One of the most prominent issues that has emerged with the death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is the future of the economic and military interests of the Russian mercenary organization in Africa. Another is who will lead the group after Prigozhin, who thanks to his political and economic connections with the Russian leadership had managed to transform Wagner into one of the most powerful mercenary groups in the world, with enormous operations and economic interests especially in Africa.
This week the Wall Steet Journal he wrote in a long item that one of Prigozhin’s probable successors is Dmitri Sytii, who had been following the former head of the Wagner group on his travels for some time and who for a few weeks seems to have taken control of operations in Africa. It is not yet clear, however, whether Sytii can truly be considered Prigozhin’s official successor, nor whether he or others will be able to keep intact all the Wagner Group’s interests in Africa, now that the group’s economic and military activities are undermined by the Russian state.
Sytii, writes the Wall Street Journal, was with Prigozhin even in the last days before the crash of his plane. Group leader Wagner had visited the Central African Republic and Mali to meet with local political and military leaders with the aim of keeping the group’s operations on the continent active. Sytii, who was in fact one of Prigozhin’s most important officials on the territory, was also with him on some of these visits.
Dmitri Sytii is 34 years old, studied international trade in St. Petersburg and then graduated in marketing and economics in Paris in 2015. He says he can speak Russian, English, Spanish and French, and according to the US Treasury Department after degree had been hired by the Internet Research Agency: better known as the “troll factory”, it was started by Prigozhin with the aim of using social networks to create and spread fake news. He has a son and an ex-wife who live in France.
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According to the reconstructions of Wall Street Journal, for about five years Sytii has been dealing with the business and propaganda of the Wagner group from the Central African Republic, a former French colony located in the central part of the continent and despite its rich natural resources it is one of the poorest countries in the world. Sytii was initially sent to Africa as an interpreter for some soldiers who were to act as instructors for the mercenaries of the Wagner group and for the managers of a Prigozhin company interested in expanding into the mining sector. Within a short time he had set up his first company in the country, obtaining permission to mine for gold and diamonds.
Based on the non-profit organization’s analysis All Eyes on Wagner, which is responsible for studying the group’s activities, Sytii not only has several contacts with shipping companies and companies active in the mining sector, but also manages a series of front companies that the Wagner group exploits for the export of gold, diamonds , timber and other raw materials from the Central African Republic. This is also supported by other people informed about the facts, who add that Sytii controls various media financed by the Wagner group and several pro-Russian propaganda campaigns on social networks.
Il Wall Street Journal says that Sytii lives in the capital Bangui, in the villa that was once the official residence of the president of the Central African Republic. He travels in an SUV without license plates, is very close to the country’s political and military leaders and among other things has good relations with Fidèle Gouandjika, the security advisor to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who speaking to the US newspaper he called him “a very good friend of his”. He also manages the Russian House of Bangui, a cultural center that aims to spread Russian values in the country.
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The Wagner Group is a pro-Nazi group of professional soldiers that has existed for about ten years and is composed mainly of former soldiers, former policemen and former Russian security agents. It operated in Libya during the start of the civil war that began in 2014, then in Syria and in the early stages of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has long been present in various Central African countries, such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Sudan, where it has often intervened to strengthen local regimes. He almost always took advantage of the power he acquired to appropriate local economic resources, such as gold, diamond and uranium mines.
In recent years the Wagner group has also acquired enormous military, political and economic power in the Central African Republic, where its mercenaries were called in 2017 by President Touadéra to fight some rebel groups. Over the years its members have been accused of extremely serious crimes in many of the African states in which they operated, including killings, kidnappings and rapes. Ukrainian authorities, as well as those in Europe and other countries, have imposed economic sanctions on companies linked to the Wagner Group and Prigozhin, and more recently have done the same per Sytii and related activities.
In December 2022 Sytii was injured in the hand and abdomen by a parcel bomb that was delivered to him in the cultural center of Bangui, and he returned briefly to Russia for treatment. Russia, without providing any evidence, had accused France of attempting to assassinate him, accusations that the French government had denied. He then returned to Africa just in the period in which relations between the Wagner group and the Russian government were beginning to deteriorate, until the military uprising at the end of June.
Prigozhin, until recently considered one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most valuable allies, died two months after the uprising in what is almost certainly an assassination, although the Russian government has denied this quite strongly on several occasions.
According to an entrepreneur doing business with the Wagner group and a European security official interviewed by Wall Street Journal, now Sytii is trying to maintain the relationships that Prigozhin had built on the continent. In recent times, for example, he has traveled regularly to Chad and Douala, Cameroon, which is an important city for trade but is also the home of the pro-Russian television channel Afrique Média. However, all the people interviewed by the US newspaper say that it is not clear whether he will continue to lead the group’s activities in Africa, both because he does not seem to have the strong ties that Prigozhin had with the Russian government, and because the issue now seems to depend at least in part by the Russian authorities themselves.
Some European, US, African and Russian security experts and four former Prigozhin collaborators interviewed recently by New York Times they said that after his death a kind of struggle broke out to take his place, also due to his influence and the riches he had accumulated in Africa. And this struggle does not seem to involve only the current members of the Wagner group, but also the Russian government itself, which has been trying to take control of the organization since before the June uprising.
According to two officials from two different Western governments who cited intelligence documents, the group’s operations may begin to be managed by two Russian spy agencies: the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), which is one of the secret services of the Russian Federation, and the General Directorate for Military Information (GRU), the agency responsible for military affairs. The two officials in particular say the SVR is likely to absorb control of the online propaganda and disinformation outlets used by the group, while the Russian Defense Ministry and the GRU could take over the mercenaries’ military operations.
Among the experts interviewed by New York Times some agree that Prigozhin’s son Pavel may try to gain control of his activities, even though he is very young – under 30; others, however, maintain that General Andrei Averyanov, a veteran in command of an important GRU unit, will cover at least part of his duties. As regards the control of the group’s interests in Africa, it seems that part of the work is already being done by one of the Russian deputy defense ministers, Yunus-Bek Evkurov, who is a very well-regarded figure on the continent and recently welcomed a delegation of Russian officials during a visit to Libya, Burkina Faso and Mali.
The Russian government has not commented on the matter. Speaking about the future of the Wagner group, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said that “it is none of our business and we are not concerned with it in any way.”
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