11th Dec 2023


Glock diplomacy: African gift sheds light on Wagner leaders

  • Glock 26: favoured by some Western intelligence services for its small size (Photo: Sveenys Armory)
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A gift of 11 pistols shows who was who in Wagner's command structure in Sudan, as the mercenary group's mutiny poses questions for Russia's empire in Africa.

Sudanese general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan gave the guns to Wagner boss Yevgheniy Prighozin and 10 of his top men in 2020 at a peak time in relations.

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  • Sudanese general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan gave the pistols for Wagner's "contribution to Sudanese security"

He gave Glock 26s, also called "baby" Glocks, to Prighozin himself and to his second-in-command on Khartoum, Valeriy Zakharov.

And he sent personalised Glock 17s to nine other Wagner commanders along with a letter in Arabic thanking them for their "contribution to Sudanese security".

The list of guns, their serial numbers, and Wagner owners was recorded in a two-page Russian government document from 27 February 2020 marked "secret" and seen by EUobserver.

"None of the men were ordinary fighters, but kind of leaders of the Sudan operation," a Russian source told EUobserver.

Three years ago marked Wagner and Russia's heyday in Sudan.

Al-Burhan was in power, Wagner was training his forces and building gold mines, while Russia was in talks to construct a naval base on the country's Red Sea coast.

And Sudan was part of a wider campaign that saw Wagner and Russia expand into the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Mali, and further afield.

But fast-forward to today and Sudan is back in full-blown civil war, putting Wagner's mines and Russia's naval-base plan at risk.

Prighozin's mutiny against the Russian army last weekend, in a row over the Ukraine war, has also put his own survival, Wagner's future, and Russia's Africa strategy in doubt.

"I did not see any panic. I did not see any changes in the relations of the relevant African countries with the Russian Federation," Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday (26 June).

But EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell was less sure, speaking in Luxembourg the same day.

"What happens next? Will they [Wagner] be integrated in the Russian army? We don't know. Some might integrate, others not," Borrell said.

"What is Wagner's role in Africa going to be going forward?", he added. "Russia would find it hard to deal without the help of those mercenary units in many African countries," he said.

And the al-Burhan gun list gives clues to what might happen by shedding light on Wagner's modus operandi.

The baby Glock gift indicates Prighozin had significant personal relationships with African leaders that might be hard to replace.

The hybrid group of 10 warriors, spin-doctors, and businessmen who got pistols also indicates that the Russian army alone might find it hard to replicate Wagner's formula for African success.

Zooming in on the other 10 names, Prighozin's second-in-command on Khartoum, Zakharov, is under EU and US sanctions, which detail his past.

The 53-year old is a former Russian intelligence officer who worked in Chechnya and subsequently as a police detective in St Petersburg.

He's ruthless by reputation — EU sanctions accuse him of helping to murder three Russian journalists in CAR in 2018.

But he also understands high-level politics and business, as he used to be Wagner's national-security adviser to the CAR president and created the Lobaye Invest gold-mining firm in Sudan's southern neighbour.

Glock 17s

The nine Wagner men who got the less fancy Glock 17s were: Valery Chekalov, Evgeni Fedorov, Aleksandr Glukhov, Andrei Gusev, Pavel Kovalevich, Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Nikolai Matusevich, Mikhail Potepkin, and Andrei Tkachenko.

Kuznetsov and Potepkin are also under a mix of EU, UK, and US sanctions.

The 45-year old Kuznetsov is a former Russian army major who was jailed for kidnapping and robbery in 2008 before joining Wagner and getting a Hero of Russia medal in 2016.

He is a battle-hardened military commander who fought in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine and who also helped organise gold-smuggling flights from Sudan to Russia, according to a CNN investigation.

The 41-year old Potepkin was Prighozin's Africa spin-doctor and business manager and had no military experience.

He used to work at Prighozin's troll-factory, the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg, and later managed Wagner's M-Invest and Meroe Gold mining firms in Sudan, US sanctions said.

But Potepkin's main role in Sudan and in Wagner's other African operations was to provide political consultancy and media work for Wagner-allied African elites, as well as orchestrating anti-Western propaganda campaigns, EUobserver's Russian source said.

The 33-year old Tkachenko is a former Russian interior ministry official who was convicted in a phone-hacking scam against a Russian oligarch in 2020.

His role in Wagner is unclear, but he used to fly back and forth from Russia to Beirut, Doha, Dubai, and Istanbul for short business trips together with known Wagner fighters in recent years, according to an investigation by independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

And one of Tkachenko's fellow travellers was Chekalov, the CEO of Wagner-linked firm Euro Polis, which was a Prighozin wallet.

Prighozin valued Chekalov for his business acumen and his ability to make money in "extreme conditions", a second Russian source said.

Euro Polis exported oil and gas from Syria in return for Wagner protection for the Syrian regime.

It's unclear if it was involved in Sudan. But the same year that al-Burhan gave Chekalov his Glock, Euro Polis' earnings jumped up from €1m (in 2019) to €65m in 2020, according to Russia's corporate registry, in what may have been due to an injection of Sudanese gold in addition to Syrian oil.

EUobserver could not conclusively ID the remaining four men.

One Evgeni Fedorov is an MP in the ruling United Russia party who often speaks of Wagner in public, but he couldn't be reached for questions.

There is an Aleksandr Glukhov who poses with guns on Facebook and another one who deserted from the Russian army in Georgia in 2008.

There's also an Andrei Gusev who used to be in a Moscow-based organised-crime gang and who was jailed in 2005 as an accomplice in the murder of former Russian beauty queen Svetlana Kotova.

But it's unsure if any of these men are the same ones on the "secret" Russian document.

The shadowy nature of Wagner means it's also unknown where the 11 men are now.

Prighozin himself is reportedly holed up in exile at the Green City hotel in Minsk trying to regroup his Wagner loyalists at a camp in Belarus.

Kuznetsov was last seen on 20 May in Bakhmut, Ukraine, hoisting Wagner and Russian flags on the battlefield.

Potepkin is said to have left Wagner in 2021.

Wagner's Russia command

Wagner's Russian command structure is also shrouded in mystery.

But Prighozin's deputy head is Mikhail Mizintsev, a former Russian general who fought in Ukraine and who was likely responsible for Wagner's communication and supply channels with the Russian military.

Another well-known deputy is Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian soldier in Syria who joined the mercenary group in 2013 and whose military call-sign was "Wagner", which gave the mercenaries their name.

He reportedly travelled with Prighozin to Russian jails in 2022 to recruit fighters and helped to mediate in an argument between Prighozin and Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov shortly before Wagner's failed putsch.

Andrei Troshev, a former Russian soldier who fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria, has also been with Wagner since 2013, holding titles such as executive director and head of security.

He's involved in senior-level recruitment and reportedly tried to convince Igor Strelkov (a Russian intelligence officer and hero of Russia's first Ukraine invasion in 2014) to join Prighozin's troupe.

Andrei Bogatov, a former Russian paratrooper in Afghanistan, led a Wagner assault and reconnaissance company in Syria.

And Utkin, Troshev, and Bogatov were all photographed with Putin at a Kremlin reception in 2016 in a sign of their high rank.

A final Wagner commander to watch out for as post-mutiny events unfold is Roman Gavrilov, the former head of internal security at Rosgvardia, Russia's National Guard service.

Rosgvardia reports directly to Putin and halted Prighozin's march on Moscow last weekend — a development in which Gavrilov may have played a key role.

Africa summit

Meanwhile, coming back to Africa, Putin is still planning to host some 50 African leaders at a summit in St Petersburg on 27 July in a spectacle of his ongoing geopolitical ambition.

Each VIP has been invited with up to five guests and promised a "full package" of luxury hospitality, according to a Western intelligence source.

The profiles of the Wagner commanders awarded Glocks in Sudan show that the mercenaries did a lot more for Prighozin and Putin in Africa than combat operations.

Wagner's grey-zone specialists also orchestrated political campaigns and complex business schemes.

But if Putin still has designs on Africa, then even before the Wagner meltdown, things were not going as well as it might seem.

Russia's Sudan naval-base plan has been indefinitely postponed due to lack of trust between Sudanese and Russian leaders.

"Russia has basically given up on the idea for now. However, this is something they would never admit publicly," the Western source said.

Wagner's artisanal gold mines in Sudan lack modern equipment and are struggling to find quality ore, the source added.

And Russian racism toward African soldiers and labourers risks poisoning relations as time goes by.

Russian military helicopters and other materiel delivered to Mali were old and faulty, but Russian instructors said the problems were because Malian soldiers' "monkey fingers" couldn't operate them properly, the Western source said.

"The Russians have tried to solve issues with the local workforce by yelling at Sudanese, belittling them, threatening not to pay their wages," the source added.

"When speaking to local supervisors, the Russians often suggest 'stealing or killing if necessary' to meet expected targets," the source said.

Author bio

Mikhail Komin is editor at independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe, and currently a resident journalist at EUobserver.

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