Russian private military company Wagner Group is looking to insert itself into the ongoing conflict in Sudan as part of its expanding operations across Africa that experts say are helping to fund its bloody role in Ukraine.
The founder of the mercenary group, Kremlin-linked oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, seeks to wedge Wagner into the fight for control of Sudan, offering weapons to the warring paramilitaries and looking to exploit the connections to the gain of Moscow.
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While there are yet no confirmed reports of Wagner personnel directly involved in the fighting, the group’s moves have alarmed the United States and its allies, who are watching the situation unfold with trepidation.
The United States has made clear that “we vehemently oppose any outside influences perpetuating the conflict,” Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Monday.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken the same day warned that Wagner risked aggravating the conflict.
“We do have deep concern about the engagement of the Prigozhin group, the Wagner Group, in Sudan,” Blinken told reporters. “It’s in so many different countries in Africa — an element that, when it’s engaged, simply brings more death and destruction with it.”
He added: “It’s very important that we not see its further engagement in Sudan.”
Wagner is no stranger to African countries, with the group in less than a decade establishing footholds in the Central Africa Republic, Libya, Mozambique and Mali, and seeking inroads into Burkina Faso.
In exchange for providing mercenaries to different governments or running destabilizing social media disinformation campaigns, Wagner has gained access to valuable gold mines, arms deals and offers of satellite locations for Moscow.
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The agreements also mean a gain for Russia, which uses Wagner to further its own interests in Africa.
The group now seems to have its eyes firmly on Sudan, with Prigozhin last week issuing a statement offering to help mediate the fight between rival Sudanese generals.
The conflict centers around Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, the leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), and Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s military and de facto head of state, with fighting centered in the capital of Khartoum.
Hamdan and Burhan initially teamed up for a 2021 coup to topple the government, but arguments over power sharing soured the relationship.
The fighting between the two sides, which began only weeks ago, has killed more than 450 civilians and fighters and wounded over 4,000, according to the U.N. health agency.
The conflict has proved a prime opportunity for Wagner to interject. The group previously entered the country in 2017, giving equipment and training to the security forces of former authoritarian President Omar al-Bashir. The Russian contractor also conducted information operations and deployed some 500 men to put down local uprisings in exchange for “exclusive rights to gold mining in Sudan, channeled through [Prigozhin’s] M-Invest company,” according to the Brookings Institution.
Before he was ousted in 2019, Bashir also offered Moscow a naval base on the Red Sea.
Wagner is now reportedly offering weapons including surface-to-air missiles to Hamdan’s RSF, though the group has denied any link to Wagner, The New York Times reported.
“If reports are true, Wagner has gone beyond the playbook, possibly instigating the conflict or at a minimum prepositioning material/weapon in advance of the civil conflict,” said Jason Blazakis, the director of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism.
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While time will tell what the true scope of Wagner’s involvement is in the current civil conflict, Blazakis said the group is right now “unequivocally” destabilizing Sudan.
The situation could also give Wagner another possible revenue stream for its brutal military campaign in Ukraine on behalf of Russia.
While there isn’t a financial trail equivalent to a smoking gun that traces Wagner assets acquired directly in Africa to the fighting in Ukraine, “analytically speaking there can be little doubt that the money Wagner makes in Africa is benefiting the group in several ways,” Blazakis told The Hill.
Such funding could be used for recruitment efforts in the Ukraine-Russia war, paying troops’ salaries, and the purchase of weapons and ammo for Wagner fighters on the front lines in Ukraine, he added.
Making the conflict in Sudan all the more dire to Washington, thousands of Western citizens remain in Sudan, with a second American killed there as of Wednesday amid a three-day, U.S.-brokered cease-fire, according to the White House.
About 100 American employees at the U.S. embassy in the Sudanese capital were evacuated as part of a coordinated effort between the Pentagon and State Department late last week.
About 16,000 Americans remain in Sudan, most of them dual nationals, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday.
“We still have military forces prepositioned in the region ready to respond if need be,” Kirby said. “But right now, it’s not very safe to try to run some larger evacuation.”
As of last week, at least 500 American citizens had contacted the embassy, with about 55 asking for direct U.S. assistance to leave Khartoum, a congressional source told The Hill.
On Wednesday, reports emerged that the State Department was planning to send a consular team to the Port of Sudan to help U.S. citizens evacuate.