ABUJA, Nigeria—The infamous Wagner Group—run by one of President Putin’s closest associates—is pulling dozens of battle-hardened mercenaries out of Africa to send them to Eastern Europe where Russian forces are threatening Ukraine, The Daily Beast has learned.
According to two senior military officers in the Central African Republic (CAR) unprecedented numbers of Wagner mercenaries left the country for Eastern Europe in January and more are preparing to leave in the coming weeks.
“Usually when we hear that some have left we find out that they are just a handful—sometimes five or six people within a month,” an officer, who works at the military headquarters in the CAR capital, Bangui, told The Daily Beast. “It’s the first time we are hearing that dozens have departed in a month.”
One man who was recently detained by Wagner Group forces told The Daily Beast that he overheard CAR troops in the camp where he was being held describe a sudden exodus of mercenary fighters heading directly to Ukraine.
The move comes at a time when Ukrainian authorities have said Russia is boosting supplies of weapons, ammunition and military equipment to separatist regions in Ukraine while actively recruiting mercenaries to fight in the ongoing conflict. Kyiv’s military intelligence service said last week that Moscow was undertaking “active recruitment of mercenaries” who are being sent to separatist-controlled regions.
Some have called Wagner Putin’s “private army.” It is often dispatched undercover to regions where Russia denies having any official military presence.
It's not the first time the Wagner Group has re-deployed private special forces soldiers from Africa or other combat zones in line with Putin’s evolving foreign policy objectives—despite Kremlin denials that Wagner has any links to the Russian government.
An investigation by Bellingcat published in November found that more than 200 Russians had been sent to Belarus to destabilize the country in the run-up to its August 2020 presidential elections from other hotspots where the Wagner Group was deployed, including CAR.
If Putin was asking his friends at Wagner to increase the destabilization inside Ukraine, it would be likely that some of those Russian mercenaries would be drafted in from sub-Saharan Africa.
This is the first time the Russians have left in large numbers since Wagner mercenaries arrived in CAR at the request of the government more than four years ago, according to a military official, who said the mercenaries that have departed had come from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus and are returning to where they came from.
“We have specifically been told by their supervisors that about 20 Russians departed this January for Eastern Europe,” another official, who works closely with the Russians, told The Daily Beast privately. “What we understand is that the Russians who’ve left, and those who will leave later on, are doing so as part of their assignment rotation policy and that they would be replaced in due course.”
But no one seems to know when exactly the replacements for the departing mercenaries will arrive—if at all. The operations of the Wagner Group are often so shrouded in secrecy that even the people they work with in CAR have very little information about what they do.
“Yes, they share intelligence with us,” the military official said. “But that’s where it often ends. We rarely know anything about their itenary or plans.”
More than 1,000 Russians are deployed to CAR by the Wagner Group, which first gained international notoriety in Ukraine at the height of the 2014 incursion when they were accused of war crimes.
The organization was founded by Dmitry Utkin, who was once a member of the Russian special forces and is currently under U.S. sanctions for aiding Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
According to a CNN report, Utkin was once head of security for Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin. Prigozhin became famous as a restaurateur, and earned the nickname,“Putin’s chef” because of the lucrative contracts handed out to his catering company. Russian business outlet RBC reported a few years back that Utkin’s name appeared in a corporate database as the general director of one of Prigozhin's companies.
Progozhin denies that he is the financier of Wagner—a secretive and, under Russian law, illegal organization of private military contractors. But the allegations are persistent, the denials are pro forma, and its existence is an open secret. In 2016, the Russian broadcaster RBC published a detailed report on Wagner in the context of the global private military contractor industry.
The group has recruited many of its mercenaries from the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU, and its founder, Utkin (nickname: “Wagner”), is a veteran of the GRU’s elite Spetsnaz special-operations forces. RBC reported that the group operates under the supervision of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces.
Last week, The Daily Beast reported that one of the most feared offshoots of the group known as Task Force Rusich hinted at its own intention to fight undercover in Ukraine, where it is believed to have committed war crimes during the 2014 fighting between Russian separatists and Ukrainian armed forces.
A 26-year-old trader, who was arrested at the start of January by Wagner mercenaries in the CAR town of Bria, told The Daily Beast about his experiences in the camp where he was held. He said he and dozens of other young men were forced to demolish old brick houses and then recover the bricks for use in the construction of a new base for the Russians near a diamond buying office. He said he heard soldiers for the official CAR military—known as FACA—discussing amongst themselves how the mercenaries that arrested him had now traveled to Ukraine and may not return anytime soon.
“For the 15 days we stayed in the camp, we only saw the four Russians that arrested us the first two days when we arrived,” said Patrice Gaopandia, who was picked up along with three others when the Russians stormed the area he lived and embarked on a systematic arrest of young people for forced labor.
“It was later we heard FACA soldiers say that the Russian soldiers had left for Ukraine," said Gaopandia, who was later released.