On the September 29 edition of Vesti Nedeli – News of the Week -- Dmitry Kiselyov’s Sunday news program on Russian state television, featured a segment on Russian involvement in the Central African Republic. The segment touched on the involvement of the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, and the murder of three Russian journalists who had been investigating Wagner’s activities in CAR last year.
Vesti Nedeli’s special correspondent Alexander Rogatkin visited a CAR military base where Russian instructors who train local soldiers were present, and spoke with a Russian man named Gennady Ivanov, who was identified as a “senior military instructor.” Ivanov said the Russian instructors have “no relationship to PMC Wagner,” and that they work “by contract.” However, he did not specify on whose contract they were working there.
This denial is problematic, given that Russia has laws banning “mercenary activities.” While two articles of Russian law prohibit mercenary activities and creation of unlawful military groups, it allows such firms to operate under the umbrella of military consulting and security guards. Wagner claims to be exactly that -- a private military company providing consulting and security guard services. Independent journalists in Russia uncovered connections between a mercenary group dating back to 2013 and a former GRU officer Dmitry Utkin who went by the alias “Wagner."
Shortly after the three Russian journalists were murdered in the Central Africa Republic, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman admitted “the presence of Russian instructors” avoiding any reference to Wagner’s presence or mention of its role in active combat in Ukraine and Syria. On April 15, 2018, Maxim Borodin, a Russian journalist from Ekaterinburg who had been investigating the deaths of Wagner mercenaries in Syria, died from injuries sustained after falling from either the balcony or window of his fifth floor apartment.
On Vesti Nedeli, Ivanov’s statement was seemingly refuted in the same segment, when the camera focused in on a sheet of paper displaying a list of guidelines for Russian military personnel. It was titled “The Fighter’s Ten Commandments,” and the first “commandment” read: “Defend the interests of Russia always and everywhere.”
Some of the commandments contradicted Ivanov’s claims about who the “instructors” are and what they are doing in CAR. Thus, while the second “commandment” stated that “[t]he honor of a Russian soldier is above all,” Ivanov said he and the other Russians were simply working “under contract.” The next “commandment” stated: “Fight not for money, but from principle! There is one principle - victory!” Again, Ivanov claimed he and his men work “by contract,” meaning they are in fact working for money.
But the most revealing thing was the image that appeared under the text of the “The Fighter’s Ten Commandments -- that of a medal issued by the Wagner group to its men who fought in Ukraine and Syria. This is not a Russian military medal, and Russian media have confirmed that it is a Wagner award.
While there is strong evidence that Wagner was originally affiliated with the Russian state, since 2017 it has become associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with close ties to the Kremlin who has benefited immensely from, among other ventures, contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry. Prigozhin came under U.S. sanctions in 2016, and several of his companies, including Concord Management and Consulting, were added to the sanctions list in 2017. The U.S. District of Columbia court in 2018 indicted Prigozhin and several of his firms including Internet Research Agency, often known as the “troll factory,” along with twelve employees for alleged interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections.
On September 30, the U.S. Treasury Department announced additional sanctions against Prigozhin, targeting his private assets.
On October 2, the Russian independent media site Meduza reported on the death of 10 to 35 Russian mercenaries in Libya. Earlier, Bloomberg had reported on the presence of approximately 100 Russian mercenaries affiliated with Wagner, who were in the country supporting the Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Moscow.