Russia’s Shadowy Mercenaries Offer Humanitarian Aid to Clean Image

The Wagner Group, busy sowing chaos from Syria to Libya, is trying to score PR points. But the United States is increasingly pushing back.

A child sits on a couch found in a street, ravaged by pro-regime forces air strikes, in the town of Ariha in the southern countryside of the Idlib province on April 11, 2020. (AAREF WATAD/AFP via Getty Images)
A child sits on a couch found in a street, ravaged by pro-regime forces air strikes, in the town of Ariha in the southern countryside of the Idlib province on April 11, 2020. (AAREF WATAD/AFP via Getty Images)

The so-called Wagner Group, a quasi-private Russian military security contractor, has long been deft at finding opportunity amid chaos. Since the group first appeared on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine in 2014, it has become the Swiss Army knife of Russia’s overseas interference efforts and has been linked to activities including election meddling, gold mining, and front-line combat. 

Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Wagner affiliates have found a new way to burnish their tarnished reputations: delivering coronavirus-related aid. Much as other violent groups have done before them, including Hezbollah, providing humanitarian aid to fragile states offers the opportunity for a quick publicity stunt in a bid to normalize their presence.

In April, a Wagner-linked Russian security contractor, Evro Polis, delivered 50 ventilators, 10,000 coronavirus test kits, and 2,000 items of protective clothing to Syria, according to reports in Syrian state media and a statement on the website of the Russian Embassy in Damascus. Video footage shows the delivery was labeled “from Russia with lots of love.” 

“We are a socially oriented company. We helped, we are helping, and we will help,” said company representative Ildar Zaripov at a press conference about the aid that was also attended by the Russian ambassador to Syria, Alexander Yefimov. 

Russian medical gear isn’t just flowing into Syria. 

A U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy that the Russian government had provided coronavirus aid—including test kits, personnel, and medical supplies—to Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, and Guinea. In the early days of the pandemic, Russia delivered coronavirus aid to several countries including the United States in what one expert said at the time was a “PR coup for the Russians.”

In April, the Sudan News Agency reported that Wagner-connected company Meroe Gold was planning to ship personal protective equipment, medicine, and other equipment to the country as part of its corporate social responsibility program, according to a statement by the company’s general manager, Mikhail Potepkin. It’s unclear whether the aid was actually delivered, said Jack Margolin, a program director with the nonprofit Center for Advanced Defense Studies, which first identified the news reports on the aid.

In infusing their mercenary work with the promise of humanitarian aid, Wagner-connected entities have sought to position themselves as invested in the advancement of the countries they operate in, Margolin said. 

“They’re trying to represent themselves as a partner that is committed to African development that isn’t going to come with, sort of, American imperialism or the strings attached that come with Chinese aid,” he said.

If Wagner affiliates are trying to burnish their image, that’s because it’s heavily tarnished. 

The aid delivery was a sharp departure from Evro Polis’s usual mercenary activity in Syria, where a group of its employees was accused of torturing and beheading a Syrian civilian with impunity in 2017. In February 2018, U.S. forces clashed with Russian mercenary forces in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province in the biggest military standoff between the two countries since the Cold War. Between 200 and 300 Russian mercenaries were killed, many of whom are believed to have been working for Evro Polis. 

Like a lot of entities associated with Wagner, Evro Polis seamlessly blends its military and business activities and is reported to have signed a deal with Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corp. that would give the group 25 percent of the profits of the oil and gas fields it was able to liberate and secure from the Islamic State. 

“Private military contractors and mercenaries from Russia incite violence in the name of furthering Bashar Al Assad’s ill-fated quest for a military victory that preserves his rule and ignores the aspirations of the Syrian people,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said in a statement to Foreign Policy. “Their presence fuels instability, exacerbates the humanitarian crisis, and prolongs the suffering of the Syrian people.” 

In Libya, the Wagner Group’s stepped-up activities are increasingly concerning to U.S. defense officials. In a quarterly report to Congress issued last week, the Defense Department’s inspector general for counterterrorism operations in the North Africa said there were between 800 and 2,500 Wagner mercenaries in Libya who were fighting in support of renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who ended his assault on the capital of Tripoli last month. 

U.S. Africa Command, or Africom, has been increasingly candid about the Wagner Group’s presence in Libya and in a statement last week accused Russian mercenaries of complicating cease-fire efforts in Libya by laying landmines and improvised explosive devices around Tripoli. The command also released imagery of Russian aircraft being flown in Libya to support the work of private military companies that are described as being “sponsored by the Russian government.”

“Russia’s sustained involvement in Libya increases the violence and delays a political solution,” U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Bradford Gering, Africom’s director of operations, said in a statement issued alongside the photos. And Libya’s just the latest beachhead for the mercenary group, Africom says.

“Russia employs state-sponsored Private Military Contractors (PMCs) in at least 16 African countries to obfuscate Moscow’s direct role and to afford plausible deniability,” said Col. Christopher P. Karns, an Africom spokesperson. 

Even Russia’s use of state-sponsored PMCs for counterterrorism support to our African partners is often tied to contracts for Russia to extract raw materials, which can undermine African countries’ capacity for economic development,” he said. 

For all of the Wagner Group’s notoriety, the irony is that there’s no evidence that a single organization known as the Wagner Group exists. Rather, it is an opaque grouping of companies that are identified by their overlapping ownership structures and their ties to the Russian state and especially Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

“It’s not a PMC because all the evidence we have is that it’s very tightly connected to Russian military intelligence and the GRU [Russia’s military intelligence agency],” said Kimberly Marten, a professor of political science at Barnard College. “As far as I know, it’s unique in the world.”

Prigozhin is under U.S. sanctions for his role in U.S. election interference bankrolling the Internet Research Agency, a so-called Russian troll factory. Evro Polis was sanctioned by the United States in 2018 due to Prigozhin’s control of the firm.

The group that planned to deliver aid to Sudan, Meroe Gold, along with its parent company, M Invest, was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury on July 15 for its role in formulating plans to rout pro-democracy demonstrators who succeeded in overthrowing former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2019. According to a statement by the Treasury Department, M Invest drew up plans for a social media disinformation campaign and advocated for “the staging of public executions” to distract the protesters. 

“Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his network are exploiting Sudan’s natural resources for personal gain and spreading malign influence around the globe,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement issued at the time. 

Now, U.S. officials are pushing their European counterparts to match that kind of blacklisting to limit the Wagner Group’s ability to sow chaos in Libya, where the United States has been eyeing Russia’s increased presence along NATO’s southern flank with caution. 

Last week, David Schenker, the State Department’s assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, called out European countries for not doing enough to push back against Wagner and countries violating the U.N. embargo on sending arms to Libya. 

There is a lot more that they [Europe] could do. They could, for example, designate the Wagner Group,” he said. “If they aren’t going to take out a more robust role, then this thing is going to drag on.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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