The infamous Russian private military company Wagner has been renamed and taken over by the spymaster who ordered the Salisbury poisonings, according to a new report.
Having operated as a clandestine army in Ukraine and Africa on Putin’s orders, the group is now understood to offer African leaders “regime survival packages” in exchange for rights to the continent’s natural resources.
Following the fall of the group in mid-2023, the Kremlin took over the businesses run by the mercenary group.
Its then-leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, died in a plane crash that many believe was orchestrated by Vladimir Putin after Wagner’s boss attempted a coup against him.
Now the multibillion-dollar group, which carried out operations around the world, is led by General Andrey Averyanov, the spy chief who orchestrated the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) report claims. ).
Dr. Jack Watling, a ground warfare specialist at RUSI, said that under Averyanov, the “Expeditionary Corps,” as Wagner has been renamed, has begun offering governments across Africa “regime survival packages” in exchange of the right to extract natural resources on the continent.
He told the BBC: “This is the Russian state coming out of the shadows in its African policy.”
Wagner led operations around the world, but particularly in Africa.
Andrey Averyanov (pictured) took control of the Wagner Group, which has since been renamed the “Expeditionary Corps”.
Staff in protective gear work in a van in Winterslow, England, on March 12, 2018, as investigations continue into the nerve agent poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
He said the Expeditionary Corps under Averyanov is not changing much and is operating in the same countries with the same equipment and, broadly speaking, the same objectives.
But Dr. Watling said what has changed is the “candor with which Russia is carrying out its policy.”
‘What they seek to do is exacerbate our crises internationally. They are trying to start fires elsewhere and expand the ones that already exist, making the world less safe,’ Dr. Watling.
‘Ultimately, it weakens us in the global competition we currently face. Therefore, the impact is not felt immediately, but over time it becomes a serious threat.”
Following the Prigozhin mutiny in June 2023, in which he led a column of Wagner troops to Moscow after publicly clashing with Putin and the Defense Ministry, “there was a meeting in the Kremlin fairly soon after the Prigozhin mutiny, in “Wagner’s operations in Africa would fall directly under the control of Russian military intelligence, the GRU,” Watling said.
Averyanov, the head of Unit 29155, which specializes in assassinations and destabilization of foreign governments, was chosen to take over.
The spy chief was allegedly responsible for the attempted murder of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, 68, in Salisbury in 2018
A portrait of the owner of the private military company Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, stands on an informal monument next to the former “PMC Wagner Center” in St. Petersburg.
Crash site of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private jet in the Tver region, Russia, in August 2023
Prigozhin died in an accident north of Moscow in 2023
The spy chief was allegedly responsible for the attempted murder of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, 68, in Salisbury in 2018.
Both he and his daughter Yulia, then 33, were rushed to hospital in critical condition after coming into contact with Novichok, a deadly nerve agent invented by Soviet scientists during the Cold War.
He was also allegedly involved in Progozhin’s death, and many in the intelligence community pointed the finger at the major general immediately after the death of Wagner’s former boss.
Bellingcat, the investigative journalism unit, linked Averyanov to an explosion at a Czech arms depot in 2014.
But while Averyanov’s regular job requires him to cause chaos in other nations, his new role in the Expeditionary Force has forced him to change course, RUSI says.
The think tank said it began a tour of Wagner’s former operations in Africa in September, weeks after Prigozhin was assassinated and installed atop the group.
Averyanov met with Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar before heading to Burkina Faso, where they met with Ibrahim Traoré, the 35-year-old coup leader who has led the nation since the 2022 coup.
After the meeting with Traoré, Averyanov landed in the Central African Republic before meeting with the leaders in Mali.
While Averyanov’s normal job requires him to cause chaos in other nations, his new role in the Expeditionary Force has forced him to change course.
Averyanov met with Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar (pictured)
On a later trip, he also met General Salifou Modi, one of the military men who seized power in Niger last year.
In every country he visited, Wagner previously ran major mining operations that helped finance Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
In exchange for the right to extract valuable resources such as gold, $2.5 billion of which ended up in Russia’s hands in the last two years, and lithium, Wagner provided internal security to many of the nations’ leaders, who often They were new rulers who had taken power through coups in recent years.
Although many were intended to be “transitional leaders” who were “supposed to organize elections and bring about a return to democratic institutions”, many of them brought in Russian paramilitaries who allowed them to remain in power, often using extreme measures.
“What the Russians have provided is a strike force, with helicopters with advanced capabilities and a lot of firepower,” says Dr. Watling.
He added: “They are using quite traditional Soviet anti-partisan methods.” “You see combatants who were executed, as well as civilians attacked for allowing or being associated with combatants.”
Wagner has operated in Africa for years, providing security in exchange for mining rights.
While Averyanov’s lobbying efforts were undertaken to materially benefit the Expeditionary Force, they also served another, more geopolitically focused purpose, which, according to Dr. Watling, more directly benefited the Russian state.
“We are now watching the Russians trying to strategically displace Western control of access to critical minerals and resources,” he said.
Just this month, former Wagner mercenaries seized Mali’s Intahaka gold mine, which has been disputed for many years by several armed groups in the region, after Mali rewrote the mining code to give Averyanov and his forces more control over natural resources.
The move forced an Australian lithium mine to suspend trading in its shares, citing uncertainty over how the new code would be implemented.
But Watling said gold and lithium are nothing compared to what the Expeditionary Force could soon control in Niger.
Dr Watling said: “In Niger, the Russians are trying to obtain a similar set of concessions that would deprive France of access to the country’s uranium mines.”
Prigozhin led a Wagner column to Moscow in June 2023, following a public dispute with Putin.
Many suspect that Vladimir Putin ordered Prigozhin’s death in August 2023
France, the world’s most nuclear-dependent country, sources about a fifth of its uranium, used in its 56 nuclear reactors that power two-thirds of the country’s energy, from Niger alone.
If Russia is successful in its efforts, it can push France into its sphere of influence, forcing it to rely on Russian supplies for its energy.
This problem already put Europe at a disadvantage following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with much of the continent struggling to wean itself off of cheap Russian gas in the first weeks and months of the invasion.
International support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia has faltered, and as the invasion marks the second anniversary, it was reported that the U.S. military could soon run out of money to support Ukraine unless Congress gives it a cash injection.
The US military said it was already diverting funds from its operations in Europe and Africa to help Ukraine, as talks over a funding bill for Ukraine have massively stalled in recent weeks.