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Opinion The Kremlin’s mysterious mercenaries and the killing of Russian journalists in Africa

Left to right, Victor Tokmakov, first secretary of the Russian embassy in the Central African Republic; Valery Zakharov, special security adviser to the Central African Republic president; and Ange Maxime Kazagui, communications minister for the republic, meet on Aug. 2 in Bangui. (Florent Vergnes/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, Sens. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) wrote to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres requesting that he authorize “a full and impartial investigation” into the killing of three Russian journalists who were ambushed in the Central African Republic on July 31 while investigating the activities of Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian mercenary organization linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close circle.

The journalists – Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev and Kirill Radchenko – were working on a documentary about Wagner for the Investigations Control Center, a private media outlet funded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former oil magnate and a longtime Putin opponent. (Disclosure: Khodorkovsky is the founder of the Open Russia movement, of which I serve as vice chairman.)

Even by the poor standards of transparency in today’s Russia, the operations of Wagner are clouded in unusual secrecy. Numbering between 1,350 and 2,000 armed mercenaries, the group is headed by Dmitri Utkin, a lieutenant colonel of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. (The name “Wagner” comes from his self-chosen code name; Utkin is reported to be an admirer of the Third Reich.) According to the Russian media, Wagner’s activities are overseen by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, Putin’s catering manager and supervisor of the St. Petersburg “Internet troll factory.” Both Utkin and Prigozhin have been personally sanctioned by the U.S. government; Prigozhin has also been indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for the role his “trolls” allegedly played in the 2016 U.S. election campaign.

The group is often described as a front for hiding the participation of regular Russian troops in foreign conflicts. The Wagner mercenaries have participated in the fighting in eastern Ukraine on the side of pro-Kremlin “separatists,” in Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Assad and in Sudan on the side of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Earlier this year, Wagner was deployed to the Central African Republic to provide a security detail for President Faustin-Archange Touadera; its fighters were also reported to be guarding the country’s gold mines. The deployment came amid an increased Kremlin involvement in the central African nation. Starting in January, with approval from the U.N. Security Council (and with the acquiescence of the United States and France, the CAR’s former colonial power), the Russian government has been delivering arms and ammunition and providing military instructors to the country. Touadera’s national security adviser, Valery Zakharov, is a Russian citizen.

It was this heightened involvement – and, in particular, the role of the Wagner mercenaries – that was the subject of the planned documentary by Dzhemal, Rastorguyev and Radchenko. They arrived in Bangui, the CAR’s capital, on July 28. Having visited Béréngo, the former palace of Central African “emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa that now serves as the main base for the Russian military in the CAR, on July 30 they arrived in the town of Sibut; from there, they were supposed to travel to Bambari, the town nearest the gold mines guarded by the Wagner mercenaries. But instead of going east toward Bambari, the journalists’ local driver headed north, in the direction of Dékoua.

It was on the road between Sibut and Dékoua that Dzhemal, Rastorguyev and Radchenko were ambushed and murdered in the early hours of July 31. The driver survived; the three canisters of gasoline (a valuable commodity in the Central African Republic) that were in the car were not taken. According to local residents who spoke with private investigators sent by Khodorkovsky to the CAR, about 10 people had camped out near the location before the ambush, waiting there for several hours. Shortly before the ambush, the locals saw another car pass by with “three armed white men … and two Central Africans.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry immediately blamed the murder on a “robbery” and came close to faulting the journalists themselves, remarking that they traveled to the CAR on tourist visas and did not notify the Russian embassy of their plans. Much more telling is what Russian officials and Russian state media did not say: In their reports and commentaries about the murder, they avoided any mention of the journalists’ reason for being in Central Africa and of the word “Wagner.” Silence sometimes speaks louder than words.

In their letter to the secretary-general, the U.S. senators called on him to “engage the relevant UN mechanisms” to conduct the probe. The most relevant “mechanism” in this case would be MINUSCA, the 14,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic whose mandate includes “support for national and international justice, the fight against impunity, and the rule of law.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 28 Russian journalists have been killed in the exercise of their duties since Putin came to power in 2000. In every case, the masterminds behind the murders went unidentified and unpunished. United Nations involvement in the investigation of what happened on the road to Dékoua on July 31 may be the only way to ensure that those who committed this murder do not escape justice.