He is not only present in the media when he boastfully criticizes his ruler at home in the Kremlin, when he propagandistically announces the capture of the city of Bakhmut in the Ukraine, which was destroyed by his mercenaries. Putin’s former chef de cuisine, Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder and supreme commander of the “Wagner Group” murder squad, is also offering to be a peace mediator in Sudan. He of all people wants to mediate in the conflict between two warring military factions. In an “open letter” published by his press office on Telegram, Prigozhin wrote that he had “long ties to Sudan” and “communicated with all the people” who make decisions there. Unlike the United Nations and others who “want Sudanese blood,” he wants peace.
However, what the oligarch, mercenary leader and former cook of Vladimir Putin writes about Sudan is likely to be based at least in part on facts. His letter goes on to say: “What is happening in Sudan now is not what we taught the Sudanese to use weapons for.”
There has been speculation for several years about the activities of Russia and in particular the “Wagner” group in the East African country. It’s about gold and guns. But the commitment in Sudan is also part of a geopolitical power struggle: Russia is trying to gain a stronger foothold in Africa. In July last year, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov undertook an extensive tour to the continent. Then again in January this year, again in February. Topics he discussed with presidents and dictators included Russian grain exports, energy partnerships and military support.
No other country delivers as many arms to Africa as Russia – more than 40 percent of African arms imports from 2017 to 2021 came from there. At the same time, Moscow is trying to expand its political influence at the expense of the West. The reward became apparent about a year ago: in March 2022, 18 African countries in the UN General Assembly refused to approve a resolution condemning Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The conflict in north-east Africa extends far beyond Sudan. The Sudanese commander Daglo is the main beneficiary of this. He has formed an alliance with the Russian “Wagner Group” paramilitaries, which also play a key role in the Ukraine war and are interested in the region’s gold reserves, and with the warlord Khalifa Haftar in neighboring Libya. Haftar and Daglo share an aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists, with whom the Sudanese army chief Burhan is allied. Well-informed US media quoted Libyan sources as reporting arms deliveries to the RSF a few days before the start of the war. The RSF maintains several military camps in the Libyan-Sudanese border area.
Satellite images show Russian Ilyushin-76s parked at Al-Khadim Airport in April, shortly afterwards other planes were sighted at Al-Jufra military airport in central Libya, used by the RSF and Wagner Group. Military experts have been monitoring the Russian airlift between Syria and Libya since 2014, saying the separate parking positions of the Wagner-operated Ilyushin at airports controlled by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) are one of several indicators of arms deliveries to the RSF.
Libyan journalists report on several convoys of trucks that have been traveling from Al-Khadim and Al-Jufra across the Libyan-Sudanese border near Kufra to Sudan’s Al-Fasher in the past few days. The civilian trucks were labeled as aid supplies, but they were actually full of anti-aircraft weapons, according to several media outlets in the Libyan capital. Tripoli was unsuccessfully besieged for 18 months in 2019 by Haftar’s LNA, Wagner, Daglos RSF and mercenaries from Chad.
Daglos’ long-standing collaboration with the Kremlin is undisputed. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in the summer of 2014, Wagner commanders agreed on a lucrative partnership in the gold-mining towns of Libya and Darfur with Daglo and Burhan, who were still allies at the time. In 2017, Sudanese engineers on behalf of Daglo extracted huge gold deposits from the desert soil in Jebel Amer in Darfuria and a year later in the Chadian-Libyan border area. Wagner mercenaries secured the transports and the ever-expanding desert camps, to which migrants and job seekers from all over the region flocked. Every week, Russian Air Force aircraft commute between the Syrian military airports near Latakia and the two Libyan military bases at Jufra and Al-Khadim. On the way to Libya, Syrian and Russian mercenaries or weapons are on board, for the way back gold and US dollars are loaded for Damascus and Moscow. The Ilyushins often make a detour to the United Arab Emirates, the most important trading center for gold from the border triangle of Sudan, Libya and Chad.
On the day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Daglo again was visiting Moscow with a delegation. According to some reports, however, the cooperation between him and Russia goes far beyond gold trading. The American broadcaster CNN recently reported that the “Wagner” group had supplied the RSF with surface-to-air missiles. They were taken to Libya, where “Wagner” uses military bases belonging to RSF-allied warlord Khalifa Haftar, just before fighting broke out, and from there to Sudan.
Prigozhin rejects that too. A day after the publication of his “open letter”, he said: “I would like to emphasize once again that the private military contractor Wagner is in no way involved in the Sudanese conflict.” However, disinformation has always been part of “Wagner’s” business. And Prigozhin’s group is influential in Africa in a variety of ways. In Sudan via front companies in connection with gold mining and apparently through arms deliveries. Elsewhere, for example in Mali, “Wagner” is directly involved in the military. France has therefore withdrawn its troops from Mali, after a more than ten-year campaign against Islamist terrorist groups that ultimately had little success. For the Kremlin, the gold from the Sahara is used to support the Central Bank, which has been weakened by western sanctions. Daglo saw the partnership with Moscow as an opportunity to become independent from the army and the political elite in Khartoum. Because the Islamists, generals and regime supporters in the capital see him and his RSF paramilitaries, who come from the impoverished provinces of Chad and Sudan, as taking orders at best. Daglo expressed his thanks for the Kremlin’s military support by promising a future Russian military base in the port city of Port Sudan.
So far, Russia and the mercenaries of the “Wagner Group” have concentrated on crisis-ridden states in Africa. However, observers fear that the Sudan crisis could spread and shake the entire region. Chad would be particularly affected. Thousands of people from Sudan are already fleeing there. “Wagner” and Russia may not be behind the power struggle of the military leaders there. In any case, the power struggle suits them.
The West has chosen the struggle for the “Global South” as a key to Russia’s international isolation in the Ukraine war. This campaign has so far been less successful than hoped. Moscow is unchoosy about supporting autocratic regimes in Africa and other parts of the world. It supplies weapons, receives raw materials and talks precious little about democratic values. The Chinese do the same. They build roads, bridges and railway lines. The whole thing is financed by loans from Beijing. The workers also come from the People’s Republic. Europeans and Americans have not yet found a suitable counter-model to this. One thing is clear: Western values alone are not enough.
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