The major stories you need
to understand Russia

An insider view, in 5 minutes

The Bell has learned that after meetings held by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev with the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, in November 2017, fighters from the private military contractor “Wagner Group” traveled to Sudan, and a company connected to Evgeny Prigozhin began searching for gold in the African country.

Yevgeny Prigozhin at a meeting of Russian and Turkish government officials and business leaders, 2016. Mikhail Metzel/TASS

Details

  • The meeting between Putin and the Sudanese president took place at the end of November 2017 at the Bocharov Ruchey residence in Sochi, where Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu was also present for talks. One of the points discussed was the establishment of a Russian military naval base on the Red Sea. Sudan needs protection from aggressive U.S. actions, said Bashir. The president of Sudan is indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), for allegedly directing a campaign of mass killing against civilians in Darfur. These talks with Putin were serviced by Prigozhin’s catering company, according to a source who spoke to The Bell.
  • During this same visit to Russia by Bashir, several agreements were signed in the presence of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, including concession agreements for the mining of gold between the Ministry of Minerals for the Republic of the Sudan and an obscure company called M Invest Ltd. This agreement secured a concession for the prospecting and mining of gold in several plots in Sudan.

Follow us at Medium to get inside Russian politics and business. Join the discussion and share opinion at our club on Facebook .

  • A subsidiary of this company operating under the name “Meroe Gold” has already started to explore deposits in Sudan, according to two people who spoke to The Bell who are familiar with the November talks. Both sources claim that M Invest represents Prigozhin’s interests. M Invest, the Russian Government, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs all declined to comment.
  • Prospecting is taking place at five plots, one source tells The Bell, with the involvement of about 50 geologists and other specialists. The volume of production that the company expects is unclear. As of 2016, Sudan was the third largest producer of gold in Africa, with a production volume of more than 90 tons per year. According to the Chinese news agency Xinhua, production in Sudan exceeded 100 tons last year.

Context

  • Civil war has rarely ceased since the moment Sudan gained independence in 1956. After the talks between al-Bashir and Russian authorities, not only did Russian geologists set out for Sudan, but private military contractors went as well. (The BBC Russian Service first reported this in December.) Wagner Group mercenaries are now training Sudanese government military units, according to four people who spoke to The Bell, including at least one person who works for another private military company. One person indicated that there are over one hundred mercenaries deployed there. It is unclear if they are involved in protecting the M Invest concession sites or the Russian civilian specialists. But this kind of business structure has already been tested by Prigozhin in Syria: under an agreement with Bashar Assad’s government, Prigozhin would receive 25% of oil and gas production from fields won and defended by the Wagner Group.
  • Evgeny Prigozhin knows Vladimir Putin from St. Petersburg, where the businessman has developed restaurants which Putin visited when working in St.Petersburg in the 1990s. In recent years, Prigozhin’s companies have serviced the Presidential Property Management Department and have received major contracts from the Ministry of Defense.
  • Prigozhin has been under U.S. sanctions since the end of 2016, and the United States recently indicted him and a dozen employees of the so-called “troll factory” for interfering in American elections. It is believed that Prigozhin also financed the creation of the factory.

Exploration by battle

  • Not only did geologists go to Sudan this year, Wagner’s fighters connected to Evgeny Prigozhin went too. This was first reported by the BBC Russian Service in December.
  • In February, Bashir announced a program between Moscow and Khartoum to develop Sudanese military capabilities against foreign threats. This included threats from the United States, which the Sudanese president told Putin was destabilizing the situation. Sudan has rarely been free of civil war since gaining independence in 1956. In 2011, South Sudan was recognized as an independent state, but clashes with the central authorities continued.
  • Prigozhin’s mercenaries are now training Sudanese government military units, according to four people who spoke to The Bell, including at least one person who works for a competitor company. One person indicated that there are over one hundred mercenaries deployed there. It is unclear if they are involved in protecting the M Invest concession sites or the Russian civilian specialists. But this kind of business structure has already been tested by Prigozhin in Syria.

Oil trade

  • There have been Wagner Group fighters in Syria since 2016. According to Fontanka, it was about at that time that a company called Evro Polis, which is connected to Prigozhin, concluded a framework agreement with the government of Bashar al-Assad, which gave it a quarter of the total volume of oil and gas extracted from fields seized with the help of the Wagner Group. RBC, referencing a source close to Prigozhin, wrote that he expected to start profiting off of Syrian oil and that he regarded it as dividends from his military operations.
  • According to The Bell, Evro Polis signed the binding work agreements in Syria shortly before the February military clash in the province of Deir ez-Zor. Citing a Russian military source, Kommersant reported that the cause of the incident was an alleged attempt by Syrian “big businessmen currently supporting Bashar al-Assad” to seize oil and gas fields controlled by the Kurds, who are U.S. allies. According to various sources, the battle resulted in the deaths of anywhere from a dozen to up to more than two hundred Wagner Group fighters.

The Key to Africa

“We can say that Sudan may be Russia’s key to Africa,” said Bashir at the November meeting with Putin. The activity of Evgeny Prigozhin’s organizations is quite noticeable in other countries on the continent:

  • In Madagascar, South Africa and Kenya, Russian political scientists are conducting sociological research, Kommersant wrote in April. According to them, this work is also financed by Prigozhin and is coordinated by political scientist Yaroslav Ignatovsky.
  • In Madagascar, a new president and parliament will be elected this year. In South Africa, general elections will be held next year. “But it’s implied that this project is long-term — maybe two years. The situation in these African countries is unstable. Elections can be held unexpectedly,” explained a source with the project.
  • Employees of the Wagner Group are also training the armed forces of the Central African Republic (CAR), says one Bell source. This spring, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially declared that 170 civilian instructors “will be sent to CAR to train CAR servicemen.”
  • In addition to M Invest, another organization is involved in gold mining in Sudan, the Kush for exploration & production CO.Ltd. In November, it received new concessions in the country. Until 2016, it was controlled by Gazprombank. Since 2013, it has invested about $80 million into the exploration and development of deposits in Sudan, and its total production volume has been about 2.5 tons of gold, one source told The Bell. On top of gold mining, Kush was engaged in Sudanese education activities. For instance, in 2013, with Sergey Lavrov in attendance, the company opened a center for the study of Russian language in Khartoum, named after Alexander Pushkin. It is unclear who currently controls the company. Gazprombank, which owned 17% of this company, did not respond to a request for comment from The Bell. The director of Kush for exploration & production CO.Ltd, Evgeni Aleksandrov, declined to comment. Gold mining in Sudan has also interested businessman Konstantin Malofeev, who is actively helping promote Novorossia, according to three sources. He even went personally to Sudan, though he has not yet invested. (Malofeev refused to the speak to The Bell.) Prigozhin, Malofeev, and Gazprombank are all under sanctions.

Anastasia Yakoreva