Exclusive: Wagner founder Prigozhin says counter-terrorism is company’s primary African focus

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Founder of Russian private military company Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has defended his company’s activities in Africa, saying that his involvement on the continent is mainly to defeat terrorism and help countries liberate their territories from insurgents.

defenceWeb was granted an exclusive interview with Prigozhin in Moscow, where he elaborated on a number of topics. Prigozhin emphasised that Wagner is not funded by the Russian government and that all funds for its operations come solely from Prigozhin’s business dealings. He went on to add that Wagner only works for legitimate governments and isn’t involved in any coup plots, nor in assisting terrorists gaining a foothold in any country. The only conflict that Wagner has engaged in which wasn’t on the side of a sitting government has been in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass where Wagner assisted militias in Donetsk and Luhansk between 2014 and 2015. Wagner is also currently spearheading attempts to capture the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. According to Prigozhin, Wagner is “always on the right side of justice” when deciding which contracts to accept and which to decline.

Elaborating on Wagner’s role in Africa, Prigozhin told defenceWeb that at first there was no focus on the continent, but Africa first came onto the radar when Wagner was fighting in Syria (Russia began supporting Syria’s Bashar al Assad in 2015) and demonstrating ‘extreme efficiency’ in destroying ISIS. With between 1 500 and 3 000 men, Wagner carried out tasks which were beyond the strength of the 200 000 Syrian Army troops plus thousands of allied troops, he said. After this put Wagner on the map, Prigozhin started receiving requests from the heads of several countries to help deal with terrorism.

These included President Faustin-Archange Touadera of the Central African Republic (CAR), President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, President Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique, and many others. Prigozhin explained that as these countries did not have the financial resources to mount effective counter-insurgency campaigns, they offered to pay in minerals. However, Prigozhin said that in many cases these resources were exaggerated – for example, Central African Republic diamonds are not very lucrative due to high input costs, but “if you pledge don’t hedge; and if you give your word, you must keep it!” He explained that between 2016 and 2019, for example, profits from some business operations in the Central African Republic were absolutely zero.

Wagner activity in the CAR picked up in December 2020 when rebels attacked and captured the CAR’s fourth-largest city, Bambari. Touadera asked Russia and Rwanda to help protect the country as rebels were trying to march towards the capital Bangui and if they were not stopped, they would have slaughtered a thousand men and literally cut off their heads and ripped out beating hearts, ‘to feast on’. Instead, Prigozhin explains, 200 Wagner instructors managed to hold back the onslaught on Berengo near the capital. After Touadera called for help, Wagner sent an aircraft to Bangui every two hours with armed men who’d land and go straight into the jungle. All these costs were borne by Prigozhin, he said, as no one helped him and he funded the whole operation himself.

Prigozhin believes that if he didn’t assist Touadera, he would have been rounded up with a couple of hundreds of supporters and died with them. “I could not be idle when asked for help. He [Touadera] is just a good man who didn’t run away to a neighbouring state but was prepared to die, rather than let the bandits enter the capital,” Prigozhin told defenceWeb through a translator.

He related how, when the first Wagner aircraft landed and rebels were halted a few kilometres from Bangui, Touadera – “unlike many clowns who do nothing but wear leopard robes” – put on his flak jacket and went straight into the jungle to show government soldiers that he’s no coward. “That is what I believe every president of every country at war should do – he must wear a bullet-proof vest and get into the thick of it – because it is better to die a hero, than to live as a coward! I ended up in Africa because I could not, in times of conflict, abandon the people I had promised to help,” Prigozhin said.

Although Wagner does not need to be involved in Africa, “I am certainly involved on the continent,” Prigozhin stated. “We are in Africa to protect those who ask us for help. To protect African civilians, to protect their national interests from terrorists and bandits, some of whom are not even of African origin at all. This is done solely from the funds that I earn as a businessman.”

Wagner has been accused of causing civilian deaths, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) saying Russian mercenaries committed serious abuses, both in the CAR and Mali, including torture and killings, but according to Prigozhin the stories about the genocide of civilians are “one hundred percent fake. This is being done by the French and the Americans, who are failing to destroy militants and terrorists globally, because they are lazy and quite frankly, useless. They’re used to sitting in their bases, just guarding themselves while we are actually patrolling the jungle destroying terrorists. Local authorities have carried out investigations which have debunked the hoaxes that have been made about alleged violence against civilians.” Prigozhin was adamant that not a single unarmed person has ever been killed by Wagner in the company’s entire history.

Not an arm of the Kremlin

Wagner has often been said to be a de facto unit of the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) or Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU. Prigozhin refuted these allegations, saying he has nothing to do with the GRU, the Russian Ministry of Defence, nor the Kremlin. “Moreover, I will tell you that the stories about my acquaintance with President Putin are very, very exaggerated. Certainly, I have communicated with him, but the rumours of our acquaintance are only that – rumours.”

Prigozhin said he first met Putin only when he was President, although he most likely visited Prigozhin’s restaurants in St Petersburg when Putin was the deputy mayor and at the time “I had no interest in talking to him.” Prigozhin is not in Putin’s inner circle, he said, and “I do not have the opportunity to visit him whenever I want to, or call him.”

As far as the Russian Ministry of Defence is concerned, Prigozhin said Wagner in fact has a stormy relationship with this government department, as “I have always criticised them and I will continue to criticise them. I am in favour of the Russian army being super-efficient. While there are certainly times when you have to put someone on the spot or use someone else’s help, these are extremely rare cases. I can tell you with certainty that when I was training the army in Sudan, fighting in Mozambique or in Central Africa, I did not inform anyone.”

“It’s no secret that a huge number of countries turn to us, as our high efficiency is visible to all. Indeed, Wagner is not engaged in protection, it is engaged in the liberation of states, combating terrorists and invaders. That is why there are so many requests, including from leading countries. Wagner is however an effective, potent weapon.

“Of course, we must consider the interests of Russia in our cooperation with other countries. We are, after all, patriots of our country. Unfortunately, within Russia itself many decision-makers don’t give a damn about patriotism and guarding our national interests, but that is a whole different story,” Prigozhin concluded.