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Why is Russia's Wagner Group in Sudan, and what does it have to do with the war in Ukraine?

Visitors wearing military camouflage stand at the entrance of the 'PMC Wagner Centre'.
Visitors wearing military camouflage stand at the entrance of the 'PMC Wagner Centre'. Copyright AP
Copyright AP
By Irina Sheludkova
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Experts claim that the Wagner Group is in Sudan to provide Russia with access to resources and help it fund the war in Ukraine.

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Russia's Wagner Group has been present in Sudan since 2017. And amid the unfolding power struggle in the country, some have expressed fears that the mercenary group is fuelling the conflict and possibly acting on behalf of the Kremlin.

"It's so striking that anywhere there is instability or an attack on democracy in Africa, that Wagner group is involved and more often than not they are on the side of the militia," said Emmanuel Kotin, a security expert and executive director of the Africa Centre for Security and Counterterrorism think tank.

"Look at Burkina Faso, for instance, all of the country’s mines are taken over by proxies of the Wagner group. The same thing that is happening in Sudan and in Mali," he added. 

According to a number of international investigations, the Wagner Group's goal in Sudan is to provide Moscow access to resources, which, Russia then uses to finance the war in Ukraine. One of its main objectives is acquiring gold, as Sudan is the third largest producer of the mineral in Africa.

Who is the Wagner Group working for in Sudan?

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime [GI-TOC] estimates that the Wagner group's structures are deeply embedded in Sudan and the neighbouring Central African Republic, developing significant political influence, extensive commercial interests and a mercenary role. GI-TOC notes that "the main objective of the Russians in Sudan is not to protect the Khartoum political power, but essentially to benefit immensely from the country's mineral resources."  

Concession agreements between the Ministry of Mineral Resources of the Republic of Sudan and M Invest, owned by the founder of the Wagner group Yevgeny Prigozhin, were signed in late 2017. 

Meroe Gold, a Sudanese subsidiary of M Invest, has received privileges from the country's authorities, and in return, it gave up 30% of its stakes in several of its projects. The US and EU have imposed sanctions on these companies. Prigozhin claims he is not a beneficiary of them. 

Commenting on the activities of the Wagner group in the Central African Republic, Jelena Aparac, an independent expert for the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries, said: "We know that this is a very complicated process, so it is very difficult to determine who is behind it? How does it work? Who is giving the orders? Who is even potentially criminally responsible for human rights violations? Who is responsible for the financial transactions? But we see that it is a very complex financial and logistical system." 

US network CNN recently published an investigation that revealed that the Wagner Group supplied Sudan's Rapid Support Forces [RSF] with missiles to help in the conflict. RSF denies receiving help from Russia and Libya, while the Wagner Group did not comment on the findings of this investigation.

Prigozhin said that there has not been a single fighter of his group in Sudan for more than two years. "I can tell you with absolute certainty, and you can put my words in any protocols, in any highest instances, today there is not a single soldier of the PMC [private military company] "Wagner", I emphasise - not a single one, not in Sudan," he said on Telegram.

"And so it is more than two years. Not a single Wagner PMC soldier is present in Sudan for two years. And today there is not a single one. I think that this is the main thing that you need to know."  He added he has been involved in Sudan for a long time, and "communicated with all the decision-makers in the Republic of Sudan." 

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a UN press conference on Tuesday that the Sudanese authorities have the right to use the Wagner Group.

Russian media previously reported that the founder of the mercenary group took part in almost all meetings between Russian officials and Sudanese representatives starting from 2014-2016. Sudan was one of the first countries to recognise the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Since then, gold has proven to be an effective way to accumulate and move funds, replenish the Russian state treasury and circumvent international financial monitoring systems.

"The Wagner Group's interests represent primarily the Wagner Group as opposed to a specific Sudanese entity. What we've seen over the past several years is that Wagner keeps on switching its allegiances," Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, explained. He added that the Wagner Group is going to places where the Western community has previously failed to establish stability, and Russia is looking for ways to expand its presence in Africa.

Russia also wants to divert attention away from its actions in Ukraine.
Paul Stronski
Senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program

Russia and Sudan's military ties

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia is the main arms supplier to Sudan. Russian military equipment makes up around 87% of the Sudanese army's armament. 

One of the main results of this cooperation is the opening of a Russian Navy base in Sudan, which will allow the Kremlin to control access to the Suez Canal and access to the Indian Ocean.

The agreement will allow Russia to establish a naval base of up to 300 Russian soldiers and maintain up to four naval ships, including nuclear ones, at Port Sudan on the Red Sea, which is of strategic importance.

In return, Russia agreed to provide Sudan with arms and military equipment. The agreement is for 25 years with an automatic extension for a 10-year period if none of the parties objects.

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Lavrov announced in February that the Sudanese military approved the agreement during his visit to Khartoum. Lavrov last visited Sudan in 2014.

An agreement to establish a Russian Navy supply point in Sudan was signed in November 2020.

But it will only come into force after the establishment of a civilian government and legislative body in Sudan, which will ratify the document.

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