownership of the predation in North and sub-Saharan Africa.”

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