As in the weeks before the Ukraine invasion, the U.S. is sharing what it knows about Putin and his paramilitary force.
By ERIN BANCO and ANASTASIIA CARRIER
As Russia’s paramilitary organization, the Wagner Group, expands its presence in African countries, the Biden administration is pushing back with one of its prized tactics: sharing sensitive intelligence with allies in Africa in an attempt to dissuade countries from partnering with the group.
The administration has used this tactic with increasing frequency, including in the months leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. It serves the dual function of alerting allies to looming threats and placing adversaries on notice that the U.S. knows what they’re doing.
Now, those tactics are being deployed as part of a broader push to prevent Moscow from gaining an economic and military foothold in countries in Africa, including those that have previously worked with Washington, according to interviews with four U.S. officials with knowledge of the effort.
The U.S. has in recent months shared intelligence related to an alleged Wagner plan to assassinate the president of Chad as well as its attempts to access and control key natural resource extraction sites in countries such as Sudan and the Central African Republic, among other initiatives.
The aim is to highlight for African officials how working with Wagner is likely to sow chaos in the long term despite its promises to bring peace and security to countries facing political turmoil and violence, the officials said.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment on the administration’s strategy. The National Security Council also declined to comment.
Russian officials did not respond to POLITICO’s request for comment about Wagner’s connection to the state or its activities in Africa.
Russian mercenaries in northern Mali. The U.S. hopes to show African officials how working with Wagner is likely to sow chaos in the long term despite its promises to bring peace and security to countries facing political turmoil and violence. | French Army via AP
The escalation of the administration’s information sharing comes after more than a year of heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow. The war in Ukraine has pitted the two countries against each other, with the U.S. providing billions in weapons to Kyiv and Russia continuing to launch attacks on Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.
The recent sharing of intelligence on Wagner highlights how the standoff between the U.S. and Russia extends beyond the battlefield in Ukraine to Africa, where Biden officials say Russia is using Wagner as a proxy to strike deals and help make inroads on behalf of the Kremlin. And it underscores the degree to which the Biden administration believes Wagner — and the Kremlin — pose a long term threat to U.S. interests on the continent.
“The best way to fight Wagner is with the truth,” said one of the U.S. officials. “Where we can find credible information that undermines Wagner’s malign influence, of course, we want more people to know about it, and that includes our partners, and the public.”
Information as a weapon
The Wagner Group is increasingly involved in countries across Central Africa as a security and propaganda force protecting and promoting local political leaders.
The four American officials, all of whom were granted anonymity to speak freely about a sensitive ongoing intelligence and diplomatic effort, described a growing sense of alarm about Wagner’s inroads in those countries.
Wagner’s activities in Africa were further detailed in several documents obtained from inside the business empire of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner. POLITICO previously reported on some of the details of those documents, including how Prigozhin spread his forces and media network to Africa.
POLITICO accessed the documents via an international journalism collaboration with outlets in the U.S. and Europe. The German news outlet WELT first obtained the documents and shared them with other media organizations overseen by Axel Springer, which also owns POLITICO. The documents span several years — from 2017 to 2021. POLITICO has only included information from the documents in this report that it could verify with other sources, including open-source reporting.
The U.S. concerns and assessments about Wagner, including its operations in Africa, were also reflected in the highly classified intelligence allegedly leaked by 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guard member Jack Teixiera, according to more than 50 documents reviewed by POLITICO. Teixiera disseminated the materials on Discord, a social media messaging site, in recent months.
Over the past year, the U.S. has shared with allies sensitive intelligence about Wagner’s battlefield movements and operations in Ukraine. National security and State Department officials have also denounced Wagner publicly from the podium. As recently as this spring, officials have spoken about Wagner’s atrocities in Ukraine, including its brutality in the eastern city of Bakhmut, and its purchasing of weapons from North Korea.
But the move to share intelligence about Wagner in Africa — and the diplomatic endeavor to deliver that information — has played out much more quietly.
Although the U.S. often shares intelligence — particularly with long-standing allies in Europe — it has historically fostered a somewhat careful approach to divulging intelligence in an effort to
protect sources and methods. The current intelligence-sharing on Wagner is widespread — spanning multiple countries and continents — including with countries the U.S. does not traditionally hold robust relations in the intelligence arena.
U.S. officials have in recent months engaged in talks with officials in Central African Republic, Chad, Rwanda, Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of Congo to share U.S. intelligence related to Wagner. Diplomats have pressed officials in some of those countries to avoid working with Wagner or to help persuade other neighboring nations to cease interacting with the group.
Representatives from the countries with which the U.S. has shared the Wagner intelligence did not respond to requests for comment.
The administration is also using the intelligence-sharing strategy as a way of highlighting how Wagner’s presence in some countries — and its inability to restore security there — is bad for business. The idea is that if Wagner is seen as disrupting the flow of trade and investment, it could drive a wedge between Beijing, a long-time investor in Africa, and Moscow — an alliance that has only strengthened in recent months and continues to concern Washington.
Washington has urged officials in countries not to partner with Wagner not only because of the potential long-term security concerns it could present the U.S. but also because of the impact that the paramilitary group’s actions in Africa could have on the battlefield in Ukraine.
U.S. officials fear Wagner could use profits it reaps from mining concessions and other business contracts in Africa to help aid Russia’s war efforts. Some experts have said Wagner’s access to minerals and its ability to export them to market is overblown — and that its profits are marginal and not likely to make an impact on the battlefield in Ukraine. But U.S. officials have in recent weeks gathered specific intelligence related to Wagner’s attempts to use its international connections, including those in Africa, to help support its fight in Ukraine.
In February, Wagner personnel met with Turkish contacts to purchase weapons and equipment from Turkey for Wagner’s efforts in Mali and Ukraine, according to a signals intelligence report included in one of the documents allegedly leaked by Teixeira. Another section of that document says the U.S. has gathered intelligence that shows the transition president in Mali has also considered acquiring weapons from Turkey on Wagner’s behalf.
Representatives for Mali and Turkey declined to comment on the documents.
Despite its support from the Kremlin and its ability to secure lucrative contracts in Africa, some experts who study Wagner maintain that the U.S. and its allies have historically held far greater sway among African government officials than Prigozhin and his fighters.
“There’s no question Wagner has a strategy in Africa … to connect neighboring states under Wagner influence. Washington is trying to disrupt that for a host of reasons,” said Cameron Hudson, analyst and consultant at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But let’s not put Wagner on par with the United States government. These are not equals — the United States doesn’t see them as equals. What we have seen is Wagner doesn’t have an ability — by itself — to create winners and losers in these countries.”
Wagner is helmed by Prigozhin, a former caterer for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since 2017, Prigozhin has expanded the group into an international military and influence force with tentacles that span the globe.
The organization, which has strong ties to the Russian state, including its security services, is known for its work helping prop up regimes in the Middle East, in countries such as Syria. And its forces are leading the fight in parts of Ukraine, especially in the eastern city of Bakhmut, where Russians and Ukrainian soldiers are locked in a bloody battle. Wagner is viewed by U.S. officials as having gained newfound prominence in the wake of Moscow’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
In recent years, Prigozhin has expanded Wagner’s operations to Africa, helping foster relationships for the Kremlin in countries such as Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, Chad and Mali. The group’s work includes securing critical mineral and oil sites in Africa as well as protecting government officials.
Its presence in those countries has prompted senior officials in the Biden administration to draft a new road map for routing the group out of the region, the U.S. officials said.
Although Wagner has worked on the continent for years, the Biden administration is newly worried about the extent to which the group’s activities there are not only threatening regional stability but are also being used by the Kremlin as a way to develop long-term influential relationships — relationships that could potentially sideline Washington for years to come.
Washington’s stated strategy for the Sahel region, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced from Africa in 2022, lays out U.S. thinking about Russia’s influence on the continent. Without naming Wagner, the document describes how Moscow uses “private military companies” to foment “instability for strategic and financial benefit.”
POLITICO has obtained and reviewed a series of internal documents from Prigozhin’s empire that detail how the leader of Wagner has expanded the paramilitary group and his businesses across the continent, specifically in Sudan and Central African Republic.
They also mention the Democratic Republic of Congo. The documents confirm previous reporting, including by POLITICO, about Wagner’s operations in Africa. But they also provide unusual detail about the close connection between Prigozhin’s businesses, Wagner and the local African governments and militaries.
Prigozhin set up offices in Sudan in 2017 and has in recent years built out a sprawling business network in the country.
Prigozhin established his operations in Sudan by working with government officials — including former President Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted from power by the military in 2019 — and by securing lucrative mining contracts.
A CNN investigation last year revealed the extent to which Russia was smuggling gold out of Sudan and using Wagner to help plunder the country’s natural resources. According to the U.S. officials who spoke with POLITICO, Wagner appears to conduct much of its mining business through Meroe Gold. The U.S. and Europe have both sanctioned the entity. Meroe could not be reached for comment.
Wagner also has a history of supporting the country’s security services.
Prigozhin’s operatives in Sudan also work on disinformation and misinformation campaigns in the country to sway political events on the ground, according to documents and experts who study Wagner’s work in the country.
Several of the documents from inside Prigozhin’s business empire outline detailed media strategies to suppress protests and to pay local Sudan journalists to promote content in support of the ruling party and against the opposition of then-president Bashir. One outlines recommendations on how to manage protests that swept the country in 2018 that threatened to topple the government of Bashir. The New York Times reported on a similar memo in June 2022.
Among the suggestions included in the memo POLITICO reviewed: The creation of a Russian-run internet center that would control the narrative about the government and launch a campaign portraying protesters in a negative light. The plan also laid out plans to control the protests by blocking foreigners’ access to areas with demonstrations and infiltrating the ranks of the protest’s organizers.
Several of the documents obtained by POLITICO show the expansion of Wagner’s military activities in the country, including its connection to the country’s military. The organization has helped train soldiers over the years, the documents show.
One of the documents appears to show a request by a Prigozhin-linked business to pay for the use of the Khartoum military airbase to ensure the arrivals and departures of employees and cargo. Another memo from 2021 outlines Wagner positions in the country, including on several bases. It also lists Prigozhin employees serving in other command centers where they coordinate with the Sudanese military and police, including Aswar, a company controlled by Sudanese military intelligence. Aswar could not be reached for comment.
It is unclear whether, or the extent to which, Russia, Wagner or any of Prigozhin’s affiliate entities are currently involved in the ongoing violence in Sudan. U.S. officials did not answer questions about whether they assessed that the paramilitary group is currently providing aid or helping prop up either side of the conflict.
“The interference of external entities in Sudan’s internal conflict will only lead to more human suffering and delay the country’s transition to democracy,” a State Department official said in a statement.
Putting down roots
Wagner has also set up command centers in the Um Dafuq region of western Sudan, where it has been accused of attacking civilians. It has used the town as a base for supporting its gold-mining activities in Central African Republic.
The paramilitary organization set up shop in CAR in 2017, creating cultural centers and other local initiatives to make inroads with the government. Since then, it has moved in to protect the country’s gold mines and is training government forces, according to documents obtained by POLITICO and one of the U.S. officials.
One 11-page document POLITICO obtained from Prigozhin’s network from 2020 details Wagner’s training of government forces and its protection of CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Another lists in detail the location of Wagner fighters, including how many soldiers are stationed at each base throughout the country. Other documents in the Prigozhin tranche detail media campaigns carried out by employees of the Wagner leader — many of which were designed to spread Russian propaganda, discredit the French and organize protests against United Nations peacekeepers in the country.
The documents also appear to show Prigozhin and his operatives considering engaging in political influence and research operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Military leaders in the country have denied Wagner is present in the country. But the materials show how Prigozhin’s people over the years have gathered information on officials inside the country, including their political backgrounds and popularity among the people.
U.S. concerns increased after the departure of French troops from countries such as Mali and Central African Republic, when Wagner gained a greater foothold, striking deals with local officials. Wagner has seized on the security vacuum left in the wake of France’s departure in those countries, offering local officials protection and training for its armies. Representatives at the French Embassy in Washington did not respond to comment.
U.S. officials have also received readouts and other assessments from officials in Ivory Coast relaying the fear that Wagner’s presence in Burkina Faso — from which France recently withdrew — could potentially destabilize the country, according to one of the leaked classified documents allegedly posted by Teixeira, the Massachusetts Air National Guard member.
Sharing intel to disrupt Wagner
In attempting to blunt the fallout from the vacuum created by France’s departure, U.S. officials have shared intelligence on Wagner’s operations not just with African countries but also with global media.
“We’ve seen it in Syria, we’ve seen it in Ukraine, and now we’re seeing it in Africa — a strategy where we are trying to shine a light on [Wagner and Russian] activities, because they have such a robust propaganda campaign that is going to either obscure what they’re doing or to pump out disinformation about what they’re doing,” Hudson said. “The only antidote to that from a U.S. perspective is to release what we know.”
U.S. officials have stressed with African leaders the need to distance themselves from the paramilitary group. While outreach to each country is different, American officials have underscored with all parties the extent to which Wagner actually creates security problems rather than resolves them.
“Wagner doesn’t improve security. They are perfectly happy to go out and kill people and pretend that [those people are] terrorists,” one of the U.S. officials said. “But if you look at over time, with some minor exceptions where they’re able to displace violent groups from one place temporarily, they create more terrorists than they actually eliminate.”
Chad, a country of about 17 million people located at the northern tip of Central Africa that has historically held close ties to France, has been an increasing source of worry and stepped-up communications among officials.
In 2021, former President Idriss Déby died and his son, Gen. Mahamat Déby, took over. In October 2022, his transitional government orchestrated and carried out a bloody crackdown against protesters demanding democratic civilian rule. Dozens of people died in the protests. Human Rights Watch also documented instances of torture and unlawful detentions.
Despite the government’s crackdown, the U.S. has since continued to maintain diplomatic ties with N’Djamena. The U.S. has for months communicated with local officials in Chad about Wagner and the threat the paramilitary poses to the country, according to one of the four U.S. officials, who is familiar with those diplomatic conversations.
In several of those discussions, officials in Chad raised concerns about Wagner’s creeping presence in the region, including its ties to rebel fighters, and requested additional support from Washington.
African officials have in the past cited Wagner to request additional U.S. financial and military aid. But Washington’s engagement is not transactional, one of the U.S. officials said.
Last month, American officials informed government officials in Chad that Wagner was developing an operation to destabilize the transition government in the country by offering rebels material support to execute a plot that would have potentially killed transition President Déby. The administration also disclosed that information to The Wall Street Journal, one of the U.S. officials said.
“We had informed the Chadian government of this specific plot. The Chadian government’s long been aware of the other threats that Wagner has posed to the government. This was a different threat stream and we made them aware of it,” the official said.
Russia has denied the allegations about the plot to kill Déby.
Thwarting Russia’s plans
The administration’s goal was not only to share the intelligence for Chadian officials but also to disclose it publicly through the media as a way of blunting Wagner’s operation. The U.S. officials said they are confident their strategy worked.
“The Chadian government’s awareness of it has reduced the threat level,” the official said.
U.S. officials have also brokered conversations about Wagner operations in CAR, where the government is entrenched in active fighting with rebels despite the declaration of a cease-fire in 2021. That fighting has spilled over borders and drawn military engagement from Rwanda, Cameroon and the U.N. peacekeeping mission in CAR known as MINUSCA.
American officials have shared intelligence specifically related to Wagner’s business operations in the country and shared it not only with local officials but also officials from neighboring countries with an interest in removing Wagner from the region.
One revelation was that Wagner has helped secure a large gold mine in the middle of the country since 2017. It now essentially controls the site and over the past 10 months has significantly expanded its exploration pits, as POLITICO previously reported.
American officials have shared the details of that rapid expansion with local government officials and have estimated that the paramilitary group could one day reap large sums of money if it finds a way to export the gold to market.
Washington has also shared information related to Wagner’s broader military activities in CAR with allies in Europe and Africa, including Portugal and Rwanda.
An uphill battle
It’s unclear whether the broader U.S. strategy of countering Russia in Africa will work.
So far, African governments that have engaged in security and business contracts with the Russian paramilitary group, such as CAR, have not broken off ties.
Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the president of CAR, is being protected by Wagner soldiers and his government relies on the organization to help in its fight against the rebels who are attempting to unseat the government in Bangui.
Officials in CAR and its neighboring countries have at times pushed back against U.S. attempts to dissuade them from dealing with Wagner. They’ve said they need greater assistance in dealing with Wagner and that in some instances the group offers legitimate security.
There is also a possibility that the U.S. could choose to restrict some of the intelligence it shares on Wagner following the recent leak of intelligence by Teixeira — a move that could infringe on the administration’s strategy in countering Russia. Biden officials have already begun to discuss whether parts of the federal government need to update their policies not only on who has access to classified information but also how often and how widely it shares that intelligence with allies.
President Joe Biden has also ordered U.S. agencies to temporarily restrict the flow of sensitive information while the Justice Department concludes its investigation into the leak of classified documents.