World Russia Leans on Mercenary Forces to Regain Global Clout

01:10  24 february  2020
01:10  24 february  2020 Source:   online.wsj.com

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Russian media have reported that the so-called Wagner Company has sent thousands of mercenaries to Syria, augmenting the Russian military. President Vladimir Putin says that Russia doesn’t want to regain its Soviet-era superpower clout . Asked if Russia has regained the Soviet Union’s superpower

Russian mercenaries reportedly want revenge after getting whooped by US forces in Syria. He said that about 100 people in Russia 's Yekaterinburg region, where he is based, were "planning to go to Syria." The man said that after reports that US forces earlier this month crushed an advance of

Faustin-Archange Touadéra et al. in uniform © Benoit Faucon/The Wall Street Journal

In October, dozens of armed Russian mercenaries fanned out across two Libyan oil ports. Brought in by a renegade Libyan general, they helped rebel forces wrest control of the oil-rich region from the Libyan government.

After the fighting ended, a delegation of mining and oil executives from former Soviet states arrived seeking business with the rebels who now controlled the ports, Libyan immigration records show.

Almost three decades after the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russian President Vladimir Putin is on a mission to rebuild Moscow’s international influence in the Middle East and Africa. The campaign relies partly on building alliances with developing countries outside official channels, often through proxies such as private security contractors, businesses and advisers, according to people involved and European security officials.

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Mr Yavlinsky claims mercenary forces 'are trained at Russian army facilities' and 'receive military awards in the Kremlin' in secret, he alleged. 'They are, in essence, special troops of the Russian army - despite the fact that mercenaries and private military companies are officially banned in Russia '.

Russia will likely continue trying to fill global power vacuums resulting from U.S In the former Soviet Union, for instance, Russia has used its growing economic clout to acquire key In Syria, the October 2015 deployment of Russian air and ground forces constituted a major Southwest Asia is another theater of Russia ’s campaign to regain its Soviet-era global influence, especially in Afghanistan.

Russian activity in the Middle East and Africa coincides with a pulling back in those regions by the U.S. and its European allies. During a three-country tour of Africa last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that the Trump administration is considering reducing military forces in Western Africa.

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The Russian campaign has drawn the attention of U.S. and European officials who worry about the impact of growing Russian influence in the regions.

Earlier this month, the top American envoy to Syria said Russian military contractors are engaging in tense encounters with U.S. troops in Syria.

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Mercenary Coalition moved into Tribute with strong forces to fight the enemy.

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Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of the U.S. Africa Command, warned recently about Russia’s involvement in a region that is growing in prominence as a source of natural resources.

“Russian private military companies have a highly destabilizing influence in Africa, as they are frequently employed to secure Russian investments at the expense of Africans, to prop up corrupt regimes and establish a broader Russian military footprint globally,” he wrote in a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Kremlin has said its aims in Africa and the Middle East are to help fight extremism and develop regional economies. It has denied any connection to private security contractors.

Once marginalized in Libya because of its association with toppled strongman Moammar Gadhafi, Russia has become, in just a few months, a pivotal player there. In January, Mr. Putin hosted talks in Moscow between the renegade general and the head of the internationally recognized Libyan government, then followed up with a summit in Berlin. The two sides have yet to agree to a cease-fire.

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Russia has always felt themselves inferior despite it has the largest population in Europe and its military force is one of the world’s strongest. Putins goal isn't to regain either the USSR, the Russian Empire, or even the combination of USSR and its Satellite states.

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The Libya foray could give Russia a foothold in a failed state that is a significant energy exporter and a main route for illegal trafficking in people, drugs and weapons to Europe. European officials are concerned about the precarious state of Libyan security, in part because regions to its south are war zones and terrorist breeding grounds.

European Union foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell said in January that the Russian intervention could have undermined its efforts to broker a deal between Libya’s warring parties without using military force.

“Libya is a big gate to Africa” for Russia, said Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha. “It’s also the entrance to Southern Europe.”

Mr. Putin has denied the Russian government is behind any private contractors in Libya. “If there are Russian citizens there,” he said in January, “they don’t represent the interests of the Russian state and don’t receive funding from the Russian state.”

Mr. Bashagha said the mercenaries are in Libya with the Kremlin’s approval, citing a meeting held in Moscow between the renegade Libyan general, the Russian defense ministry and the private soldiers’ recruiter.

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During the Cold War, the Soviet Union spent billions of dollars on military aid to African allies. Then the collapse of communist rule in the early 1990s forced a retreat from the global stage.

Now, at a time of diminished Russian economic and military power, its efforts to exert political influence involve private security companies and businesses seeking access to oil, gold and diamonds, according to European security officials who monitor the groups. The private companies answer to the Kremlin, these people said.

A Russian company won a gold-mining contract in Sudan, where affiliated contractors have also been training forces, according to Russia’s foreign ministry and European security officials.

In October, 43 African heads of state flew to the Russian resort Sochi for the first Russia-Africa summit. The leaders mingled with Russian state companies involved in defense and oil and gas, buying $12.5 billion worth of Russian agricultural goods and equipment and services for refineries and railroads.

Moscow’s tactics emerged with its interventions in eastern Ukraine in 2014, where the Kremlin worked with armed groups fielded by politically connected Russian businessmen. Companies owned by former restaurateur Yevgeny Prigozhin won multimillion-dollar catering and construction contracts for the Russian armed forces. Mr. Prigozhin then created Wagner Group, a private military company, according to European security officials.

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Mr. Prigozhin also built a political consulting firm, the Internet Research Group, that the Justice Department says was behind Russian efforts to sow discord among Americans in the 2016 presidential election.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Wagner Group “has nothing to do with Russian state, with the Russian government, with the Russian defense ministry, with Russian special services or with the Kremlin.”

As fighting in Ukraine ebbed in 2015, Wagner turned to Syria, where it fought on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, and Mr. Prigozhin’s companies won oil and gas concessions.

Mr. Prigozhin’s company and his lawyers didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Kremlin’s first major foray into Africa since Soviet days came two years ago in the Central African Republic, a mineral-rich former French colony. Africa was drawing foreign governments and companies hungry for resources. It also had become a source of terrorism and migration problems.

In late 2017, Moscow persuaded the United Nations to allow Russia to undertake a mission to train the Central African Republic’s army, which was fighting rebel forces, and support its weakened president, Faustin-Archange Touadera.

The first deployment—several dozen Russian mercenaries—arrived in January 2018 on a Russian military plane with crates of automatic weapons. Most weren’t members of Russia’s armed forces and wore neither standard uniforms nor insignia, according to officials who saw them arrive.

When the U.N. approved the mission, Moscow hadn’t specified it would be sending private contractors rather than soldiers—something that surprised U.N. officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

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A spokesman for the U.N. mission there said the Russian forces were coordinating with others to help revamp the nation’s security sector.

Russia now has more than 235 security personnel in the country, according to a European security official, giving it greater clout there than any foreigners since France left in 1960. The senior Russian in the country appears to be Valery Zakharov, a retired Russian security-service officer who landed several months before the troops and became President Touadera’s top security adviser.

In an interview, Mr. Zakharov said that he isn’t part of the official U.N. mission and that he works for and is paid by Mr. Touadera, not Russia. He described his relationship with the Russian government by saying: “There’s no such thing as former” security-service officers.

The Kremlin spokesman said Mr. Zakharov “has nothing to do with the Russian government or our embassy or with Russian intelligence.” He said Russia is interested in developing its relationship with the Central African Republic.

On a dusty field near the capital, Bangui, last summer, Russian instructors drilled dozens of government troops armed with machetes and rifles. Mr. Zakharov, standing nearby, said the Russian forces are paid under arrangements with Russia’s defense ministry. He declined to provide details.

The Security Service of Ukraine, that country’s main security and counterintelligence agency, is investigating the quasi-private Russian military groups fighting in eastern Ukraine. It says many of the Russian soldiers sent to Africa fought in Ukraine with Wagner.

“It’s a convenient front,” said the security service Chief of Staff Ihor Huskov. “The geopolitical ambitions of Russia coincide with the appetites” of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, he said.

The Russian instructors have moved into the roughly 80% of the Central African Republic outside government control, according to Western security officials. As the Russians deployed, President Touadera’s government awarded mining contracts to Russian companies.

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In Libya, Russia’s involvement could give it a foothold in a major energy and migration hub near Europe. Libya is a large exporter of oil and natural gas to Europe, but most of its reserves—the largest in Africa and the ninth-biggest in the world—are untapped.

After Libyan dictator and Russian ally Gadhafi was deposed and killed in 2011 by Western-backed rebels, Mr. Putin said the U.S. and its allies had overstepped a U.N. mandate. A new Libyan government marginalized Russia.

The U.S. has since withdrawn from Libya and Russia has returned. Fayez al-Sarraj, Libya’s prime minister, attended the Sochi summit and discussed buying one million metric tons of Russian wheat, according to a Libyan security official.

Moscow simultaneously is helping Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who heads a rebel faction called the Libyan National Army, by printing Libyan money for his breakaway government and welcoming him aboard its aircraft carrier, according to Russian and Libyan government officials.

Gen. Haftar, a Soviet-trained former commander in Gadhafi’s military, rebelled in 2014 against Libya’s new ruler, uniting disparate militias to take control of a swath of eastern Libya. In 2018 he seized most of the country’s main oil-exporting ports. Last year, he attacked Tripoli.

The ports let Gen. Haftar control oil flows to Europe and offer a staging point for attacks on government troops. Rebels are expanding control of the region, known as the “oil crescent,” where 85% of Libya’s reserves lie. American companies long dominated the region until civil war prompted them to leave.

In the middle of last yea, Gen. Haftar’s troops brought Russian military contractors into two ports to train commandos and launch strikes, according to Libyan oil and security officials. Mr. Bashagha, the interior minister, said the Russians were Wagner employees.

“Whoever controls the area controls the oil fields,” said Mr. Bashagha, who is part of the internationally recognized government.

In December, the rebel administration of Gen. Haftar allowed a group of Russian and Belarusian businessmen to visit his eastern stronghold of Benghazi, according to an arrivals list at the city’s airport. The visitors included a Russian fuel-trading executive and managers at a Russian contractor specializing in mining and gas projects for state companies.

In Libya’s capital Tripoli, still under government control, prosecutors last summer arrested two Russian political consultants, alleging they were trying to destabilize the government and back opponents, including Gadhafi’s son and Gen. Hafter. They alleged the two men were connected to Mr. Prigozhin’s Internet Research Group, according to people close to the investigation.

The Kremlin has denied that Russian soldiers operate in Libya. Libyan officials said the private nature of Moscow’s military operations means it can deny its presence in Libya.

“Russia will say it has nothing to do with [Wagner],” said Mr. Bashagha, Libya’s interior minister. “They will say it’s a security company.”

Write to Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com and James Marson at james.marson@wsj.com

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