Russian mercenaries in Africa are acting for the state, not just for themselves


I will never forget the moment I saw a photo of the body of journalist Alexander Rastorguev. Sasha, as we called her, was a staple of the Moscow documentary film scene and a warm mentor to my then-husband, whose films I produced. Sasha was a man who loved to tease you in public but a loyal and generous friend in private.

This man, who once squeezed my shoulder and whispered to me: “Always remember you are a good person, Antonova”, had been effectively executed, with a bullet to the hearts of many. bullets probably from an AK or AKM assault rifle. He was killed alongside his colleagues Orkhan Dzhemal and Kirill Radchenko in the Central African Republic, while investigate the local connections of a notorious Russian private military company. This atrocity happened in 2018, and it has haunted everyone who has known and loved Sasha, Orkhan and Kirill ever since.

I will never forget the moment I saw a photo of the body of journalist Alexander Rastorguev. Sasha, as we called her, was a staple of the Moscow documentary film scene and a warm mentor to my then-husband, whose films I produced. Sasha was a man who loved to tease you in public but a loyal and generous friend in private.

This man, who once squeezed my shoulder and whispered to me: “Always remember you are a good person, Antonova”, had been effectively executed, with a bullet to the hearts of many. bullets probably from an AK or AKM assault rifle. He was killed alongside his colleagues Orkhan Dzhemal and Kirill Radchenko in the Central African Republic, while investigate the local connections of a notorious Russian private military company. This atrocity happened in 2018, and it has haunted everyone who has known and loved Sasha, Orkhan and Kirill ever since.

To date, the Russian government insists that the motive for the murder was “robbery”, although there is ample evidence that this is an obviously cynical lie.

A United Nations draft report obtained by the New York Times says Russian mercenaries in CAR are committing and promoting war crimes – and further fueling violence in an already unstable, mineral-rich country. What happened to Sasha, who sought to shed light on the actions of these mercenaries, was part of a horrific pattern of violence, which Moscow only encouraged.

What are Russian mercenaries doing in CAR? The simple answer is that they are there to help secure lucrative trade deals and give Russia access to the country’s domestic politics.

What we need to understand here is that the interests of the Russian state are strongly linked to private interests, both due to corruption and plausible deniability. How does it work in real life? Well, Russian authorities, including the presidential administration, are known to be liberal with semi-official money transfers and use offshore accounts to cover their tracks – something that has been documented in relatively high-stakes areas. low such as public funding for the film industry, for example. example, but is much more risky to draw on military matters. This is exactly what happened when the Russian Propaganda the points of sale financed the 2017 film Mathilde– a plan that backfired when conservative Russian lawmakers claimed the film was anti-Russian for portraying the last tsar’s banter with a young ballerina.

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

We know that a number of mercenary companies involved in conflicts overseas are linked to ruthless businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin – nicknamed “Putin’s boss” after a restaurant he owned became popular with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his associates– whose dark and colorful past includes having spent most of the 1980s behind bars for armed robbery and other miscellaneous charges. We know that, like all the other players, Prigozhin responds to the Kremlin – even though there are no definitive ‘smoking’ papers that we can produce on all of his projects, simply because, again, the money is often used. and people who seek these kinds of connections regularly end up dying.

Meanwhile, the people of Prigojine got involved all over Madagascar to Mozambique– and that’s without counting their involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. But to understand Russian activities in CAR and elsewhere, we must first consider Putin’s aspirations on the world stage.

It would be naive to think that Russia has not carefully observed Chinese investments in Africa. During the Soviet years, the Russians were very impatient cultivating relationships 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 legitimate claim on various parts of the world, including African nations.

For all the outdoor conviviality between Beijing and Moscow– an image relentlessly pushed by the propaganda machines of both countries – if you spend enough time in Russia, you will realize that there is a fair amount of suspicion towards China in the Kremlin and in society in general. Russian nationalists in particular are very vocal about the idea that China will eventually take over the Far East and Siberia, even as more and more Kremlin-aligned resources insist that it’s just a matter of sowing fear.

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

And while a western-centric worldview would have us believe that Russia is only in competition with the United States and the European Union, it is reductive. By extending his interests to Africa, Putin is also sending a message to Chinese leader Xi Jinping that Russia aims to be a full player, as opposed to China’s boyfriend.

Putin shouldn’t have to have innocent people killed in African countries to build muscle. But if you look at Russian behavior in Syria and, for that matter, in Chechnya, you will notice a contemptuous contempt for the lives of civilians – and that comes from regular Russian troops, mind you. Where Russian private military contractors are engaged, the standards are much lower, and even the pretext of legal liability goes out the window. Why wouldn’t these fighters act even worse then?

During some of the worst months of the pandemic of the past year, I have often thought about Sasha and what he would have done with the current developments. Unable to come to terms with his death, I set about trying 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 tell me about what he described as his brief stint with a private Russian military group.

The men who join these Russian entrepreneurs tend to have a military background, an interest in money, and a lack of interest in being mall keepers. My source matched the profile and admitted not worrying about convoluted Russian legislation which makes private military contractors technically illegal and thus ensures their members have no protection – “because the money is so good.”

I didn’t need to ask him why my friend was killed – I knew the why: Sasha and her team were searching dangerous people, and these dangerous people wanted to send a message about what is happening to those who investigate them. But I wanted 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 literally anything other than this. “

While he was teasing me, he was talking about a basic truth. Russia’s dependence on mercenaries will continue to be an essential part of the Kremlin’s strategy. They are disposable and are not hampered by military bureaucracy. Because Russian society isn’t too keen on claiming them as its own, and they’re not publicly mourned when they die, they lead to fewer internal PR issues.

Private military organizations allow the Russian government to get rid of the pretext of responsibility. And as long as they embody the financial interests of many, from mercenaries who do the heavy lifting to their shadow investors, their activities will be ruthlessly watched.

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

I did wonder, however, if Sasha’s brutal murder in CAR later that year was a sign of escalation – some sort of internal policy change, a license to be more belligerent when deemed necessary. My source laughed at it. Then he became thoughtful for a moment. – Who knows, he said finally. “Maybe you will be lucky and there will eventually be a leak.”

What remains very clear is that unarmed villagers, journalists and anyone else who crosses paths with Russian mercenaries are likely to have a hard time. There are no mechanisms to systematically contain this violence, and international outrage does not baffle the Kremlin, Prigozhin or anyone with direct or indirect participation in private military companies. As my source said, “They want to be feared, not loved.”


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