Civilians lying in the streets, charred bodies, rapes, mass graves and deaths too numerous to count. Two similar carnage committed in recent weeks more than 4,600 kilometers apart, in Africa and Europe, and over which hangs one and the same name: Wagner.
Between March 27 and 31, in Moura, central Mali, during a punitive expedition under cover of hunting down jihadists, at least 300 people were massacred by the Malian armed forces – already guilty of numerous abuses when they cooperated again with the French army – and men in all likelihood belonging to the Russian private military company Wagner, deployed in the country since last year.
At the same time, Europe was horrified to discover the death left behind by the Russian army in Boutcha, and elsewhere around kyiv, in Ukraine. At least 320 people were killed and tortured, according to the town’s mayor. According to the magazine Der Spiegel, the German intelligence services intercepted radio communications establishing the involvement of Russian soldiers.
According to this information, the Wagner Group took a “decisive part in the atrocities committed”. The British Ministry of Defense said on March 28 that a thousand fighters from this group of mercenaries would be deployed in Ukraine. And at the end of February, the Times revealed that 400 of them would have been sent to kyiv to assassinate President Volodomyr Zelensky.
Moura and Boutcha are added to an already long list of savagery committed by this army of mercenaries – whose existence is technically illegal in Russia – which unofficially carries out the low works of the Kremlin in Libya, in the Central African Republic or in Syria, since now eight years old.
The Wagner Group was precisely born in Ukraine, in 2014, at the time of the conflict in the Donbass. Wagner is accused of having assassinated separatist leaders there who distanced themselves too much from the Russian services. It was founded by a certain Dmitri Utkin, a former officer of the Russian special forces, barded with Nazi tattoos and fervent admirer of the Third Reich, decorated in person by Vladimir Putin in 2016. But it is the oligarch Yevgueni Prigojine, the ” Putin’s cook”, who would actually be the manager of the organization.
Rapes, Nazi graffiti and beheading
With at least 10,000 men in its ranks according to the BBC, this phantom army has been sent to all theaters of operations occupied by Russia in recent years. Mercenaries have notably played a crucial role in Syria, where the Russian army intervened in 2015 to rescue dictator Bashar al-Assad. It was there, in the midst of a conflict that killed nearly half a million people, that Wagner revealed his true colors.
In 2017, a video appeared on Russian social networks. We see several fighters hitting a Syrian civilian with a sledgehammer. On other extracts discovered in 2019, we see the same men dismember him with a shovel, decapitate him, and tie his body by the feet to set it on fire. It is the fighters themselves who film the scene, exchanging jokes in Russian about the football game they are about to play with the head of their victim. The Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta identifies one of them, who appears with an open face: a Wagner recruit.
The group has deployed on many other fronts, notably in Libya from April 2019, where it attacked the government of national unity (GNA) in Tripoli alongside the forces of Marshal Haftar, then also supported by France. In 2020, the mercenaries routed, the soldiers of the GNA find on the passage of the mercenaries mines and “booby traps”, explosive traps, sometimes placed on stuffed animals and toys.
Nazi, Islamophobic and racist and ‘white power’ graffiti are also found on the walls of a burned mosque in Ain Zara. GNA men captured during the fighting speak of summary executions carried out by Russian-speaking men. “No one wants one more mouth to feed”confirmed an ex-mercenary to the BBC, in 2021.
Wagner’s violence spread to the rest of the African continent. Last year, a United Nations report delivered a damning finding on the methods of Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic (CAR), where Russia came in 2019 to fill the void left by the French army. The report speaks of executions of civilians, looting, and the attack on a mosque. He denounces “arbitrary detentions, acts of torture, enforced disappearances and summary executions” and adds that “members of the Wagner Group allegedly committed rape and sexual violence against women, men and girls in many parts of the country”.
Remonstrances that do not stop the group’s fighters, especially since the UN group of experts for the CAR has been suspended since August 2021, the renewal of its members having been blocked… by Russia. Last January, during a joint operation by Wagner’s mercenaries and government forces against rebel groups, dozens of civilians were reportedly killed in Bria, 600 kilometers east of the capital, Bangui.
Since 2017, the presence of mercenaries in Africa has only grown. They have been seen in Sudan, Mozambique, and could soon appear in Burkina Faso. Many of them have reportedly been called up in recent weeks to take part in the invasion of Ukraine, where evidence of crimes committed by Russian forces is piling up at a frenetic pace.
For eight years, their impunity has been almost total. In 2019, three independent Russian journalists who were investigating Wagner’s activities were murdered in an ambush that bears the hallmark of mercenaries. In March 2021, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Russian human rights NGO Memorial filed a complaint in Russia for the murder of the Tortured and beheaded Syrian. Memorial was dissolved by the Kremlin in January. And, unsurprisingly, his lawsuit against Wagner was shelved the following month.
In Libya, an arrest warrant was issued in August 2021 against Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, for his links with Wagner and the Kremlin. He is already wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. This did not prevent him from being able to stand in the Libyan election a few months later, even if it was finally canceled.
Several individuals linked to Wagner, starting with Evgueni Prigojine himself, are the target of American, British and European sanctions. The mercenaries, however, still seem able to deploy at the gates of Europe and commit carnage there. Nothing seems to be able to stop Wagner. Or almost. In 2018, US aircraft killed nearly a hundred fighters from the group as they attacked an area controlled by Kurdish forces in Syria. The Kremlin, which refuses to admit the very existence of these mercenaries, had been caught in its own trap and had refrained from any reprisals.