16th Apr 2024


How Prighozin tried to steal Putin's Africa summit

  • Several delegates [not those pictured] didn't collect their summit badges and stayed in town instead (Photo: roscongress.org)
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After months of diplomatic choreography and billions of rubles invested in an Africa summit by Russian president Vladimir Putin, mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin stole the limelight in jeans and a polo shirt outside the event.

And his spin of the Niger putsch tried to push Putin's proclamations and splashy gifts still further down the newspaper columns.

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  • Yevgeny Prigozhin (r) at the Trezzini Palace hotel in St Petersburg (Photo: twitter.com)

The Kremlin and Russian propaganda had been talking up Russia's redoubled focus on Africa and the pivotal importance of the St Petersburg summit for several weeks.

Putin himself published a ponderous op-ed about his new vision for Africa on the eve of the meeting.

It's unclear how much he spent on entertaining his African guests because the organisers, Roscongress, didn't publish the contract.

But given that he paid 4.5bn rubles (€60m) for a similar summit in 2019, the 2023 bill was likely at least as much — making it one of the most expensive public events in the Kremlin calendar.

There were dancers in Cirque du Soleil-type costumes, welcome drinks in antelope horn-shaped goblets, fringe debate forums, and a naval parade.

Some delegations spent the whole week in St Petersburg.

A Roscongress source said he saw that a third of the guests from six delegations never collected their summit badges and opted to "spend their time in the city instead", either because they didn't like the mandatory PCR test for Covid at the summit venue, or because they were having too much fun in town.

But for the main VIPs who did go, Putin dug even deeper into his treasure chest.

For the leaders of Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic (CAR), Eritrea, Mali, Somalia, and Zimbabwe — 25,000-50,000 tonnes of free grain each.

For Somalia — $690m (€626m) of debt to Russia written off.

For Zimbabwe — an Mi-38 presidential helicopter worth up to $15m.

For Putin — photo ops to show the world he's not so isolated, some applause, a few fawning statements praising his war in Ukraine, and soundbites on Western neocolonial evils.

An official from Guinea's embassy in Moscow even wore a Putin T-shirt and called the Russian leader "his soul".

Putin didn't have it all his own way — just 17 leaders came (instead of 43 to an Africa summit in 2019), some urged him to stop the war, others told him to let Ukraine export food to world markets.

Uninvited guest

But if that was predictable, no one had expected Prigozhin to suddenly appear in St Petersburg, ending speculation whether he was dead or alive following his brief anti-Kremlin mutiny on 23 June.

And no one expected a military putsch in Niger at the same time as Putin's extravaganza to steal even more headlines.

Prighozin first popped up in a photo at the Trezzini Palace hotel in St Petersburg, which is owned by his Wagner Group structures, shaking hands with Freddy Mapouka, the CAR president's protocol chief.

This was posted by Dmitry Sytyi, said by the US to be a Wagner spin doctor, and went round the world amid feverish speculation whether it was real or not, before Sytyi deleted it from his social media accounts.

A second photo, published on Wagner-linked Telegram channels, then showed Prighozin with Justin Tagouh, the director of Afrique Média TV, a Wagner-affiliated Russian propaganda outlet in Cameroon.

The channels said this was taken in the "sidelines" of the summit.

But according to the Roscongress source, neither Prighozin or Tagouh had summit badges, indicating that the photos were a publicity stunt meant to make the mercenary chief look as if he played a more substantial role in the Africa talks than he really did.

Meanwhile, the Niger coup saw some in the pro-junta crowds in Niamey on Thursday and Friday wave Russian flags, sing Russian songs, and wear Z-logo T-shirts (a symbol of support for the Ukraine war).

And while Prighozin stopped short of claiming responsibility for the Niger putsch, which represents a major blow to French and US interests in Africa, he and his Telegram channels made the most of it to show his potential usefulness to Putin going forward.

Telegram channels showed pro-Niger junta and pro-Russian rallies also in CAR and Mali, where protesters thanked Wagner for "fighting terrorism and restoring security in their countries".

Others suggested a post-coup meeting between Prighozin and the Niger coup leaders might be afoot.

According to a Russian source who previously worked with Prighozin and who is currently cooperating with Russian intelligence services, neither Wagner nor the Kremlin had a hand in the Niger events.

"We didn't work with them, but maybe we should," the contact joked.

But joking aside, Prighozin's publicity blitz came amid a major shake-up in Wagner in the wake of its 23 June insurrection in what is likely to have a serious impact on Putin's campaign to push Western powers out of Africa.

Wagner split in two?

The Kremlin has decided to keep Wagner's combat units in place in countries such as CAR, Libya, and Mali — but to put them under the command of Andrei Troshev, a former Prighozin man seen as more loyal to the Kremlin, our ex-Wagner source said.

Troshev was recently pictured with Putin, but didn't go to the St Petersburg summit because talks on Wagner's military role in Africa were being handled through "alternative channels", the source said.

That leaves the question of who will take over Wagner's political operations in Africa, which is yet to be decided.

One option is for the Russian foreign ministry to do the election rigging, slush funds, and propaganda, but there are concerns in Putin's administration if the ministry has the right people for the job.

Another idea is to create a new subcommission under the Presidential Security Council to take on those tasks.

But with the decision still hanging in the air, Prighozin, for the time being, retains control of his Wagner "political technologists", such as Sytyi and others, the Russian source said.

It was these same consultants who organised the pro-Russian rallies in CAR and Mali in which Wagner was mentioned in a positive light.

And it was the same spin-doctors who came up with the idea of snapping those photos of Prighozin in St Petersburg as if he was an important summit guest, the source confirmed.

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