He had been waiting for this for 224 days. In a video broadcast on May 20, Evgueni Prigojine, a Russian flag in his hands, sits enthroned in the midst of his mercenaries in an apocalypse setting: Bakhmout, or at least what remains of it, a field of ruins. The martyred city, he asserts, was conquered by his troops. “There was only Wagner here,” he asserts, in a charge against the heads of the Russian regular army, whom he despises. The man with a shaved head and a sinister expression, however, omits to specify that the Ukrainians have, for their part, succeeded in breaking through on the southern and northern flanks of the city, threatening his troops with encirclement…
But the future of Bakhmout matters little. Prigojine has succeeded in the essentials: refining his image as a hero who risks his life on the ground to “save the honor” of Russia, stuck on the Ukrainian front. A high price paid for: tens of thousands of mercenaries were thrown into this furnace, many of whom ended up crushed in the Donbass “meat grinder”. Without moving him, however: “The cemetery is getting bigger, he was content to say, laconic, facing the fresh graves of his men (often former prisoners). Those who fight sometimes die. like that life…” He, in any case, won his Grail: Vladimir Putin congratulated him for the “liberation” of this modest city.
Unusual outspokenness in Putin’s kingdom
Almost unknown a year ago, this former convict, who has known Putin since 2001, is today a star for many Russians. Day after day, the oligarch builds his legend on his Telegram channel. We see him vociferating against the corruption of the governor of Saint Petersburg, the lack of ammunition, or insulting the Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, accused of incompetence and cowardice. “The intelligentsia is dismayed by his outings. But he is idolized by those who served at the front and by the most radical,” judge Marat Gabidullin, an ex-mercenary of Wagner. “He plays on the frankness, that pleases a lot in a country governed by lies”, completes the writer Iegor Gran.
An unusual freedom of tone in a regime where everyone trembles before the head of the Kremlin. But the character has more scope than it seems: at the head of a sprawling empire of nearly 400 companies, which range from mercenary to disinformation operations, via “political advice”, he has woven its web in Africa and the Middle East. Above all, he found his place in the Putin system. His mission ? To serve the geopolitical objectives of its master. This amounts to weakening the West wherever it can, by all means, even the most despicable (massacres, rapes, torture). “Prigojine has always taken over missions that others did not want, summarizes political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya, president of the R.Politik think tank. When officials find it too dirty, bloody and dangerous, he offers his services .” Wagner was created to sow chaos. And Westerners are just beginning to take stock of the danger it represents for our democracies.
Presented as a private militia, Wagner is a real army, anything but independent. “Despite an apparent autonomy, the group does exactly what Putin asks of it. It has its own organization, but is assigned strategic missions, particularly in Africa. It is supervised by the Russian military intelligence service (GRU), which ‘created,” says exiled journalist Andrei Soldatov. Thus, in Ukraine, its weapons and ammunition are supplied to it by the Ministry of Defence. This Kremlin tradition of intervening in theaters of operations without appearing officially dates back to Soviet times. “In the 1930s, Stalin had sent military advisers to support the republican forces in Spain, continues Andrei Soldatov. Over there, they lived under Spanish-sounding names.” One of them, calling himself “Colonel Xanti”, even inspired Hemingway for his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Fake Media Nebula
It was in 2014, during the first Donbass war, that the Wagner group appeared. Attracted by a good salary, his mercenaries are led by a certain Dmitri Outkin, a former GRU officer, whose passion for the Third Reich would have earned him the nickname “Wagner”, Hitler’s favorite composer. The existence of these warriors without legal status – Moscow has never recognized their existence – does not come to light until a year later, in Syria. Support of Bashar el-Assad, Putin sends his planes to bomb the rebel forces. But the troops of Damascus skate. Prigozhin then dispatches his “dogs of war”, thus avoiding any direct participation by the Russian state.
Later, in Libya, Wagner deployed more than a thousand fighters to support General Khalifa Haftar in his offensive on Tripoli. Failure: “They were beaten there by the mercenaries of the Turks [NDLR : venus soutenir le gouvernement de transition], and also failed in Mozambique, recalls military historian Michel Goya. This small army is calibrated for limited interventions, not to win a war.” Despite these disappointments, the “Wagner machine” is in motion. It will not stop.
It is in Africa that its influence is strongest. In a few years, she managed to kick France out of the Central African Republic and Mali. His method? Protect autocratic powers against access to resources, especially mining. To prepare the ground, the “trolls” – these little hands of misinformation on social networks – stir up anti-French sentiment. And their next target may well be Burkina Faso. For three months, messages against France and support for Russia have multiplied on Facebook. A nebula of bogus media and fake accounts has sprung up. At the heart of this galaxy, the Pan-African Group for Trade and Investment, an agency specializing in influence and disinformation based in Lomé, Togo, and headed by Harouna Douamba, a lobbyist close to Wagner, at the head of about forty propaganda media. This Ivorian became known in the Central African Republic, where he launched a campaign against France and organized the visit of the pan-Africanist activist Kémi Seba, in 2018.
Everywhere, Wagner adapts its offer to local needs. “In Madagascar, during the December 2018 presidential election, they promised election experts and media coverage to several candidates, says a researcher from the Dossier Center organization, created by the Russian opponent in exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Sudan , the Central African Republic or Mozambique, above all, needed security specialists, in addition to political advice. Only Prigojine can offer such a wide range of services to a foreign country, continues the researcher: “Do you need money? Qualified personnel to protect you and fight for you? Weapons? Training for your army? No problem, we take care of it…”
Interference in the American countryside
While destabilizing the West in Africa or the Middle East, Wagner also seeks to reach it on its soil. Prigojine has admitted interfering in the 2016 US presidential campaign – he is accused of using trolls to discredit Hillary Clinton. On the European continent too, attempts at infiltration are increasing. The Prigojine network, for example, tried to interfere in Estonia, before the 2019 European Parliament elections, by supporting the far-right eurosceptic Ekre party, according to the Politico media. And it is not excluded, some observers fear, that he will help the Kremlin in the future to get rid of Russian opponents in exile.
There is danger, because all the benchmarks are upset, in a world where force is no longer the monopoly of States. “For the moment, there are no legally binding international regulations for this company which escapes all control and widens its field of action”, deplores Jelena Aparac, independent expert for the United Nations, who is worried to see emerge, beyond Wagner, a “proliferation of non-state actors in conflicts, which act via cyber operations, position themselves as humanitarian organizations or take part in combat”.
Destabilized, the West seeks the parade. First initiatives are taking shape, still too timid to stop the hydra. After Lithuania, France has labeled Wagner a terrorist organization and is pleading for the European Union to include it on its list. But the task is difficult, so much Wagner shows audacity and creativity.
And it is not about to stop. Because Prigojine, despite its many enemies, does not seem threatened. On the contrary, Putin makes him play a role of counterweight vis-a-vis the Minister for Defense, who, if the war is prolonged, will take more and more importance. “Prigojine is not in danger, because no one can replace him, says ex-mercenary Marat Gabidullin. He is preparing to enter politics.” A guarantee of survival when Putin will no longer be there to cover it. A position on the Security Council could, for example, interest him. Proof of his ambition, the ex-con wants to give his group a more respectable image. On its new logo, the skull has been replaced by two swords piercing a Soviet star. Not really more reassuring…