Russia-Ukraine: From the CAR to Mali, Wagner takes part in Putin’s war

By Mathieu Olivier

Posted on Tuesday, 1 March 2022 18:42, updated on Tuesday, 8 March 2022 15:49
A member of the Russian private company Wagner in the CAR, 4 August 2018. © FLORENT VERGNES/AFP

Present in Bamako and Bangui, Russian mercenaries have been looking to Ukraine for several days. Men have been sent there from the CAR, where propaganda supporting Putin’s invasion has been running at full speed.

On 24 February, just as Russian troops had launched their offensive in Ukraine, a message was posted on the Wagner group’s unofficial thread on Telegram (which goes by the name ‘Reverse side of Z medal’). It says: “We know that in Kiev, as well as in Ukraine’s major cities, the population is mobilising to form territorial defence units. (…) It is your choice. (…) But believe me, try to avoid being enrolled in such units.”

Since then, the majority of the messages posted by the Wagner group only talk about one thing: the military offensive launched in Ukraine by  Vladimir Putin.

Discussions are centred on the surrender of defenders of the capital Kiev after they were overwhelmed by the Russian advance, as well as the seizure and destruction of Ukrainian military equipment by Moscow’s men. On the Telegram channel, which currently has almost 160,000 subscribers, the information war is in full swing.

But just how involved is the Wagner group? According to an inside source quoted by The Times, fighting units have been sent from the CAR to the Ukrainian theatre of operations. Their mission is to infiltrate Kiev’s defences and – among other things – capture President Volodymyr Zelensky. Some sources mention a contingent of up to 400 men, while others estimate their number at only several dozen.

Bangui and Bamako at the heart of war

According to our information, several departures of Russian aircrafts – whose flight plans remain unknown – have been noted at Mpoko airport in Bangui. Furthermore, activity has become intense in the capital, especially at the Kassaï camp. In recent months, several helicopters destined for Bamako and for deployment in Mali have taken off from this location. The group – which is financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a friend of Putin – has more than 2,000 men in the CAR, divided between Bangui, Berengo and the interior part of the country.

Many of Wagner’s seasoned fighters began their ‘careers’ in the Donbass, Ukraine. The group’s operational leader and Prigozhin’s number two, Dmitry Utkin, fought there. This self-proclaimed neo-Nazi reportedly commanded mercenary units in late 2014 and early 2015 under the banner of the ‘Slavic Corps’, Wagner’s unofficial ancestors. A former lieutenant-colonel in Russian military intelligence (the famous GRU), Utkin – who subsequently set foot in Libya, Sudan and the CAR – has thus, in a way, done his mercenary training in eastern Ukraine. “This is his favourite area. It makes a lot of sense that Moscow would call on his expertise again,” says a Western security source.

Russian doctrine includes disinformation as a necessary strategy for any military operation.

Is Wagner’s contribution solely military? “Its most visible impact is actually on the information level,” says someone familiar with the group. The latter has not hesitated to use the CAR and Mali to feed Putin’s propaganda. In the last few days, the Telegram channel linked to the group widely reported two false stories stating that Bamako and Bangui recognised the republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, which have proclaimed themselves as independent, with Moscow’s support.

The ‘fake news’ factory

On the Central African side, this ‘information’ was actually taken from an article written by the official Russian news agency RIA Novosti, which claims to report the words of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who stated that recognising the two entities would “save lives and avoid a lot of violence”.

At the same time, RIA FAN, the Patriot Group’s flagship website and Prigozhin’s media entity, wrote the following headline: ‘Central African President Touadéra recognises Donetsk and Lugansk’. However, Bangui has since denied this information, even though it was widely shared.

At the same time, a forged document suggesting that the Malian authorities had recognised the two self-proclaimed republics made the rounds on social media in Bamako. Although the origin of this disinformation campaign has not yet been established, this ‘fake news’ was also widely relayed on the social media accounts and channels that Wagner manages. It was then picked up by local media and accounts favourable to Russian interests and the ruling junta.

“Wagner plays on anti-Western sentiment to gain sympathy for Putin’s policies,” says a researcher familiar with the group. “This is a textbook case,” says another expert on Wagner and Russia. “Russian doctrine includes disinformation as a necessary strategy for any military operation. In their case, they control the information and in others, they try to influence it. This is one of the main roles of certain GRU units, which work in collaboration with Wagner and Prigozhin’s Patriot Group.”

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