The deaths of three Russian journalists investigating their country’s military presence in the Central African Republic last week has cast renewed attention on a shadowy group of private mercenaries with alleged ties to the Kremlin.
The bodies of war correspondent Orkhan Dzhemal, documentary filmmaker Alexander Rastorguyev and cameraman Kirill Radchenko were delivered to Moscow Sunday morning — nearly a week after unknown gunmen ambushed their vehicle as the men traveled by night on a road 180 kilometers (112 miles) north of the capital of Bangui.
Only their locally hired driver escaped the attack unharmed, later telling CAR officials men “turbaned and speaking only Arabic” had killed the journalists at a checkpoint.
Yet questions as to the reason for the attack abound:
Was it robbery, as Russian and CAR government officials have suggested? The journalists were carrying about $8,000 in cash. The CAR is known as one of Africa’s poorest countries, long mired in a simmering civil war between Muslim and Christian factions.
Or was the killing related to the three men’s work? The journalists traveled to the Central African Republic to film a documentary for a Kremlin-exiled oligarch about "the Wagner Group," a secret army of Russian mercenaries who — mounting evidence shows — have played an important role in Russia’s military ambitions.
Ukraine and Syria
Indeed, the Wagner Group’s roots date back to Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine in 2014, when Russian soldiers and mercenaries blended in with what the Kremlin insisted were merely passionate "volunteers" providing support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's east.
While Moscow has long insisted Russia is not formally part of the conflict, Russian fighters have routinely taken part in battles — lured, say journalists, by both idealism, propaganda and money.
“A huge number of people went to work for Wagner with pleasure,” explained journalist Denis Korotov of Fontanka.ru, an online publication in Saint Petersburg who first broke news of the Wagner mercenaries.
“Russia has more than enough people who know how to shoot a gun, and these people can’t make anything close to this kind of money working in the civilian sector,” he added in an interview with VOA last January.
Wagner links soon emerged in Syria, where the Kremlin launched a military campaign in support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in the fall of 2015.
Although President Vladimir Putin insisted at the outset that Russia’s military role would be limited, “Wagner became the Kremlin’s main tactical group in Syria. Because the Syrian army can’t do the job on their own,” said Ruslan Leviev of the Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of researchers who have also tracked Wagners movements using online forensics.
“An air campaign can’t win the war and a ground invasion meant big losses,” he added.
The casualty debate
Wagner casualty figures have long been a source of dispute — with journalists regularly tracking mercenary deaths amid government denials of the group’s very existence.
Take Deir el-Zour. An oil-rich region in eastern Syria held by U.S. coalition forces, Deir el-Zour came under attack last February by troops loyal to the Syrian leadership. The U.S. response, according to both American and Syrian officials, was overwhelming and lethal.
Later reports surfaced that Russians — perhaps as few as five, perhaps as many as 200 — were among the dead. U.S. officials eventually confirmed the outlines of the story, saying “a couple hundred Russians” had been killed in the attack.
Moscow has scoffed at those numbers, insisting its own troops had suffered no losses.
In the Central African Republic, some contend Wagner’s mission has shifted once again — this time, to protect economic as well as political interests.
Media reports suggest Wagnerites are there to flush out — or, perhaps, blend in with — 175 Russian civilian and military “instructors” tasked within a larger United Nations mission aimed at shoring up the C.A.R.’s government amid a civil war. The Kremlin has also openly worked with C.A.R. to develop its diamond and mineral industries.
“We conclude that the ‘Russian civilian instructors’ in C.A.R are in fact Russian mercenaries from Wagner,” says Conflict Intelligence Team’s Ruslan Leviev.
Russian officials, in turn, stress the Russian presence is there with U.N. backing.
“There is nothing sensational about the presence of Russian instructors in the Central African Republic,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. “No one has been concealing anything.”
Investigations, state media taboos
Attention has now turned to competing investigations — both official and journalistic — into the Russian journalists’ slayings.
Yet the sensitive nature of the Wagner story within Russia has long been clear.
Russian state media has largely ignored the story — including allegations Wagner’s sponsor is Evgeny Prigozhin, a restaurateur whose ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin have earned him the nickname “Putin’s Chef” — and a place on U.S. sanctions lists.
State media reporting has instead argued the slain journalists were duped into shooting a “documentary film” for the Investigation Control Center, an outlet funded by the exiled oligarch-turned-Kremlin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The suggestion of political motivations is clear.
Meanwhile, independent observers argue that — in the wake of Russian deaths in Syria and now the Central African Republic — it’s long past time for the Kremlin to lift the veil on Wagner.
The government's secrecy, they note, is largely due to Russian law that declares private mercenary groups illegal.
“Second tragic call after the Deir-el-Zor incident last February,” wrote the Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Dmitry Trenin in a post to Twitter.
“The killing of three Russian investigative journalists in the Central African Republic makes it imperative that Russian private military/security companies are given proper status under Russian law."