Aug 24 (Reuters) – Russia’s most powerful mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin was on board a plane that crashed on Wednesday near Moscow with no survivors, Russian authorities said, two months to the day after he led an abortive mutiny against the army top brass.
The June 23-24 revolt by Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary group called into question the fate of its wide network of military and commercial operations across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
This factbox outlines what Wagner is doing and where.
Wagner deployed in Ukraine soon after Russian armed forces launched a full-scale invasion in February 2022 and by the summer of last year it was enlisting thousands of prisoners to fight for it on front lines.
By December, as it took a central role in the battle for Bakhmut, U.S. intelligence estimated Wagner had 40,000 prisoner recruits fighting in Ukraine.
Wagner leaders took credit for Russian success in Bakhmut, while upbraiding the regular military and the leadership of the Defence Ministry for alleged corruption and incompetence in prosecuting the war in Ukraine.
Prigozhin arrived in Belarus soon after calling off the mutiny under a deal negotiated by President Alexander Lukashenko. Russian President Vladimir Putin said then that Wagner’s fighters would be offered the choice of relocating there.
Satellite images of a military base near Asipovichi, southeast of Minsk, where Russian media had reported the group would establish itself, appeared to show new construction, suggesting the swift development of a Wagner facility.
But in practice since the announcement of the Belarus accord, which reportedly also guaranteed his personal safety, Prigozhin appeared to move around freely inside Russia.
Russia officially began military operations in Syria in 2015 in support of President Bashar al-Assad against rebels seeking to overthrow him. Moscow deployed its air force from Syria’s Hmeimim air base and used contractors including Wagner for some ground operations and in security roles, with hundreds killed by the U.S. in 2018.
The group took over security of the al-Shaer oil field and Western officials say it owns Evro Polis, a company that takes 25% of profits from several Syrian oil fields.
Wagner has recruited former Syrian rebels in areas retaken by Assad, including for use as mercenaries in Libya from 2019, while Hmeimim air base become a critical node in its logistical operations as a transit point for flights to Russia and Libya.
But its operations in Syria were swiftly shifted over to the Russian state after the June mutiny, with contracts of fighters transferred from the group to Moscow’s Defence Ministry, sources said.
Wagner entered Libya in 2019 to help eastern commander Khalifa Haftar’s assault on Tripoli to drive out the internationally recognised government.
The U.S. Department of Defense said in 2020 that Wagner’s support for Haftar appeared to have been paid for by the United Arab Emirates, which backed the warlord along with Russia and Egypt. The UAE did not respond to a request for comment then, nor in June this year when asked about any links with Wagner.
U.N. sanctions monitors reported in 2020 that Wagner had deployed up to 1,200 people in Libya and the U.S. military’s Africa Command said Russian military aircraft were supplying Wagner fighters there.
Wagner operated air defence systems and fighter jets from Jufra air base south of Tripoli, with some warplanes arriving from Hmeimim where their original Russian markings were painted over.
As well as bringing in Syrian fighters as mercenaries, Wagner worked alongside foreign combatants from Sudan, Chad and elsewhere.
Although Haftar’s offensive ended in failure with a ceasefire in 2020, Wagner remained in Libya with a presence at Jufra and other air bases in the south and east that researchers say it uses as a springboard to other sites in Africa.
Wagner has also deployed at times around major oil fields and researchers say it has commercial interests in Libya that include energy output and local smuggling networks.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
Though rich in minerals, the Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world. Russian mercenaries including from Wagner intervened in 2018 on the side of the government to quell a civil war that had raged since 2012.
The Russian ambassador to the Central African Republic (CAR) said in a February interview with RIA, a Russian state-owned news agency, that 1,890 “Russian instructors” were present in the country.
Analysts have said Wagner received logging rights and control of a gold mine in CAR. The United States has put sanctions on a CAR company as one of several including one from the UAE that Washington said was involved in financing Wagner through illicit gold dealings.
Both Russia and Mali have said Russian fighters there are not mercenaries but rather trainers helping local troops fight a decade-long insurgency by Islamist militants.
Mali’s leaders seized power in a 2021 coup and brought in Wagner after asking a French military mission to leave.
The government contracted directly with Wagner, paying around $10.8 million a month for its services, Reuters reported in 2021.
Wagner fighters have been accused of involvement in an incident last year in Moura, in central Mali, where local troops and suspected Russian fighters allegedly killed hundreds of civilians.
Western nations and diplomats say Wagner has been involved in gold mining, spreading disinformation and schemes to suppress pro-democracy demonstrations in Sudan as Russia tried to sway events before and after the 2019 overthrow of Omar al-Bashir.
While Moscow has ties to both the military factions that have been locked in war in Sudan since April 15, Wagner is thought to have sustained a relationship with the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) rather than the army.
Wagner has denied it is operating in Sudan, saying its staff have not been there for more than two years and that it has had no role in the fighting.
However, in May the U.S. accused Wagner of supplying the RSF with surface-to-air missiles, “contributing to a prolonged armed conflict that only results in further chaos in the region”.
Reporting by Reuters newsrooms in Europe, Middle East and Africa; writing by Angus McDowall; editing by Alison Williams and Mark Heinrich
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