Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Russian Mercenaries in Africa Aren’t Just There for the Money

Moscow’s geopolitical moves are driving murderous private actors.

Central African and Russian political figures meet in Bangui, Central African Republic
Central African Minister of Public Security Henri Wanzet-Linguissara, Russian diplomat Victor Tokmakov, Central African presidential advisor Valery Zakharov, and Central African government spokesman Ange Maxime Kazagui meet in Bangui, Central African Republic, on Aug. 2, 2018. Florence Vergnes/AFP via Getty Images

I will never forget the moment I saw a photo of the journalist Alexander Rastorguev’s body. Sasha, as we called him, was a fixture on the Moscow documentary filmmaking scene and a warm-hearted mentor to my then-husband, whose films I produced. Sasha was a man who loved to tease you in public but a stalwart and generous friend in private.

This man, who once squeezed my shoulder and whispered, “Always remember you’re a good person, Antonova,” had been executed in an efficient manner, shot in the heart with multiple rounds that likely came from an AK or AKM assault rifle. He was killed alongside his colleagues Orkhan Dzhemal and Kirill Radchenko in the Central African Republic, while investigating the local dealings of a notorious Russian private military company. This atrocity occurred in 2018, and it has haunted everyone who knew and loved Sasha, Orkhan, and Kirill ever since.

To this day, the Russian government insists that the motive for the killing was “robbery,” even though there is ample evidence that this is a blatantly cynical lie.

I will never forget the moment I saw a photo of the journalist Alexander Rastorguev’s body. Sasha, as we called him, was a fixture on the Moscow documentary filmmaking scene and a warm-hearted mentor to my then-husband, whose films I produced. Sasha was a man who loved to tease you in public but a stalwart and generous friend in private.

This man, who once squeezed my shoulder and whispered, “Always remember you’re a good person, Antonova,” had been executed in an efficient manner, shot in the heart with multiple rounds that likely came from an AK or AKM assault rifle. He was killed alongside his colleagues Orkhan Dzhemal and Kirill Radchenko in the Central African Republic, while investigating the local dealings of a notorious Russian private military company. This atrocity occurred in 2018, and it has haunted everyone who knew and loved Sasha, Orkhan, and Kirill ever since.

To this day, the Russian government insists that the motive for the killing was “robbery,” even though there is ample evidence that this is a blatantly cynical lie.

A United Nations draft report obtained by the New York Times states that Russian mercenaries in the CAR are committing and encouraging war crimes—and driving further violence in this already volatile, mineral-rich nation. What happened to Sasha, who sought to shed light on these mercenaries’ dealings, was part of a horrific pattern of violence—one that Moscow has only encouraged.

What are Russian mercenaries doing in the CAR? The simple answer is that they are there to help ensure lucrative business deals and allow Russia access to the country’s internal politics.

What we must understand here is that Russian state interests are heavily tied up in private interests—both due to corruption and plausible deniability. How does this work in real life? Well, the Russian authorities, the Presidential Administration included, are known to be liberal with semi-official money transfers and using offshore accounts to cover their tracks—something that’s been documented in relatively low-stakes areas like state funding of the film industry, for example, but is much riskier to trace on military issues. That’s exactly what happened when Russian propaganda outlets were financing the 2017 film Matilda—a plan that backfired when conservative Russian lawmakers claimed the film was anti-Russian for portraying the last tsar’s dalliance with a young ballerina.

This kind of merging of private and public interests and money is a long-standing, if rarely remarked upon, strategy of the Kremlin.

We know that a number of the mercenary companies involved in conflicts abroad are tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a ruthless businessman—nicknamed “Putin’s chef” after a restaurant he owned became popular with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his associates—whose grimly colorful past includes spending most of the 1980s behind bars for armed robbery and other assorted charges. We know that just as all other players, Prigozhin answers to the Kremlin—even if there is no definitive “smoking gun” paperwork we can produce on all of his projects, simply because, once again, cash is often used and people who go looking for these kinds of connections regularly wind up dead.

Meanwhile, Prigozhin’s people have gotten involved everywhere from Madagascar to Mozambique—and that’s besides their involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. But in order to understand Russian activities in the CAR and elsewhere, we must first consider Putin’s aspirations on the global stage.

It would be naive to think that Russia hasn’t carefully observed Chinese investments in Africa. During the Soviet years, Russians were very eager to cultivate relations with countries on the African continent, after all. As Putin insists on having his own sphere of influence, he will continue to rebuild what he sees as Moscow’s rightful claim to various parts of the world, African nations included.

For all of the outward friendliness between Beijing and Moscow—an image pushed relentlessly by both countries’ propaganda machines—if you spend enough time in Russia, you’ll come to realize that there is a fair amount of suspicion of China in the Kremlin and in society in general. Russian nationalists in particular are very vocal about the notion that China will take the Far East and Siberia eventually, even as more Kremlin-aligned resources insist that this is mere fear-mongering.

Nationalism, however, has been on the rise in Russia for years. The Kremlin routinely seeks to co-opt nationalists precisely because they can be a good barometer for the moods coursing through the rest of society—a society where paranoia, conspiracy theories, and reactionary attitudes are similarly on the rise. (If you want evidence, consider the staunch Russian resistance to their perfectly decent locally developed COVID-19 vaccine.)

And while a Western-centric view of the world would have us believe that Russia is solely competing with the United States and the European Union, this is reductive. By expanding his interests to Africa, Putin is also sending a message to Chinese leader Xi Jinping that Russia aims to be a player in its own right, as opposed to China’s little friend.

Putin shouldn’t have to have innocent people in African countries killed in order to flex his muscle. But if you look at Russian behavior in Syria and, for that matter, in Chechnya, you will note a contemptuous disregard for civilian lives—and this is coming from regular Russian troops, mind you. Where Russian private military contractors are engaged, the standards are much lower, and even the pretense of legal responsibility goes out the window. Why shouldn’t these fighters then act even worse?

During some of the worst months of the pandemic last year, I frequently thought of Sasha and what he would have made of current developments. Unable to come to terms with his passing, I set out to try to find out more about the kind of people who were responsible for his death. At one point, a largely anonymous source led me to an even more anonymous source, who agreed to talk to me about what he described as his brief stint in a Russian private military group.

The men who join these Russian contractors tend to have a military background, an interest in money, and a lack of interest in being mall guards. My source fit the profile and admitted to a lack of concern about convoluted Russian legislation that technically makes private military contractors illegal and thus ensures their members have no protection—“because the money is that good.”

I didn’t need to ask him about why my friend was killed—I knew the why: Sasha and his team were digging into dangerous people, and these dangerous people wanted to send a message about what happens to those who investigate them. But I did want to ask him what other journalists could do to avoid a similar fate. “Just write about beautiful things, write about art,” he said, laughing at me. “Write about literally anything else but this.”

While he was teasing me, he was speaking to a fundamental truth. Russian reliance on mercenaries is going to continue to be a vital part of the Kremlin’s strategy. They are expendable and unhindered by military bureaucracy. Because Russian society is not overly eager to claim them as its own, and they are not publicly mourned when they die, they result in less domestic public relations problems.

Private military organizations allow the Russian government to dispose of the pretense of accountability. And for as long as they embody the financial interests of many people—from the mercenaries doing the grunt work all the way to their shadowy investors—their activities will be ruthlessly guarded.

What makes these contractors convenient also makes them vulnerable to foreign powers, of course. We saw as much when U.S. forces easily demolished Russian mercenaries in Syria, just months before Sasha was killed in the CAR. No consequences appeared forthcoming, at least not for Americans.

I did wonder, however, if Sasha’s brutal slaying in the CAR later that year was the sign of an escalation—a kind of shift in internal policy, a license to be more belligerent when deemed necessary. My source laughed at that. Then he got pensive for a moment. “Who knows,” he finally said. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and there will be a leak eventually.”

What remains abundantly clear is that unarmed villagers, journalists, and anyone else who comes across the path of Russian mercenaries is likely to have a bad time of it. There are no mechanisms to consistently contain this violence, and international outrage does not faze the Kremlin, Prigozhin, or anyone else who has a direct or indirect stake in private military companies. As my source put it, “They want to be feared, not liked.”

Natalia Antonova is a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington D.C.

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