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Russia’s Wagner Group Could Fuel Conflict in Sudan, Experts Say

FILE: A man wearing a camouflage uniform exits the Wagner Center, the headquarters of a Kremlin-linked private military group, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nov. 4, 2022.
FILE: A man wearing a camouflage uniform exits the Wagner Center, the headquarters of a Kremlin-linked private military group, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nov. 4, 2022.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of a Russian government-backed paramilitary group, has offered weapons to one of the warring parties in Sudan, according to several media reports.

Since the fighting began in April, there have been unconfirmed reports and diplomatic sources who spoke to news outlets saying that Wagner fighters are supporting the paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces and supplying them with weapons.

Cameron Hudson, a former U.S. State Department official and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA that the Wagner Group is supplying portable air defense systems, shoulder-fired rockets, tank busters and heavy armor.

The RSF denies receiving support from Russia.

As news emerges, however, that the Wagner Group could be taking sides, experts warn such external involvement can only worsen the conflict, citing the group’s negative track record and trail of atrocities in Africa.

In a rare admission to the group’s involvement in Sudan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Tuesday that the decision to involve the Wagner Group is up to African leadership.

“Central African Republic and Mali and Sudan, a number of other countries, whose governments, whose legitimate authorities turn for this kind of services [to Wagner Group], have the right to do so,” Lavrov told a news conference at the United Nations.

High-level U.S. officials continue to express concern over the involvement of the Wagner Group in Sudan, where it is involved in mineral extraction.

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that the group's involvement has the potential to further ignite the conflict.

“Obviously, we don’t want to see this conflict expand or broaden, and we certainly wouldn’t want to see additional firepower brought to bear; that will just continue the violence and continue to escalate the tensions,” he said.

The fight to grab power is between two generals, General Abdel Fattah Burhan, head of the armed forces, and General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, or Hemedti, the leader of the RSF paramilitary group.

Hemedti traveled to Russia shortly after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and has sought to win support from the Wagner Group.

“Through this visit, we hope to advance relations between Sudan and Russia to broader horizons, and strengthen the existing cooperation between us in various fields,” Dagalo said in a Twitter post at the time of his Moscow visit.

Jacqueline Burns is a senior policy analyst with RAND Corporation, a global policy research group. She said by supporting Hemedti, Russia is seeking to protect its own interests.

“Russia and the Wagner Group, they benefit from gold concessions in Sudan and the illicit smuggling of gold out of the country,” she told VOA. “The Wagner Group is siding with the party they think is most likely to be able to continue to secure these interests, particularly in opposition to any civilian-led government.”

The Wagner Group’s history in Sudan dates to the previous government of Omar al-Bashir. Prigozhin had a close relationship with the autocratic leader, who allowed Wagner-affiliated companies access to gold mining.

After the army ousted al-Bashir in 2019 amid a popular uprising, Wagner continued to have a close relationship with the Sudanese military, particularly the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces headed by Hemedti. This replicates its model of engagement in other African countries.

“Wagner Group does seem to engage with African countries on a pretty predictable sort of pattern,” said Ben Dalton, a program manager at New America’s Future Frontlines, a Washington-based research group.

“Normally it starts with a cultivation of elites, or at least a subset of elites, and then that is followed up with a formal military technical agreement between the states. And this could be something like Russia will supply arms in exchange for concessions that allow them to do mining or other kinds of resource extraction.”

Russia views Sudan as a strategic location with vast mineral wealth and is eager to help install a friendly leader, say analysts.

“We’ve seen a lot in recent months about Russia’s efforts to gain a port on the Red Sea in Sudan through an official military relationship and they’ve signed other official military relationships with other countries in the region,” said Hudson.

Wagner’s involvement in other parts of the continent, however, has only brought strife to the population, Dalton said.

“Engaging with this group tends to go pretty badly for the population that has to deal with them. They’ve been associated with widespread atrocities everywhere they go; you see civilian deaths and various atrocities,” Dalton said.

"Russia’s interests are in extracting the continent’s resources so that it can strengthen its own position and build a web to resist ... international sanctions. They don't really have the interests of Africans at heart.”

Patsy Widakuswara and Cindy Saine contributed to this report.