‘From Russia with love’: A ally Putin’s gold and plays favorites in Sudan

In a gold-rich area 200 miles north of the Sudanese capital, a mysterious foreign operator dominates the business.

Locals call it “the Russian Company” — a tightly guarded plant that processes mounds of dusty ore into bars of semi-refined gold.

“The Russians pay the best,” said Ammar al-Amir, a miner and community leader in al-Ibediyya, a town 10 miles from the plant. “Otherwise, we don’t know much about them.”

In fact, Sudanese company and government records show, the gold mine is one outpost of the Wagner Group, an opaque network of Russian mercenaries, mining companies and political influence operations — controlled by a close ally of President Vladimir Putin of Russia — that is expanding aggressively across a swath of Africa.

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Best known as a supplier of hired guns, Wagner has evolved into a far broader and more sophisticated tool of Kremlin power, according to experts and Western officials. Wagner has come to describe interlinked war-fighting, moneymaking and influence-peddling operations, low-cost and deniable, that serve Putin’s ambitions on a continent where support for Russia is relatively high.

A store in the gold market of Omdurman, Sudan on April 12, 2022. Backed by the Kremlin, the shadowy paramilitary network known as the Wagner Group is getting rich in Sudan while helping the military to crush a democracy movement. (Abdumonam Eassa/The New York Times)

Wagner emerged in 2014 as a band of Kremlin-backed mercenaries that supported Putin’s first into eastern Ukraine and that later to Syria. In recent months, at least 1,000 of its fighters have remerged in Ukraine, British intelligence has said.

The linchpin of Wagner’s operations, according to Western officials, is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch who was indicted in the United States on charges of meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

In 2017, Wagner expanded into Africa, where its mercenaries have become a sometimes pivotal factor in a string of conflict-hit countries: Libya, Mozambique, Central African Republic and most recently Mali where, as elsewhere, Wagner has been accused of atrocities against civilians .

But Wagner is far more than a war machine in Africa, and a close look at its activities in Sudan, the continent’s third largest gold producer, reveals its reach.

Wagner has obtained lucrative Sudanese mining concessions that produce a stream of gold, records show — a potential boost to the Kremlin’s $130 billion gold stash that US officials worry is being used to blunt the effect of economic sanctions over the Ukraine war, by propping up the ruble.

In an image provided by Abdumonam Eassa, gold miners process ore in River Nile State, Sudan in March 2022. Backed by the Kremlin, the shadowy paramilitary network known as the Wagner Group is getting rich in Sudan while helping the military to crush a democracy movement . (Abdumonam Eassa via The New York Times)

In eastern Sudan, Wagner is supporting the Kremlin’s push to build a naval base on the Red Sea to host its nuclear-powered warships. In western Sudan, it has found a launchpad for its mercenary operations in countries — and a possible source of uranium.

And since Sudan’s military seized power in a coup in October, Wagner has intensified its partnership with a power-hungry commander, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who visited Moscow in the early days of the Ukraine war. Wagner has given military aid to Dagalo and helped Sudan’s security forces to suppress a grassroots, pro-democracy movement, Western officials say.

“Russia feeds off kleptocracy, civil wars and internecine conflicts in Africa, filling vacuums where the West is not engaged or not interested,” said Samuel Ramani of the Royal United Services Institute, a defense research group in London.

The Kremlin and Prigozhin deny any links to Wagner.

Prigozhin shrouds his activities in secrecy, trying to mask his ties to Wagner through shell companies. But the Treasury Department and experts who track Prigozhin’s activities say that he owns or controls most, if not all, of the companies that make up Wagner.

A Russian gold processing plant in the desert outside al-Ibediyya, 200 miles north of Khartoum, Sudan, on April 19, 2022. Backed by the Kremlin, the shadowy paramilitary network known as the Wagner Group is getting rich in Sudan while helping the military to crush a democracy movement. (Abdumonam Eassa/The New York Times)

Most officials spoke about Prigozhin and Wagner on the condition of anonymity, citing the confidentiality of their work or, in some cases, fears for their safety. Dagalo and Mubarak Ardol, Sudan’s state regulator for mining, declined to be interviewed.

In a written response to questions, Prigozhin denied any mining interests in Sudan, denounced US sanctions against him and rejected the very existence of the group he is famously associated with.

“I, unfortunately, have never had gold mining companies,” he said. “And I am not a Russian military man.

“The Wagner legend,” he added, “is just a legend.”

In 2017, after nearly three decades of autocratic rule, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan was losing his grip on power. At a meeting with Putin in Russia, he sought a new alliance, proposing Sudan as Russia’s “key to Africa” in return for help, according to the Kremlin’s transcript of their remarks.

Putin snapped up the offer.

Within weeks, Russian geologists and mineralogists employed by Meroe Gold, a new Sudanese company, began to arrive in Sudan, according to commercial flight records obtained by the Dossier Center, a London-based investigative body, and verified by researchers at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies.

The Treasury Department says that Meroe Gold is controlled by Prigozhin, and it imposed sanctions on the company in 2020 as part of a raft of a measures targeting Wagner in Sudan. Meroe’s director in Sudan, Mikhail Potepkin, was previously employed by the Internet Research Agency, a Prigozhin-financed troll factory accused of meddling in the 2016 US election, the Treasury Department said.

Meroe Gold’s geologists were followed by Russian defense officials, who opened talks over a potential Russian naval base on the Red Sea — a strategic prize for the Kremlin.

But the Russians soon found themselves advising al-Bashir on how to save his skin. As a popular revolt surged from late 2018, Wagner advisers sent a memo urging the Sudanese government to run a social media campaign to discredit the protesters.

This memo and other documents were obtained by the Dossier Center, which is financed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil oligarch and a nemesis of Putin’s. Through interviews with officials and business leaders in Sudan, The New York Times confirmed key information in the documents, which the Dossier Center said were provided by sources inside the Prigozhin organization.

When al-Bashir was ousted by his own generals and placed under house arrest in April 2019, the Russians swiftly changed course.

A week later, Prigozhin’s jet arrived in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, carrying a delegation of senior Russian military officials. It returned to Moscow with senior Sudanese defense officials, including a brother of Dagalo, who was then emerging as a power broker, according to flight data obtained by Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Six weeks later, on June 3, 2019, Dagalo’s troops launched an operation to disperse pro-democracy protesters from Khartoum in which at least 120 people were. On June 5, Prigozhin’s company, Meroe Gold, imported 13 tons of riot shields, as well as helmets and batons for a company controlled by Dagalo’s family, customs and company documents show.

Gold production in Sudan soared after 2011, when South Sudan seceded and took with it most of its oil wealth. Dagalo’s family dominates the gold trade, experts and Sudanese officials say, and about 70% of Sudan’s production is smuggled out, according to the Central Bank of Sudan estimates obtained by the Times.

Most of it passes through the United Arab Emirates, the main hub for undeclared African gold.

“You can walk into the UAE with a handbag full of gold, and they will not ask you any questions,” said Lakshmi Kumar of Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based nonprofit that researches illicit financial flows.

Halting the flow of Russian gold has become a priority for Western governments. In March, the Treasury Department threatened sanctions on anyone who helps Putin launder the $130 billion stash in Russia’s central bank.

Since 2016, the United States has imposed no fewer than seven rounds of sanctions on Prigozhin and his network, and the FBI is offering a $250,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. Those measures have done little to stem his expansion in Africa.

The murkiest part of Wagner’s Sudan drive is in Darfur, a region riven by conflict and rich in uranium. There, Russian fighters can slip into bases controlled by Dagalo’s Rapid Support Forces, Western and UN officials say — and sometimes use the bases to cross into Central African Republic, Libya and parts of Chad.

This year, a team of Russian geologists visited Darfur to assess its uranium potential, one Western official said.

Since the war in Ukraine began, Russian disinformation networks in Sudan have churned out nine times as much fake news as before, trying to generate support for the Kremlin, said Amil Khan of Valent Projects, a London-based company that monitors disinformation flows.

That message is not welcomed by everyone. Several protests against Meroe Gold operations have erupted in mining areas. And pro-democracy demonstrators theorize that Sudanese Moscow was behind the October military takeover of the government.

“Russia supported the coup,” read an unsigned poster that appeared in Khartoum recently, “so it could steal our gold.”

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