African Gold is Funding the War in Ukraine

Democracy Examined

Wagner Group forces are propping up African dictators in exchange for influence and lucrative mining rights

As the bills for the war in Ukraine pile up, Russia could really use a gold mine. Thankfully for Putin, the Wagner Group has supplied several—all across Africa.

Since February of 2022, Russia has obtained over $2.5 billion through mercenaries-for-gold schemes in three African countries. That’s the key finding of the December 2023 Blood Gold Report, outlining the rise of Russian influence in mining operations in the Central African Republic, Mali, and Sudan.

The Wagner Group pioneered the business model in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad offered the mercenaries a portion of the revenues from oil fields they reclaimed from Islamic State control. Now Russia is securing mining rights, smuggling gold, and accepting cash payments from the gold trade in exchange for helping keep embattled dictators in power. In the process, Russia is boosting its influence around the world.

“Wagner Group’s commercial operations in general, and activities in Africa in particular, contribute not only to the financing of Russia’s war on Ukraine but also to the Kremlin’s broader strategic goal of destabilizing the international rules-based order and disrupting the domestic political landscape in European states,” the Blood Gold Report concludes.

African Gold and Russian Forces

The Wagner Group has been active in Africa since at least 2017, first arriving in Sudan to prop up Omar al-Bashir. A coup in 2019 overthrew al-Bashir, and a second in 2021 led to General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan assuming control of the country. Al-Burhan and his coup regime then leaned further toward Russia, offering it unprecedented access to the gold industry in exchange for support from Wagner mercenaries.

In Sudan, Wagner manages mines and a major gold processing facility through a series of shell companies, skirting local restrictions on foreign ownership. From 2021 until mid-2022, at least 16 planes loaded with gold departed Sudan for a Russian-controlled airbase in Syria. The planes flew under falsified manifests claiming they were transporting cheap goods, thus allowing “billions of dollars in gold to bypass the Sudanese state and to deprive the poverty-stricken country of hundreds of millions in state revenue,” according to CNN.

In the Central African Republic, Wagner acquired rights to the Ndassima gold mine in 2018 in exchange for security services. Satellite photos from February 2022 and 2023 show the rapid expansion of mining operations from the beginning of the war until one year on, which CSIS analysts described as “particularly important to Russia as it seeks to smuggle gold and other raw materials to loosely regulated markets in order to offset the damages of Western sanctions.” A US government cable estimated that profits could increase to $1 billion per year.

In Mali, Wagner tried to establish similar mining companies to take control of local operations, but existing international investment made that infeasible. Now it runs a different racket, taking payment in cash from the military junta for security services. Nevertheless, Wagner’s payments—about $10 million per month—still trace back to the gold industry, which is dominated by four companies that collectively provide 50 percent of the Malian States tax revenue.

The Bigger Picture

In Mali, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, lucrative mining rights have proven to be just the tip of the spear for Russia in developing larger and more important relationships with the local authorities.

A year after Wagner first arrived in Mali, the government began receiving shipments of military helicopters and planes from the Russian state. The Sudanese government is in the process of permitting a new Russian naval base which could house nuclear submarines. Just this week, a representative of the Central African Republic announced that the government “would like Russia to build a base in CAR” and “the government has already provided a plot of land in Berengo” which could house 10,000 troops.

While expanding its military presence, Russia is also leveraging these relationships to boost its crippled image on the world stage. This past summer, Russia hosted the Russia-Africa summit, welcoming 17 heads of state and 49 delegations. There, the Central African Republic president said that Russian support “managed to save democracy in our country.”

As Russia struggles to justify its invasion of Ukraine, this support is proving critical.

“The Kremlin has been able to count on the backing of many African nations on key UN votes, including the 2014 General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea, the 2018 resolution urging Moscow to demilitarize the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, and the 2022 resolution decrying Russia’s attempted annexation of four Ukrainian regions,” reports CSIS.

Russia’s expanded global footprint is a disaster for everyone except Putin and the dictators he backs. In Africa, illegitimate coup regimes strengthened their grip on power with Wagner’s support, often leading to the massacre of civilians and the theft of natural resources. In Ukraine, Russia is more capable of funding and justifying its brutal invasion. The United States and its democratic allies, meanwhile, have struggled to respond.

The American Response

When coup regimes come to power, American and European military and financial support tend to pull back in order to avoid legitimizing the new dictatorships. Unfortunately, that creates a vacuum that Russia is all too willing to fill.

In order to make it less likely for these new regimes to ally with Russia, the United States should prioritize revealing Wagner involvement for what it truly is—a self-serving power grab by Russia.

In waging an information campaign against Wagner and Russia, the US is making promising progress. According to a Politico report, the US published sensitive intelligence detailing plans to “assassinate the president of Chad as well as its attempts to access and control key natural resource extraction sites in countries such as Sudan and the Central African Republic, among other initiatives.” This strategy—leaking sensitive intelligence to reveal your opponents nefarious activities—was popularized in the lead up to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when American officials gave frequent updates about different Russian plots that American spy agencies uncovered. The United States should double down, investing in uncovering Wagner plans and releasing them to the public. After all, Russia’s ambitions are a lot larger than gold.

“The ultimate objective of Wagner’s playbook is to increase its clients’ dependence on Wagner forces to stay in power,” the Blood Gold Report explains, “thereby securing a long-term revenue stream for the Kremlin and fostering authoritarianism and instability throughout the region as part of Russia’s wider geopolitical strategy to distract and bog down the democratic West.”