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After Failed Mutiny in Russia, U.S. Sanctions Wagner Funders as Fighters Remain in Africa & Syria

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After the Wagner Group’s aborted mutiny in Russia, the Biden administration has imposed new sanctions on companies accused of profiting from the activities of the Wagner Group in Africa. This comes as Russian military police raided Wagner mercenary bases in Syria. Meanwhile, in Belarus, where Wagner Group leader Prigozhin is now exiled, The New York Times is reporting on construction of a new military base for Wagner fighters given the option of relocating there after the failed uprising. We speak with political scientist Kimberly Marten, who has been studying the Wagner Group for years and says that despite recent events, Russia’s war in Ukraine and its presence in other countries is unlikely to be affected. “Wagner itself does not exist as an entity,” she says, describing it as a “contracting mechanism” for the Russian military and not truly independent from the government. “It would be really easy for the Kremlin to just put in place some other individual as the titular CEO of all these various companies.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A top Russian general has reportedly been arrested amidst a crackdown on military officials with close ties to the Wagner mercenary group. General Sergey Surovikin was known to have a good relationship with Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led Wagner’s aborted mutiny last weekend. Surovikin was nicknamed “General Armageddon” because of his bombardment tactics in the Syrian conflict. He’s not been seen since Saturday’s armed revolt. The Moscow Times quoted a source saying, “Apparently, he [Surovikin] chose Prigozhin’s side during the uprising.”

Meanwhile, in Belarus, where Wagner Group leader Prigozhin is apparently now exiled, The New York Times is reporting on construction of a new military base for Wagner fighters who were given the option of relocating to Belarus after the group’s failed uprising. Satellite images by Planet Labs show the construction about 80 miles from the Belarusian capital of Minsk and about 13 miles from a town with multiple military facilities.

This comes as the Biden administration has imposed new sanctions on companies accused of profiting from the activities of the Wagner Group in Africa. The Treasury Department says the sanctions will punish four companies based in Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the Central African Republic that extract gold, diamonds and other minerals to help fund the mercenary force.

The sanctions were announced after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday Wagner mercenaries will not be withdrawn from Africa following last weekend’s mutiny. Saudi news outlets are reporting Russian military police in Syria conducted raids on Wagner mercenary bases in Syria and arrested the head of the Wagner Group in southern Syria. On Wednesday, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said leaders in Africa would decide whether Wagner forces will continue to work in their countries.

MARIA ZAKHAROVA: [translated] Whether Wagner forces continue on in African countries, whether they continue to work under contracts and stay there, depends on the sovereign authorities of the African countries.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Kimberly Marten, professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. She’s been working on the Wagner Group for years.

Professor Marten, it’s great to have you back with us. If you can explain? You have the Wagner Group’s aborted mutiny in Russia. This is folllowed by the United States saying they’re imposing these sanctions on the group that’s opposing President Putin — right? — the Wagner Group, whose leader, known as “Putin’s chef,” Prigozhin, was formerly very close to Putin — but imposing sanctions on the group — companies that are profiting from Wagner in Africa, from Mali to Central African Republic, and then we have Syria. Please explain how the Wagner Group operates. And what is the U.S.'s interest in cracking down on the group that's rising up against Putin, who’s waging the war in Ukraine?

KIMBERLY MARTEN: Well, thanks for having me back.

This isn’t the first time, certainly, that the United States has imposed sanctions against the Wagner Group or against Yevgeny Prigozhin. Remember, it was very clear from the Mueller indictments that Prigozhin was responsible, with his Internet Research Agency based in St. Petersburg, for election interference in the United States. And so, this is just another in a stream of sanctions that have been placed against Prigozhin-affiliated organizations.

And I think what’s most significant about these sanctions is not ones that are on the groups that are based in Russia or that are based in the Central African Republic, because they’re unlikely to have any dealings with the United States or with the U.S. allies in any case. The most significant is the sanction that was put against a firm located in the United Arab Emirates.

It has been known for a couple of years, with very well-documented evidence in open source locations like The New York Times, that Dubai has been a place where Russia could take the gold, in particular, that it is mining in Africa, send it for melting down in the UAE, and then get the cash for it into Russia at a time when Russia is under sanctions and isn’t supposed to be engaged in the gold trade.

And in May, the UAE came out with a statement that said, “Of course, we will continue to trade openly with our partners under U.N. mandates.” Well, the United Nations Security Council does not have sanctions against Russia, because, of course, Russia has veto power in the United Nations Security Council. And so, in essence, that statement that was made in May by the United Arab Emirates was saying, “We don’t follow U.S. sanctions.”

And I think the significance of what happened in the last couple of days is the United States was saying that the UAE is not exempt from feeling the power of U.S. economic sanctions. And that matters, because the UAE has a traditional strong defense relationship with the United States, but kind of an odd one, because the UAE also has a strong defense relationship with Russia.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Professor Marten, if you could talk about some of these companies that Wagner has been involved with or actively running? They’re all over Africa, certainly, and also elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal, in fact, in a recent documentary, found that there were 64 companies, some of them shell companies, that linked Wagner — that were linked to Wagner and also linked Wagner to the Kremlin. Could you explain what we know about these companies and where all they operate?

KIMBERLY MARTEN: Sure. I think it’s important to keep in mind that when we’re talking about these links, Wagner itself does not exist as an entity. Wagner, the Wagner Group, is a contracting mechanism for the Russian military intelligence agency. So, the key person in all of this is actually Yevgeny Prigozhin. He’s the person who does the contracting for Wagner Group activities, or has up until this point. And he is also the person who is associated with all of these various companies. He and his personnel have been linked to what all of these companies have been doing.

I think it’s really important to keep in mind that in Russia we don’t have any form of protection of private property rights, and that Prigozhin was in charge of these companies primarily not because he is some oligarch who has all kinds of economic talents and business talents and did this on his own. He was taking this role because of a patron-client relationship that he has with Vladimir Putin, which extends back to early 1990s in St. Petersburg, and he was there on the behest of the Kremlin.

So, now that we see that things are happening with Prigozhin, we’re not exactly sure what they may be. Nobody has seen him since Saturday. There are rumors in the Russian social media sphere that he has been told to get out of Russia and to liquidate all his business holdings by July 1st. We’ll see if that actually happens.

One thing to keep in mind is that it would be really easy for the Kremlin to just put in place some other individual as the titular CEO of all these various companies. So, no matter what happens to Prigozhin, I think it’s very unlikely that it’s going to affect Russia’s presence in Africa, which has been built up very strongly since 2014, since the sanctions originally went into effect against Russia for its initial incursions into eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

And even though the statement came in your top-of-the-hour quoting of Lavrov saying that the African sovereign countries are going to be able to make their own decisions, we know, from a report that came out just in the last couple of days confirming things, that the Wagner Group has essentially taken over sovereign control in much of the Central African Republic. And there’s no way in the world that Russia is going to be leaving there, no matter what happens to Prigozhin, no matter what happens to the people who have been under this heading called the Wagner Group, who are essentially just contractors for the Russian Defense Ministry and the Russian military intelligence agency in one form or another.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Marten, do we have any idea of what kind of money, what kind of resources are involved here? I mean, when the Wagner Group was operating in Syria, there were tasked, of course, principally, with defending the Assad regime, but one of their tasks was to defend, and they captured, four of the largest oil fields in Syria. In exchange for protecting the oil fields, they were given 25% of the production value from the fields. There are similar things being said about the role that they’ve played with gold mines in the Central African Republic. So, what kinds of — like, how much money are we talking about? Like hundreds of millions, billions of dollars?

KIMBERLY MARTEN: Nobody knows for sure. But let me just talk about some of the examples that you raised.

In Syria, we have to keep in mind that Syria has never been a really major player in the world in terms of being an oil and gas producer. Russia is a very major player in terms of being an oil and gas producer and having other kinds of economic relationships with other countries who are major oil and gas producers. And so, the significance of the Prigozhin takeover, the Wagner Group takeover, of those oil and gas assets in Syria, I thick most experts believe, is less in terms of their actual economic value to Russia or to Prigozhin, and more that it allowed Russia to establish a permanent economic presence in Syria, no matter what happens now that the war has been winding down over the last couple of years. And in particular, their presence in those oil and gas areas have prevented Hezbollah, as a representative of the Iranian government, the Iranian regime, from having the ability to have oil and gas lines that transmit from Iran to Lebanon through Syria in a way that would give Iran a dominating presence over the oil and gas — especially the gas — transmission lines in the Middle East. And so there’s been geopolitics involved here, I think, much more than the importance of the funding has been for the Russian government in terms of what’s happened in Syria.

In the Central African Republic, most of the mines, both the gold mines and the diamond mines, are artisanal. And that means that the presence of the resources is very much on the surface of the land, and so you have people sitting there with shovels and pails and sieves trying to get little pieces of minerals from these mines. But the individuals involved in the actual mining, of course, it can be a just incredible find for them, because they’re coming from a very impoverished background. But again, for Russia, Russia has huge gold and diamond reserves of its own, huge gold and diamond reserves in various places around the world. So the monetary value of most of these mines is not very high in terms of their relative value for Russia. The one exception to this is the Ndassima mine, that is the one where the Wagner Group has been seen as really turning it from an artisanal mine, a surface-level mine, into an industrial-quality gold mine. As far as we know, that is not yet a finished process, and so the Wagner Group has not yet been getting industrial-quality gold to the extent that it would have been, that Russia would have been getting industrial-quality quantities and qualities of gold from other deposits that it has access to. But that is the mine that has now come under the U.S. sanctions, and that is the one where Wagner had the best chance of actually making significant money. But again, there’s no evidence that it is already getting significant money from these things.

And so, it’s more establishing a presence, perhaps getting some funding around the edges. But what we have seen is that the major funding that is going into the Wagner Group has either, in the case of its activities in Ukraine, come directly from the Russian government, which is something that Putin himself said on Monday in a rather remarkable admission, or from the contracts that it has with government officials in all of these foreign countries, in Syria, in Libya — not in the government in Libya, but in the warlord in eastern Libya, Khalifa Haftar — in Mali, in the Central African Republic, contracts that have all been done with the support of Russian diplomatic groups, with Russian ministries, like the Energy Ministry, but that are contracts for the Wagner Group to fulfill its duties there, rather than, in most cases, getting a great deal of money from the minerals that are actually coming out.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Marten, I wanted to ask you about the human toll. We’re talking about the money made from mining. But these very places that you’re talking about, that the world media rarely covers when it comes to the enormous death toll, we’re talking about the Central African Republic, we’re talking about Mali, we’re talking about Sudan. What is the role of the Wagner Group in these conflicts?

KIMBERLY MARTEN: So, we know in Sudan that when the original democracy movement had been starting there, when there was a series of coups that were going on in Sudan, we know that the Wagner Group was at least giving advisory assistance to the Sudanese military government to try to put down the protesters violently. It’s not clear that the Wagner Group, per se, has a security role right now that is significant in Sudan. We know that they’re still engaged, that Prigozhin’s interests are still engaged in gold mining in Sudan, but right now it’s not clear that there’s a continuing Wagner military presence in Sudan.

In both the Central African Republic and in Mali, we know that the Wagner Group has been credibly accused of engaging in real atrocities, in massacres of civilians, in torture and in rape, alongside the domestic security forces of both the Central African Republic and the Mali junta that is now in charge.

And that also fits what we know about what the Wagner Group has done in Ukraine, where it has also been, in that case, by the United Nations, sort of indicted for the role that it has played in the torture and murder, alongside regular Russian military forces, of civilians, especially in eastern Ukraine.

And so, we know that it is a horrific group. We know that it engaged in atrocities against civilians also in Libya during the time that the warlord Khalifa Haftar was attempting to make his move toward Tripoli and to capture Tripoli. He failed. But we know that the Wagner Group left behind mines and improvised explosive devices in civilian areas, in homes, when it was withdrawing. So, it just has an absolutely horrible record of committing civilian atrocities.

And I would just remind us all that that makes it not much different from the Russian uniformed military forces. Sometimes people almost make a distinction between what the Wagner Group has been doing and what the uniformed Russian military is doing. But in places ranging from Afghanistan, under Soviet times, in Chechnya, in Syria and now in Ukraine, we see the Russian uniformed forces doing things that are very similar to what Wagner forces are doing. And, of course, most of the Wagner forces, many of them at least, are former Russian uniformed military officers. They’re veterans from Russia.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And finally, Professor Marten, if you could say what we know at the moment of Prigozhin’s whereabouts, as well as many or some of Wagner’s mercenaries? Of course, the assumption is that he’s now in Belarus, but you have said that, in fact, very little satellite imagery exists that could show one way or another if they are there. The BBC World Service this morning reported that some flight tracker data has shown that his private jet went into Belarus, but then was shown leaving the following day and returning to his hometown in Russia. What do we know of where he is and what the status — I mean, is Wagner now, to the extent that it exists as an entity, going to be disbanded as a result of this?

KIMBERLY MARTEN: We have no idea. The truth is that Prigozhin has not been seen since Saturday night, when he left Rostov. He issued an audio statement on Sunday, but it’s not clear when that audio statement was actually recorded. And there has been no sighting of him since then. So, President Lukashenko of Belarus says that he is in Belarus, but we don’t know. Again, there was the statement that came across on a Russian military-associated social media site indicating that he has until July 1st to leave Russia, but we don’t know. We don’t know who was on his plane as it went back and forth. And we don’t know what’s going to happen to the Wagner Group. There has been no official statement that the Wagner Group was going to be disbanded. And because the Wagner Group doesn’t actually exist as a formal entity in Russia, I think that that’s very unclear.

What does seem to be increasingly clear is that there is some kind of a action being taken in Russia against high-ranking military officers, uniformed officers who may have been supporting Prigozhin. Surovikin is the one that has now seemed to be confirmed by the most Western media sources as having been detained. We don’t know that he’s actually been imprisoned. He may just be being questioned by the FSB for his role in things, but he has not been seen since Saturday. Apparently, his family has not heard anything from him since Saturday. And so, it appears that there may be some form of investigation or housecleaning taking part in Russia of uniformed Russian military sources who may have been on Prigozhin’s side. And that’s about all we know at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you, Kimberly Marten, for joining us, professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University.

Next up, the media is doing a great job covering the smoke unleashed by the wildfires raging in Canada, but what about the fire and where it comes from? We’re going to look at climate silence in the media. Stay with us.

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