ARE RUSSIAN MERCENARIES OPERATING IN SUDAN?
On January 10th 2019, the Times newspaper published an article titled “Russian mercenaries help put down Sudan protests”, detailing how armed Russian men were seen in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. Various other publications also ran with the story, including Ukraine’s UNIAN news agency and the Sudan Tribune. The latter had published the story three days prior to the Times, stating that the Russians were in Khartoum to train the Sudanese government’s National Intelligence and Security Service(NISS).
The Times subsequently reported the same.They also cited the course and said that the Russian men forcibly dispersed protestors during a popular anti-government demonstration.
The origin of these reports is two photographs taken by unknown activists within Khartoum, which were distributed on Twitter by an individual named Jon Hutson. The photographs, showing Caucasian men wearing desert fatigues in the rear of a Ural-4320 truck, first appeared on December 31st 2018. They also show the men holding what are believed to be cameras, close to an anti-government demonstration inKhartoum.
While initially denying the involvement of Russians within Sudan, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs took the unusual step on January 23rd 2019 of confirming that “representatives of private Russian security firms unrelated to the Russian government are indeed working in Sudan. But their functions are limited to training the security forces of the Republic of Sudan”.
Vasyl Hrytsak, the chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), countered this on January 25th 2019, by stating that since December 2017 at least 300 individuals from the Russian Private Military Contractor (PMC) firm “Wagner Group” had been deployed to Sudan.
Three days later the SBU released a list of 149 purported Russian PMC personnel, including photographs, passport numbers and other personal information, which the organisation states were sent to Sudan.
The SBU further stated that the contractors had been sent with the direct authority of the Russian state, through a complex chain of logistics involving the Russian Ministry of Defence, Russian mining company “M Invest LLC” and via flights between Russia, Syria, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Libya.
Additionally, the SBU alleges that the Wagner Group contractors were issued travel documents by the same office which arranged those for Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga and Dr Alexander Mishkin, the Russian Interior Ministry’s Central Migration Office Unit 770-001 (known as “Unit 770001”)—a claim substantiated by independent investigative website Bellingcat.
If Russian contractors from a group previously linked to frontline conflict in Ukraine and Syria, sent at the behest or blessing of the Russian state, are operating in Sudan, then what is their role in the country and what does it mean for the people of Sudan?
Three decades under the rule of Sudanese leader Omar Al-Bashir is being challenged by street protests, with large-scale demonstrations taking place throughout Sudan. Worsening economic conditions, including rising prices and surging inflation, have led to increasingly severe consequences for the country's citizens. The protestors have levelled blame squarely with the government, specifically the leadership of President Al-Bashir and the austerity measures imposed in an attempt to alleviate the country's economic crisis.
Reneging on a previous promises to step down, Al-Bashir's nomination in August 2018 by the National Congress party for the 2020 Presidential election led to growing discontent within the country. This culminated in late 2018 when the protests began in Atbara, quickly spreading to Port Sudan and now concentrated in the capital Khartoum.
Images of Wagner allegedly operating recently in Sudan
Social media was restricted in December 2018 by the country's service providers, leading to protestors mobilising on the streets. Violence ensued, with the state's security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas, and arresting people en masse in an attempt to quell the protests. Estimates of those killed vary, with the Sudanese government saying it’s at 24 and Amnesty International placing the figure at at least 37 killed.
Much of the violence has been conducted by the NISS paramilitary, the so-called Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The NISS has been implicated in the abduction and alleged torture of protestors, including 32 students it accused of being trained by Israel's Mossad intelligence agency. They said the students were planning “acts of sabotage” as part of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM)'s Al-Nur faction.
Having operated in eastern Ukraine and Syria as an extension of Russian foreign policy objectives, the Wagner Group (alternatively referred to as Wagner PMC, Wagner Company, and other pseudonyms) is the most well documented Russian PMC currently operating. Open source investigations by a number of organisations such as Bellingcat, the Conflict Investigation Team (CIT), and Znak have tied the company to the Russian armed forces. The group's shadowy leader Dmitry Utkin is said to be tied to the Russian leadership, including President Vladimir Putin himself. A former lieutenant colonel in the GRU's special forces brigades, Utkin has been placed on a United States Treasury sanctions list for sending fighters to Luhansk and Donetsk to fight alongside the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Wagner Group was named in a Ukrainian SBU press release dated January 25th 2019 as the PMC operating in Sudan. It also said Wagner additionally operates in the CAR.
The SBU claimed that approximately 300 personnel from the Group have been operating in Sudan since December 2017, using Russian Ministry of Defence aircraft transiting via the Russian airbase in Latakia, Syria.
The aircraft, a pair of Tu-154M transporters from the 223rd Flight Detachment, are claimed to have travelled to Khartoum from Russia a total of eight times in the first five months of 2018 alone. The SBU claims to have intercepted passenger manifests, showing over 1000 PMC personnel transported by these flights in the second half of 2018.
Bellingcat subsequently published an independent assessment of the SBU's claims on January 30th, substantiating the claim through triangulation of different information sources.
Bellingcat's investigation identified a number of PMC personnel as having flown from Pashkovsky airport, a 30-minute journey from the Wagner Group's training base in the southern Russian town of Molkino, using a leaked Russian domestic air travel database obtained by the website. This covered the period from 2014 to 2016. The same database also linked Utkin and GRU colonel Oleg Ivannikov to Pashkovsky airport.
M INVEST LLC
M Invest LLC, a major Russian mining company run by alleged Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been at the heart of Russian - Sudanese bilateral agreements in recent years. The company's regional director Mikhail Potyopkin and Sudanese Minister of Minerals Hashim Ali Salim signed an agreement on gold concessions in November 2017, during an intergovernmental meeting in Sochi.
M Invest, acting through the Wagner Group, was also cited by the SBU as responsible for assassination of three Russian journalists in the CAR in July 2018, after the journalists began investigating M Invest's mining and security operations there, the latter in support of the CAR government.
RUSSIA'S CONTINUED INTEREST IN SUDAN
The rationale behind using “deniable” Russian military personnel in Sudan, including the violent suppression of popular protests, is based around three key elements.
Speaking in June 2018, the Russian ambassador to Sudan, Vladimir Zheltov, stated that Russia and Sudan were in discussions regarding the establishment of a naval facility of Sudan's Red Sea coast. Previously opposed to this, Sudanese President Al-Bashir may have been persuaded to change course following the multiple bilateral agreements reached in November 2017.
In January 2019 the Sudanese parliament passed a draft military agreement allowing up to seven Russian warships to enter Sudanese waters, ahead of a future agreement on the construction of a new naval base. The establishment of a Red Sea base would enhance Russia's ability to operate strategically in Africa, including providing higher military support to mining and other business interests in the region.
Given that Sudan is emerging as a key source of minerals and other natural assets for Russia, the ability to protect the friendly President's regime, both internally against a popular revolt, and externally through shielding from international criminal proceedings, is paramount for ongoing Russian exploitation in the country.
Sudan is also located in a strategic place to facilitate other Russian activities in the region, namely operations in the CAR, Libya, and the Middle East. With Russian PMCs already having operated in both the CAR and Libya—including the Wagner Group—the utility of such privately owned, state-directed companies is likely to continue expanding.
With the Russian government keen to exploit the gaps left by other governments unwilling to ally with undemocratic and brutal regimes in Africa, private soldiers are a useful method of quietly ensuring such relationships are sustained, despite the suffering and continued exploitation of the population in each country. Given the level of self-investment the Russian government has demonstrated in the Sudanese regime, it is unlikely that popular calls for reform are will be met with anything other than brutality.