‘The Terror Was Palpable’: Inside Russia’s Notorious Mercenary Group

VICE World News gained unprecedented access to leaders of the Wagner group, a notorious private military company that has close ties to Vladimir Putin and his allies.

BERENGO, Central African Republic – VICE World News has gained unprecedented access to Russian leaders overseeing one of the world’s most secretive and brutal mercenary groups – Wagner.

Technically Wagner doesn’t even exist – under Russian law it’s illegal to be a mercenary – so instead it operates as a network of companies, spreading Russian influence globally by serving in proxy wars in Syria and Libya.

Wagner has had most success in the Central African Republic, where its trainers – mostly formerly of the Russian army – work with a notorious private military company that has close ties to Vladimir Putin and his allies. Operatives rarely refer to the group by name, or even acknowledge its existence, referring instead to “the orchestra.”

Vitali Perfilev is the head of the Russian contractors in the Central African Republic, and a top security adviser to the president, where they seized on the national military’s chaotic, losing battle against rebel groups to cement Wagner’s position as invaluable on the battlefield, and as advisers to the government.

Vitalii Perfilev. Photo: VICE

“Wagner is a myth that was invented by the journalists. But we really don’t care how you call us. You may call us Wagner, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Stravinsky. It doesn’t change the meaning, we are still Russian instructors, with the aim of helping countries in need,” Perfilev said.

Western intelligence officials and analysts believe Russian leaders overseeing this overall coalition of mercenaries have sent 8,000 of their fighters to back up the floundering Russian army in Ukraine.

Advertisement

Unsurprisingly, these Russian leaders paint a vastly different picture of how the war in Ukraine is shaping Wagner’s operations globally.

“Among our employees, many are impatient for Donbas, they say that it is their mission, but we keep personnel here to solve the tasks facing [the mission],” Alexandre Ivanov, the General Director of the Officer’s Union for International Security (COSI), the organisation that claims to be responsible for Russia’s private contractors in the Central African Republic, told VICE World News in a rare phone interview.

“All Russian companies working in the field of security in Africa continue to operate,” Ivanov added. “We have missions in the Central African Republic, and other companies have contractual obligations vis-à-vis other countries.”

Central African soldiers in Berengo

Wagner’s opaque operations internationally and lack of transparency, coupled with muddled payment structures, has led to confusion about its involvement in Ukraine in the early days of the war and how that might be impacting expansionist goals across Africa, where Wagner has in recent years come to the aid of governments floundering against insurgencies and rebel groups, while leaving a trail of gross human rights violations in its wake. 

But nearly two months into Russia’s operations in Ukraine, US and UK intelligence officials are confident in Wagner’s presence there. Russian leaders overseeing the group’s operations across Africa however deny reports that they are drawing down troop presence in key missions in the Central African Republic and Mali in order to fill the gap in Ukraine. 

Last month, a UK Ministry of Defence spokesperson told VICE World News that “due to heavy losses and a largely stalled invasion, Russia has highly likely been forced to reprioritise Wagner personnel for Ukraine at the expense of operations in Africa and Syria.” 

In response, Ivanov told VICE World News that US and British intelligence should not  “spread false information.” But he acknowledged that many of the men serving in Africa are itching to serve their country in Ukraine. 

Advertisement

Social media reports have identified suspected Wagner mercenaries who have previously served in well-known missions including in Syria and Libya, reportedly killed or captured in Ukraine. Ivanov cautioned that although alumni of the group could now be serving in Ukraine, they would be working with the Russian military. 

Ivanov confirmed to VICE World News that Russian fighters have left Syria — but, he added,  not necessarily for Ukraine. “Many of those who worked on various tasks in Syria have now left…for a large project, in one of the [African] countries which have a successful experience of cooperation with Russia.” Ivanov declined to provide further details, reiterating that Russian contractors are in high demand across Africa.

But in a recent meeting with the UK’s Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, Christo Grozev, the Executive Director of Bellingcat, a collective of open source researchers, said that Wagner sources “actually validated to us a striking number of participation by Wagner in the war at the moment, which is close to 8,000, much higher than expected.”

Grozev described a strikingly high casualty rate among the group, adding that approximately 3,000 out of the 8,000 have reportedly been killed. He described a first wave of Wagner contractors that were dispatched in the direction of Kyiv to scout and target political figures for assassination, which is in line with early reporting that Wagner contractors with intelligence backgrounds were part of a hit squad tasked with taking out President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Advertisement

On the 17th of April, photos of one of the group’s main backers in Ukraine, Yevgeny Prigozhin, surfaced on social media. The photo shows him standing in front of a car with Ukrainian plates and alongside well known Kremlin loyalist Vitaly Milonov, leading to reports that Prigozhin is personally in Donbass to oversee the group’s operations in eastern Ukraine. 

Dr Sean Mcfate, a Senior Fellow at Atlantic Council and a former private military contractor described Wagner’s role in Ukraine as threefold: “Fifth column operations, execute a kill or capture list for Ukrainian political and military leadership, and intimidate the populace through human rights violations.”

A group of masked Central African soldiers sit and listen during training with Russian contractors in Berengo

The latter two roles are consistent with the bulk of Wagner’s operations in Africa, where the group routinely carries out extrajudicial kill or capture operations on behalf of governments, against suspected rebels and jihadists, and exerts control over the civilian population by terrorising civilians in the name of securing the country. 

The possible exaggeration of their presence is in line with the strategy of Wagner in Africa and the Middle East, where overstating their role and lethality helps to sow terror and play into an image of fearsome warriors.

Advertisement

A source in Mali’s defence ministry, who requested anonymity out of concern for his safety, denied any movement of troops out of Mali in recent months. Instead, he highlighted a delivery of “new equipment, including helicopters” in March and added that several Russian contractors were evacuated from a base in Mopti to the capital Bamako for medical treatment for “serious injury”  in March, suggesting Russian troops’ involvement in armed conflict in central Mali.

Human rights defenders told VICE World News that the brutality of Wagner contractors’ participation in a village raid in central Mali in March sent a message to the local population.

“The sheer terror recounted by the survivors, many of whom hailed from surrounding villages, was palpable and will no doubt reverberate widely within their communities and beyond,” Corinne Dufka, West Africa director for Human Rights Watch said. 

In the Central African Republic, the leader of a human rights organisation in the capital told VICE World News about generalised “panic of the civilian population toward the CAR armed forces and its Russian allies,” particularly noting the “assassination of political leaders and civilian in and around town…these are crimes committed by forces meant to secure the nation.” 

But Russian operations in Africa continue to expand and observers on the ground as well as Russian contractors themselves said that the so-called “special operation” in Ukraine has changed little on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Advertisement

According to the US military, there are 3,000-5,000 Wagner operatives across the African continent. Independent researchers say the number deployed could be higher than 10,000. 

The Central African Republic is their most robust and entrenched mission, where contractors said there are nearly 2,000 of them operating, alongside several hundred legitimate Russian military trainers who were sent to the country in 2018 under an agreement between the Central African and Russian government. 

In December, Wagner operatives arrived in Mali, to assist the military junta leading the country in combating rising extremism.  In February, the US military confirmed the presence of Wagner in Mali. 

“We have observed the Malian junta bring Russian mercenaries into their country. They invited them. They continue to deny this in public but my information is pretty clear, they have brought in Wagner,” US Army General Stephen J. Townsend, the Commander of US Africa Command, told reporters in an early February press briefing. 

In what has been possibly their most efficient – and lethal – ramp up of operations in Africa so far, Human Rights Watch reported that Russian mercenaries led Malian troops in a massacre of up to 300 civilians in central Mali in a days-long assault on a village inhabited by jihadists. Local sources and researchers told VICE World News that the ratio of Russian trainers to national troops in the massacre, which also targeted extremists, was three to one, suggesting a significant number of Russian troops fighting on the ground in Mali. 

Advertisement

Reports of hurried assassinations, psychological torture, and burying civilians in mass graves in the Moura attack are again strikingly similar to patterns of attacks on civilian villages in the Central African Republic by Russian forces and their national allies. 

In a region that has been wracked by violence and extrajudicial attacks on civilians in the name of stemming terror, this attack, led by Russian contractors, stood out. 

“Armed Islamists have terrorised communities, and over the years killed thousands of villagers in the Sahel,” Human Rights Watch’s Dufka said. “But the Moura allegation incident stands out as the single worst atrocity by any group that we have documented. Worryingly and curiously, it implicates the Malian army and foreign soldiers, who witnesses identified as Russian.”

Four Central African soldiers pictured from behind during field training with Russian contractors in Berengo

VICE World News spoke to leaders of Russian contractors serving on the ground in the Central African Republic, who reiterated Ivanov’s commitment to the missions in Africa and said that any movement out of the country is simply normal troop rotation. Sources at the airport in the capital Bangui said there’s been no significant movement of Russian contractors out of Bangui in recent months. 

And in CAR’s cities with heavy Russian presence, residents said activities of Russian contractors and their national military trainees have continued, seemingly as normal. 

Ivanov insisted Russia’s focus on African expansion will remain

“The demand for help from Russia is now incredibly high, regularly requests for cooperation arrive from different parts of the continent. So we need instructors in Africa,” he said. 

Ivanov insists that in the Central African Republic, “there is still much work to be done” but perhaps in a nod to the reported presence of current or former Wagner contractors rushing off to Ukraine, he added: “I wish success to those who work in Mali or in other African countries, as well as the Russian army, the armies of the Luhansk People's Republic and the Donetsk People's Republic and the volunteers in the Donbass and in Ukraine.”

Tagged:

africa, Ukraine, russia, VICE International, Wagner, worldnews

More
like this
This Man’s Son Was Killed in Ukraine, So He’s Returning to Fight
Photos of Mass Graves in Bucha Spark Global Outrage
Returning Soldiers Reveal the Dark Side of Life in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion
Bleak Photos of People Sheltering in Ukraine’s Subway Stations As Russia Invades
Government Invests $5M to Turn the Rust Belt Into the Lithium Belt
‘We Are Not Afraid of Death’: The Ukrainian Women Taking Up Arms Against Russia
Zelenskyy Predicts Putin Will Negotiate: ‘I Think He Sees That We Are Strong’
Combat Sports Are the Strangest Propaganda Vector in the Ukraine War