The presence of the Russian state-linked Wagner Group mercenaries in the diamond-rich Central African Republic has been bloody. Now it seems that Russia has used its power in the United Nations Security Council to protect its exploits and geostrategic interests in the African country, a nation hanging on by a thread.
Given international outcry for Russia to be ousted from the Council for invading Ukraine — which is nearly impossible to do — Russia’s permanent membership looks even more dubious considering its actions in the African country and against its European neighbor.
In September 2021 in the Council, Russia blocked the reappointment of UN experts who monitor UN sanctions violations in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, respectively. Russia cited the lack of geographically balanced composition and inclusion of biased individuals as monitors to justify its decision.
In reality, more than one source familiar with the matter told PassBlue that the decision regarding the Central African Republic was an attempt to derail the work of the UN experts there. They had singled out Russian mercenary “instructors” for numerous human-rights violations in their June 2021 report on the African country. It’s not the first time that the veto powers in the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — have blocked reappointments of neutral experts because they disapprove of the contents of their reports.
The alleged crimes documented in the 2021 report include violating such international humanitarian law as indiscriminate killings, torture, sexual violence and large-scale looting. In its 184 pages, Russia was mentioned by name more than 240 times, far more than other armed forces known for committing violence in the country, which is known as CAR.
Russia has denied the allegations, saying that its instructors are there to provide military training and operate unarmed. The Wagner Group is a security services company described by the US Treasury Department as a “Russian Ministry of Defense proxy force” and is often referred to as President Vladimir Putin’s private army. It has been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to the Kremlin and sometimes called “Putin’s chef.” Prigozhin was sanctioned by the US for funding the Internet Research Agency, also known as a St. Petersburg-based “troll factory,” for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
While the UN panel of experts’ report doesn’t mention the Wagner Group per se when talking about “instructors” or “trainers,” as the media sometimes call them, the fingerprints of the mercenaries are all over the alleged crimes documented in the UN report as well as other accounts of their presence and apparent crimes in CAR. Wagner indiscriminately targets civilians, journalists, peacekeepers and aid workers, according to another UN entity, the working group on the use of mercenaries.
In media and various other reports, Wagner paramilitaries have been linked to the killing of three Russian journalists in 2018, who were investigating the mercenaries’ presence in CAR and for multiple massacres in the country. The Wagner Group is also connected to illicit diamond and gold mining and smuggling in the country, a topic that was also addressed in the 2021 UN experts’ report, even though it didn’t explicitly link Russia to such activities.
Yet President Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic welcomed the paramilitaries in 2018, when they arrived to try to help him wrest control of his country as he fought off an array of rebel groups. That is when Wagner began to train the country’s armed forces and provide security for Touadéra. In fact, the UN Security Council approved a Russian training mission in 2017, but no one expected the Wagner Group would show up.
“That’s potentially an attractive option, an attractive package for leaders who may lack domestic legitimacy and who are vulnerable,” said Joseph Siegle, the director of research at the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies, referring to the Wagner Group. “They’re there to provide security for the regimes they’re supporting. I don’t think the country benefits.”
Touadéra was re-elected in 2020 and with the support of the Russian instructors, fended off the assault that rebels had launched on the capital, Bangui, seeking to overturn the election results. Sporadic fighting across the country, however, has not let up since, and parts of the country remain outside government control.
Wagner is known for fighting Putin’s wars: the group has been sent to several African countries, fought US special forces in Syria, participated in the Russian invasion in Ukraine in 2014 and is taking part in the war with Ukraine now. In CAR, Wagner operated as Sewa Security Services, a company that appeared alongside Lobaye Invest, a Prigozhin-linked CAR-based company specializing in gold and diamond extraction. Both companies registered as business entities in the country around the same time the Wagner contractors appeared.
Putin has been pushing to rebuild Russian influence in Africa since 2006: since 2015, the Kremlin has signed 19 military collaboration contracts with African governments. Russia has been spreading pro-Russia and anti-democracy disinformation in about half of Africa’s 54 countries, according to a recent study by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
CAR is of critical geostrategic importance for Russia, Siegle said, as its presence allows it to demonstrate to African leaders who are struggling to control their own countries the appeal of a military alliance with Russia. It also enables African countries to push out French influence, as in the current case in Mali; shows the rest of the world that Russia remains a global power; and helps Russia station its forces in regions where it is pushing its political interests.
The financial interests of either Russia or of Prigozhin are also at play, even if they are not the primary reason for Russia’s engagement in Africa. Weapons sales to African countries remain a priority as does nuclear energy and oil exploitation.
In exchange for Russian and Wagner participation, Lobaye Invest, the Prigozhin-linked firm, was awarded gold and diamond mining licenses in several areas in CAR. Since then, Russian instructors have been linked to illicit diamond mining and trafficking.
Gem experts rank CAR diamonds among the best in the world. Yet those extracted could be considered illicit, depending on the zone they are mined in — only some areas of the country follow the Kimberley Process certification process. The international initiative promotes transparency and oversight in the global fight against the sale of conflict, or blood, diamonds.
Wagner contractors have been spotted protecting the mines in certain conflict areas of CAR. According to one source who spoke to PassBlue, Russians act like organized looters. Many small mines operate in the so-called red zones, where rebels and civilians both compete in the search for diamonds. Russians search by using drones to locate mines, then arrive by helicopters to attack and occupy a site for a few days, long enough to collect the goods and any money they can extort, before they move on to another site.
This method enables the Russians to exploit the mines more efficiently since they don’t have enough people to control all mines continuously. It’s estimated that there are about 1,500 to 2,000 Wagner contractors operating in CAR, and it’s unclear how much they are fanned out across the country.
It’s also unclear how the Russians launder the illicit diamonds they loot. A New York Times investigation described Russians loading diamonds on private planes. The 2021 UN experts’ report noted that some diamond collectors register the gems from “red zones” and from “green zones,” or legitimate areas, in their books.
Torture, Looting, Murder
Wherever Wagner goes, it seems to leave a trail of human-rights abuses.
A source familiar with the atrocities committed in CAR told PassBlue that they often receive emails with images and stories of horrific crimes that are allegedly connected with Wagner, but it’s hard to officially connect them to the group, the source acknowledged. In one such photo sent to the source from Bangui, the capital, and seen by PassBlue, a man stands on his knees with his hands tied behind his back, blood dripping from his head onto his torso. Next to him lies a lifeless body with his hands tied the same way, a pool of blood on the grass near his head.
“That is a soft one. . . .” the source wrote to describe the image.
(Many sources who spoke to PassBlue for this article asked to keep their names anonymous, given the extreme sensitivity of the subject matter.)
The Wagner Group’s alleged crimes in CAR drew attention from the UN working group on the use of mercenaries for its violations of human rights and for impeding the exercise of the rights of people to self-determination. Among others, the working group has heard allegations of execution, mutilation, water-boarding and other forms of torture by Wagner.
“Wagner is a big concern to us. They operate in opaque ways. They don’t legally exist,” Jelena Aparac, a member of the UN working group, told PassBlue. “They have total impunity. It allows them to continue human rights abuses, that’s what is happening in CAR. It’s extreme there in terms of human rights abuses.”
Last year, the working group sent letters to the Russian government and Lobaye Invest, demanding an explanation for accusations of sexual violence in CAR. Russia denied any connection to the Wagner Group and Lobaye never responded.
After the letters of allegations were sent, a source familiar with the matter said that Russian instructors started wearing face masks to avoid being easily identified and to take Covid-19 precautions. They also started to collect phones from civilians when they entered a village, to prevent them from taking images, multiple sources said.
“Villagers are scared of taking photos of them. Hell, I’m scared to take photos of them. That includes the UN staff who is afraid to take their own phones in the presence of Russians,” said Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa Director for Human Rights Watch, referring to the paramilitaries. Human Rights Watch released a report on abuses by Russians in CAR recently.
Mudge told PassBlue that civilians in CAR are terrified of Russians as he has never seen before — including being afraid to describe crimes on the phone and worried that someone would see Mudge, a foreigner and known human-rights expert, visiting their home.
Russians also appear to lack an understanding of local cultures when they enter villages: most Séléka rebels, who have been fighting Touadéra’s armed forces, are Muslim, and Russians can arrest any Muslim-looking man, Mudge said. There is also the issue of Russians looting basic household necessities, such as water canisters and mattresses, as mentioned in the UN report and sources for this article. Mudge told PassBlue a story about the mercenaries stealing solar panels off a health clinic one time but returning them after CAR’s security adviser told them to do so.
“It seems they don’t care about winning hearts and minds. They just take stuff,” Mudge said.
Another source said that Russians loot household necessities such as mattresses and food due to the lack of logistics — when they venture away from their base, no one is sent ahead to prepare for their arrival. Instructors turn to the locals to meet their needs, presenting another form of terror on the villagers. “For them, local people are not human beings — they are something else,” the source said.
Russians also control roads, operate checkpoints and take over towns. Experts on the country say it is difficult to know the precise extent of Russians’ activities in diamond and gold mines because it’s hard to gain access to these areas, given the numerous barriers to sites.
By allegedly silencing villagers and controlling the narrative about its actions in the country, the Wagner Group has complicated the already challenging process of proving Russian instructors’ crimes by rights groups and others. Wagner’s close cooperation with CAR’s army, known as FACA, and the government have helped obscure the paramilitaries’ role in providing security to these entities.
Sometimes, for example, Wagner has its own officers stationed at police stations, preventing victims of sexual violence reporting crimes. Sometimes, victims are bullied into not reporting crimes, and sometimes their reports disappear. Other times, victims of crimes go missing after filing criminal complaints.
“Victims often have no access to justice,” said the UN working group’s press release in October. “They simply don’t dare lodge official complaints, so impunity for abuses continues for all perpetrators — FACA as well as military and security officers working for the Wagner group.”
Aparac of the UN working group is an expert on international criminal and refugee law. She wrote an article in 2021 saying that it would be difficult for a public prosecutor in CAR to hold Sewa Security Services, the firm Wagner uses as a front, accountable. The prosecutor would most likely face many legal, political and diplomatic hurdles in dealing with several jurisdictions.
The UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, called Minusca, also faces serious challenges monitoring human-rights abuses in the country.
“In some parts of the country MINUSCA’s teams have faced difficulties to access the sites to verify and alleged human rights violations,” Vladimir Monteiro, the mission’s spokesperson, said in an email to PassBlue. “Monitoring crimes by Russians in particular comes with its challenges as well. In some cases, State actors and other security actors alleged military operations to deny the Mission access to the sites. In other cases, clashes or the presence of improvised explosive devices have difficulted our missions to the field.”
Monteiro added: “However, it has been challenging for the Mission to make a clear distinction between the so-called “Russian instructors” officially sent to CAR and the employees of Russian private security companies (whose existence and presence in CAR the Russian Federation denies) for attribution of responsibility, due to the lack of clear military identification.”
Minusca’s quarterly report on human rights in CAR, from January to March 2022, documented and verified 214 incidents, representing 258 human-rights violations and abuses and breaches of international humanitarian law affecting 564 victims.
Another major challenge to stopping the Wagner Group’s alleged crimes in CAR is that it was invited by President Touadéra into the country. Notably, the president has made a Russian, Valery Zakharov, his national security adviser.
“The lack of investigation and accountability for human rights abuses by Wagner is unacceptable,” Aparac told PassBlue. “Victims have rights to justice and remedy, states should investigate, prosecute and sanction all abuses by mercenaries and related actors.”
Concerns about silencing critics of the CAR government were raised in the 2021 UN experts’ report and are largely shared by human-rights experts working in CAR.
In the country, people who may threaten the authority of the government or the Wagner Group sometimes die, go missing or experience direct violent hostility Last year, 10 UN peacekeepers in a bus were shot at by the CAR presidential guards in Bangui, in what “appeared to be a deliberate and unspeakable attack,” according to the UN press release.
Two of the peacekeepers were wounded but the rest escaped unhurt. The shooting wasn’t connected to Russians, but in the ensuing barrage and fleeing the danger, the bus carrying the UN peacekeepers to their base accidentally hit and killed a 16-year-old girl.
In 2018, the three Russian journalists who traveled to CAR to investigate Wagner’s presence in the country were murdered — and Wagner is strongly suspected to be behind it, but the crime is officially unsolved. After the killings of the journalists, local people grew particularly scared, thinking that the Wagner paramilitaries were behind it, Mudge said.
In Russia’s war on Ukraine, Wagner’s alleged atrocities are being linked to the massacre in Bucha, in March, according to Germany’s foreign-intelligence service. In Mali, where Wagner contractors are now operating at the invitation of the Malian government, they were recently accused by Human Rights Watch of participating with the Malian armed forces in the massacre of 300 civilians. A recently launched interactive map produced by All Eyes on Wagner, an open-source investigations initiative, offers a look at the group’s activities worldwide. That includes 19 alleged massacres.
What’s next for the Wagner Group?
International calls to hold the group accountable for its alleged crimes are growing louder. In March, Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, condemned “serious violations of human rights in the Central African Republic involving murders and sexual violence on civilians committed by rebel groups and soldiers and their Russian allies.”
On April 15, the UN announced the opening of an investigation into the alleged massacre of 10 to 15 people by Russian forces and possibly the Wagner Group in Gordile and Ndah villages in CAR. According to the statement, the investigation is being done by Minusca.
An entirely new UN panel of experts for CAR was established in April. “Whether they’re allowed to do their job is unlikely but remains to be seen,” Loraine Rickard-Martin, an expert on UN sanctions and chief executive of Compliance and Capacity Skills international, a nonprofit firm specializing in global sanctions, told PassBlue.
Update: Due to an editing error, the headline and text were corrected to say that Russia used its Security Council “seat” and “power” to block the UN panel of experts from doing its work and not its veto.
Anastasiia Carrier is a Detroit-based freelance reporter. She earned an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and her work has appeared in Politico Magazine, The Wire China and The Radcliffe Magazine.