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Russian mercenaries closely linked with Sudan’s warring generals

But the Wagner Group and its backers in the Kremlin have much to lose if they back the wrong side

This screenshot taken from AFPTV video footage on Wednesday shows an aerial view of black smoke covering the sky above the capital Khartoum. (Abdelmoneim Sayed/AFP/Getty Images)
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NAIROBI — Over recent years, Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group has established close ties with Sudan’s security forces and sought to exploit these connections to advance Moscow’s economic and military interests, including lucrative gold mining concessions and arms deals.

Inside Sudan, Wagner has previously provided equipment and training to the security forces, advised government leaders and conducted information operations, according to a leaked U.S. intelligence document seen by The Washington Post.

But the outbreak of intense fighting last weekend between forces led by rival Sudanese generals, which has rocked the country and killed at least 400 people, has presented Moscow and its Kremlin-backed mercenaries with an urgent dilemma. They have a great deal to lose if they back the wrong side.

And even if they sit out the conflict, Sudan’s collapse could represent a major setback for them. At stake is a reliable alliance, between two countries at odds with the West, that has not only yielded gold business and arms deals but the prospect of a strategic Russian naval base on the Red Sea at Port Sudan. During a visit to the Sudanese capital Khartoum in February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the base with Sudan’s leaders and the goal of completing it by the end of 2023, according to a U.S. intelligence document, part of the Discord document trove allegedly leaked online by a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard.

So far, there are no confirmed reports that Wagner personnel are directly involved in the fighting. But several sources say that a Libyan militia with close ties to Wagner sent supplies to Sudanese forces led by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — widely known by his nickname, Hemedti — who heads the heavily armed paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, or RSF. The RSF denied having any ties with Wagner in a tweet on Saturday, saying the army was linked to the group.

The conflict pits Hemedti against Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who is the head of Sudan’s military and de facto head of state. Hemedti and Burhan had joined forces in 2021 in a coup that brought down a joint civilian-military government. But their rivalries have festered, inflamed by disagreements over power sharing and a timeline to integrate Hemedti’s forces into the national army.

Generals’ war chests have fueled fighting in Sudan. Now they’re at risk.

In recent days, Hemedti’s RSF has received at least 30 tankers of fuel and at least one shipment of military supplies from one of Libyan warlord Khalifa Hifter’s sons, according to Libyan and diplomatic officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information. Hifter’s forces have denied making these shipments.

If military supplies were going to the RSF, Wagner would know, because Hifter relies on Wagner personnel to help tightly control his equipment and ammunition to avoid pilfering or looting, said Anas El Gomati, who founded Libyan think tank Sadeq Institute.

Both the RSF and Wagner have a long history with Hifter’s militia, Gomati said. Hemedti has previously sent his RSF forces to Libya to fight on behalf of Hifter, along with Wagner mercenaries. And in 2021 and 2022, Wagner personnel based in Libyan territory controlled by Hifter conducted live ammunition training with RSF forces, he said, citing reports from witnesses in the area. Wagner values its ties with the RSF, in part, to secure a route through Sudan for the company’s growing logistics hub in Libya, which links Middle East and Europe with Africa battlefields in Mali and the Central African Republic, he said.

But now, lending support to the RSF could come with a high price for both Russia and Hifter.

Within the leadership of the Hifter’s Libyan National Army, there is growing concern that such support could jeopardize its relations with Egypt, a longtime backer of both Hifter and the Sudanese military chief Burhan. On Thursday, Hifter spoke by telephone with a general from the Egyptian military intelligence agency and pledged that support for the RSF would stop immediately, said a Libyan official briefed on the events.

Fighting in Sudan's capital of Khartoum erupted on April 15. Many residents are now trapped and sheltering at homes and in offices. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

Russia also has much to lose if it arms the wrong side, according to a Western diplomat who follows the subject closely. At the moment, the RSF looks to be weaker than the military, which has air power that Hemedti’s forces lack, the diplomat said.

Wagner’s founder, Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, said in a statement posted on Telegram that no one linked to Wagner had been present in Sudan for two years and Wagner had had no contact with either of the two warring leaders “for a long time.” Prigozhin also offered to mediate the Sudanese crisis, saying he has long-standing ties with the country and communicates with all the decision-makers.

“I’m always ready to help Sudan,” he said in a letter posted on Telegram. “The U.N. and many others want Sudanese blood, and I want peace for the Sudanese people … What is happening now in Sudan is not what we trained the Sudanese to hold arms for. We trained them to defend their borders.”

Wagner operatives have been present in Sudan since 2017, according to Suliman Baldo, founder of Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker. The group had originally come to provide military training and dealt with both the military and the RSF, Baldo said.

Before long, a Sudanese company connected to Prigozhin gained gold mining concessions and government approval for a gold processing facility in central Sudan, and Hemedti’s forces provided security for the operations. In 2020, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on two companies based in Sudan, M Invest and its subsidiary Meroe Gold, which ran the gold processing facility, saying the firms helped Prigozhin “evade sanctions and transact in U.S. dollars despite being blocked from the U.S. financial system.” Meroe Gold could not be reached for comment.

The Biden administration announced on Jan. 20 that it would designate Russia’s Wagner mercenary group a “transnational criminal organization.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Prigozhin has dismissed questions about Wagner benefiting from gold in Sudan as nonsense, saying “There is no industrially interesting gold in Sudan” and no large profits to be made.

Conflict in Sudan has killed over 400, including an American. Here’s what to know.

Hemedti further cultivated his relationship with Russia. He visited Moscow on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine and then upon returning to Sudan promoted bilateral ties between the two countries and specifically the development of the Russian naval base in Port Sudan. The base was to house 300 people and would accommodate four navy ships, including nuclear-powered vessels, the Associated Press reported. In return, Russia would supply Sudan with weapons and other military equipment.

Burhan and Hemedti both discussed the base with Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, in February during his Khartoum visit. Port Sudan is now firmly in the hands of Sudan’s military.

Bennett reported from Washington and Dixon from Riga, Latvia. Natalia Abbakumova in Riga and Hafiz Haroun in Nairobi contributed to this report.

The Discord Leaks

In exclusive interviews with a member of the Discord group where U.S. intelligence documents were shared, The Washington Post learned details of the alleged leaker, “OG.” The Post also obtained a number of previously unreported documents from a trove of images of classified files posted on a private server on the chat app Discord.

How the leak happened: The Washington Post reported that the individual who leaked the information shared documents with a small circle of online friends on the Discord chat platform. This is a timeline of how the documents leaked.

The suspected document leaker: Jack Teixeira, a young member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, was charged in the investigation into leaks of hundreds of pages of classified military intelligence. Teixeira told members of the online group that he worked as a technology support staffer at a base on Cape Cod, one member of the Discord server told The Post. Here’s what we learned about the alleged document leaker.

What we learned from the leaked documents: The massive document leak has exposed a range of U.S. government secrets, including spying on allies, the grim prospects for Ukraine’s war with Russia and the precariousness of Taiwan’s air defenses. It also has ignited diplomatic fires for the White House. Here’s what we’ve learned from the documents.