The report, on Russia’s flagship weekly news program, was ambitious and exclusive.
A reporting crew from state-run First Channel television flew to the Central African Republic to investigate how Russia was ostensibly helping to stabilize the impoverished, violence-ridden country. There were more than 100 military instructors, a top Russian adviser in the country, told the channel, for that reason.
But the September 29 segment on Vesti Nedeli, unintentionally or not, also provided further evidence about the activities of a notorious private Russian military company with Kremlin links that is guarding the country’s president, is reportedly profiting from illegal diamond exports, and has faced accusations of involvement in the deaths of three Russian reporters two years ago.
The incident comes as analysts, reporters, and open-source investigators compile more evidence of the growing clout and reach of Russia’s private military companies. The best known, Vagner, is reportedly owned by a St. Petersburg tycoon whose wealth comes from catering contracts with the Kremlin.
That tycoon, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was slapped with new U.S. Treasury Department sanctions the day after the segment aired, on September 30, in an announcement that also included photographs of three jets and a 122-foot yacht that purportedly belongs to Prigozhin or his companies.
It wasn’t immediately clear why U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration opted to hit Prigozhin and the company, officially known as the Internet Research Agency, and unofficially known as Russia’s “troll farm,” now.
The measures were the first under a new U.S. law that targets foreign interference in U.S. elections; in this case, alleged interference in the 2018 election campaign.
“Prigozhin has spent significant funds to further the Internet Research Agency’s attempted influence operations in connection with the 2018 U.S. midterm elections,” U.S. Treasury officials said in a statement.
But they weren’t the first to target Prigozhin; he and the Internet Research Agency were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in early 2018 for their alleged involvement in meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. And he’s been targeted under earlier rounds of Treasury Department sanctions.
Election interference isn’t the only activity that Prigozhin and his companies have drawn scrutiny for.
For several years, there has been a growing Russian presence in parts of Africa, from private companies and diplomatic outposts.
Vagner has been among them, something that President Vladimir Putin himself was asked about at his annual marathon news conference in 2018.
“So long as they don’t violate the law, they have the right to push their business interests anywhere in the world,” he said.
The first reports of Vagner’s existence anywhere came in 2014, in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has pitted Ukrainian government forces and allied paramilitaries against Russia-backed fighters. The company was hit with U.S. sanctions for its role in that conflict, now in its fifth year.
Vagner soldiers also began to be spotted in Syria beginning in 2015, after Russia sent an expeditionary force there to help President Bashar al-Assad’s forces fight his opponents in a war that started four years earlier.
But the issue of private military companies playing a more active role in Russian foreign policy and military actions abroad has been sensitive for Moscow, given the legal ambiguities within Russia about the companies’ status, and the fact that some of the companies are reported to be involved in shady commercial activities.
In a new document laying out Russian foreign policy goals in 2016, Putin signaled that Moscow was taking a renewed interest in building ties with the continent.
In December 2017, the United Nations granted an exemption to an arms embargo placed on the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), allowing Russia to deploy military equipment and dozens of military instructors to the country.
In a UN report issued the following July, Russia stated that 175 "instructors" were involved in a training mission, including 170 who were identified as civilian instructors and five from the Russian military.
The first reports of Russian military personnel being spotted in the Central African Republic emerged in February 2018, a month before Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov embarked on a tour of five African nations to promote trade and economic ties.
But Russian officials have repeatedly refused to discuss or even acknowledge the role that Vagner or other private companies were playing outside of mere training programs for local forces.
"Russia’s assistance is carried out as part of the common efforts of the international community to strengthen the national security units of the C.A.R., to transfer full responsibility for maintaining security and law and order throughout its territory to the local authority and, ultimately, to normalize the situation and to provide a lasting solution to the drawn-out internal armed conflict,” the ministry said in March 2018, the same month of Lavrov’s trip to the continent.
In July 2018, three Russian reporters were killed in a rural town near a major mine outside the capital Bangui. They were investigating the presence of Prigozhin’s companies in the country and allegations of the companies’ involvement in the violence-ridden diamond-and-gold mining industry.
An investigation by an organization funded by exiled Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky cast doubt on the official Russian explanation that they were killed during a robbery. The report suggested that the Vagner officers had direct involvement in the killing, and that the reporters’ fixer may have also been employed by a Prigozhin-linked company.
A month later, Russia signed a military cooperation agreement with Central Africa Republic.
‘Thanks To Russia, Calm And Peace Have Been Restored’
In the Vesti Nedeli report, shown September 29 and first highlighted by the open-source research organization CIT, the segment focuses on the Russian presence in the country, portraying it as a benevolent force.
“Russia has come here, to the Central African Republic, to help the country restore peace, because there has been war here for many years, [and] their appeals were ignored by the international community,” Valery Zakharov, who is identified as a security adviser to the country’s president, tells the channel. “Only thanks to Russia, which they appealed to, calm and peace has been restored.”
The military instructors, he says, are in the country, with UN approval, under a contract signed with the Russian Defense Ministry -- a statement that parrots previous Foreign Ministry statements about the Russian presence.
“So I don’t know anything about these dudes from Vagner,” Zakharov says.
The channel also interviews a Russian-speaking camouflaged soldier identified as Gennady Ivanov, who says he and his Russian colleague have nothing to do with Vagner.
Just a few seconds later, the segment shows guidelines for Russian conduct in the country, including the guidance “Defend Russia’s interests always and everywhere.” Visible in the background, on the paper on which guidelines are printed, is the company logo for Vagner.
Within the Central African Republic, the Russian presence is visible: on billboards extolling Russian cooperation; in a free French-language newspaper that reportedly extols the virtue of Russians.
It’s also visible in an animated French-language children’s video that appeared on YouTube in July, in which a bear travels from Russia down to Central African Republic to help an elephant and a lion fend off sinister-looking hyenas.
In the closing credits of the 3-minute video, the film is identified as being supported by Lobaye Invest, a Central African Republic mining company that corporate records show is affiliated with a St. Petersburg company called M-Invest and M-Finans.
Russian company records show that the contact information and e-mail for M-Finans share the same domain as Prigozhin’s St. Petersburg catering company, Concord Catering.
According to an investigation by Current Time, both M-Finans and M-Invest have contracted with Russian private geology companies to look for diamonds in the Central African Republic.
And a Russian Mi-8 helicopter registered to M-Finans has been spotted in the Central African Republic multiple times.