How Putin Built a Ragtag Empire of Tyrants and Failing States
Even in the worst of times, Russia had been a reliable friend to the Sudan of Omar al-Bashir. It continued selling him weapons during the atrocities his regime carried out in the Darfur region from 2003 to 2007. And when the International Criminal Court indicted al-Bashir in 2009 for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, issuing a warrant for his arrest, Russia went its own way. Instead of detaining al-Bashir when the Sudanese leader landed in Sochi in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin received him at his official residence and put the meeting on state television.
As it turned out, Russia’s enduring friendship was about to pay off. The outlaw President had arrived with an offer: “Sudan,” he told Putin, “can be Russia’s key to Africa.” What he wanted in return was “protection from aggressive U.S. actions” in the region, said al-Bashir. The evidence shows Putin took him up on it. The leaders’ talks opened the gates to a flood of Russian ventures in Sudan, from political consulting to mining and military aid, according to documents obtained by TIME. As Russian geologists began drilling for gold near the banks of the Nile River last year, the Russian armed forces drafted plans to use Sudan’s ports and air bases as military outposts.
Sudan is just the start. Over the past few years, the Kremlin has once again been scouring the world in search of influence. In troubled countries overlooked since the Cold War, Russia has been forging new alliances, rekindling old ones and, wherever possible, filling the void left by an inward-looking West. Across Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, TIME tracked the Kremlin effort through months of interviews with local officials, Russian operatives and other players, as well as by vetting documents provided by the Dossier Center, a private investigative unit funded by Mikhail Khodorvsky, an exiled Russian businessman and critic of Putin.
The Russian campaign reaches from major conflict zones such as Venezuela, Libya and Syria to the more obscure corners of Africa and, as al-Bashir hoped, to Sudan. What comes through is a newfound Russian willingness, even an eagerness, to involve itself in wars and cultivate regimes anywhere Moscow sees a chance to assert itself.
But unlike the Cold War, when the communist East competed with the capitalist West as equals, the new contest is being waged in an altered world. Trump’s America no longer projects interest in foreign affairs, democratic ideals or even alliances. And China, with an economy eight times the size of Russia’s, has replaced it as the major alternative to the West. Yet Putin has managed to keep Russia in the global picture–punching far above its weight through a combination of opportunism, bluster and common cause with isolated despots to whom Moscow offers weapons, protection and respect.
“We are not out to rule the world or impose some ideology on other countries, be it communism or capitalism,” says Senator Andrei Klimov, a fixture in Moscow’s foreign policy circles. “We are merely out to defend our interests. And we will do that wherever they arise.”
That became clear as recently as March 23, when two planeloads of Russian troops and military cargo landed in Venezuela to shore up the embattled dictator Nicolás Maduro. The deployment was meant as a challenge to the U.S., which recognizes the legitimacy of Maduro’s rival Juan Guaidó. It got Trump’s attention. “Russia has to get out,” he told reporters in the Oval Office four days later, adding that “all options are open” for ensuring a Russian withdrawal.
But Maduro has survived U.S. sanctions thanks in part to Russian cash and political cover. In Syria, Russia rescued the dictatorship of Bashar Assad with a military campaign that forced the U.S. to abandon its hopes of ousting him–while boosting Assad’s only other friend in the world, Iran. And in the complex war for control of Libya, various factions have sought the Kremlin’s support, often in exchange for access to oil fields and other resources that the U.S. also covets.
“They are specifically targeting countries that have toxic relations with the West,” says Andrew Weiss, who studies Russia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank based in Washington. “They’re trying to deal themselves into any conflict they can, not because they are going to solve it, but because they want influence. They want to have a voice.”
The agility of the campaign has caught some Western officials off guard. Last year alone Russia made major arms deliveries to at least 23 nations. It won the rights to build logistics hubs on the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. It has struck major energy deals over the past three years with Turkey, India and Iraqi Kurdistan. Russia even brought the Taliban to Moscow last fall to try to broker peace in Afghanistan.
None of these ventures has garnered nearly as much attention as the Russian attempts to sway elections in the U.S. and Europe over the past few years. But they flow from the same well of resentment over the humiliation that followed the loss of the Cold War. And they feed a new narrative of national revival: Russia at the center of attention wherever it chooses to be, with a leader who seems unafraid to gamble and improvise in his quest to ease the West’s hold over global affairs.
Helping the effort along is Trump’s “America first” policy, says Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former NATO Secretary-General. “When the U.S. retrenches and retreats, [it] will leave behind a vacuum that will be filled by the bad guys,” he tells TIME. “And that’s what we’re witnessing now.”
One afternoon in late December, Dalia El Roubi, a rights activist in Sudan, was on her way to a demonstration in Khartoum, the nation’s dusty capital, when she came upon an unusual scene. A Russian-made Ural military truck stood on the side of a road near the demonstration. A handful of European-looking men and Sudanese security personnel milled around it. “It was a very bizarre sight,” she recalls by phone. “You don’t see that at protests around here.”
The incident only began to make sense a few weeks later, when the Times of London reported that Russian mercenaries were helping the regime put down a popular uprising. What began in December as a series of protests against the rising cost of food and fuel has since grown into a revolution intent on ending al-Bashir’s 30-year reign. Dozens of people have been killed in the state’s attempts to crush the protests, according to Human Rights Watch. Hundreds of protesters have been jailed amid widespread reports of beatings and torture in Sudanese prisons.
Just as the protests were unfolding in Sudan, the Trump Administration was rolling out a new Africa strategy. John Bolton, the White House National Security Adviser, touted it as a response to Russia and China, which he called “great power competitors” on the continent. But his proposals for facing that challenge focused primarily on pinching pennies. Rather than engage with countries that are tempted into deals with Russia or China, Bolton said the U.S. would cut off aid to punish them. “We want something more to show for Americans’ hard-earned taxpayer dollars,” he said.
That approach suits Putin just fine. Having the White House refer to Russia as a great power bolsters his image at home, and it has cost him relatively little. Bolton said the U.S. still sends more than $8 billion in aid to Africa each year, much of it to help fight AIDS and other diseases, and China plans to spend $60 billion over the next three years on infrastructure across the continent. But Russia has built relationships in Africa without building much of anything–no major highways, bridges, hospitals or universities. Instead the Kremlin has focused on wooing elites: the warlords, generals and Presidents for life whose personal desires are simpler and cheaper to satisfy than the needs of their people or their economies.
Take Sudan. Since 2003, the U.N. estimates that 300,000 people have been killed amid the government’s attempts to quell the region of Darfur. A U.N.-mandated peacekeeping mission was deployed in 2007 to contain the bloodshed, and the charges handed down by the International Criminal Court two years later made al-Bashir the only current head of state indicted for crimes against humanity. Only Russia has stood by his side. In November 2016, the Kremlin even broke off ties with the Court, calling its decisions “one-sided.” A year later, Putin accepted al-Bashir’s offer of a key to the African continent.
Among the men Putin entrusted with exploiting the offer is Evgeny Prigozhin. An ex-convict who began his career in the 1990s selling hot dogs in St. Petersburg, he has evolved into a catering executive, responsible for feeding guests at state dinners and filling the mess halls of the Russian military with cheap cutlets and buckwheat stew, according to his official biography. The man known in Moscow as “Putin’s chef” is also a master of covert warfare, according to the U.S. government, responsible for a network of Internet trolls who were paid in 2016 to pose as Americans on social media. Investigations in the Russian and Western media have also identified him as the backer of a private army known as the Wagner Group.
Some of the most damning claims about Prigozhin come directly from special counsel Robert Mueller. As part of his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Mueller indicted Prigozhin early last year for staging a campaign of disinformation aimed at swaying the vote in Trump’s favor. The businessman has denied those charges in florid terms. “There’s an old saying,” he wrote in response to journalists’ questions about his work outside of catering. “Don’t stick your nose where a dog wouldn’t stick its c-ck.”
Prigozhin’s fingerprints are also on a number of ventures in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa, according to the documents TIME obtained in February and interviews with his current and former associates. In addition to gold and mineral mines, his companies have offered dictators a broad range of consulting services. One strategy brief outlines a road map for reforming Sudan’s entire bureaucracy, from its tax and customs bureaus to its central bank. Its co-author, who spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity, confirmed he had been hired to prepare the strategy by one of Prigozhin’s firms. “We never dealt with him directly,” said the co-author, a well-known political consultant in Russia. “But we knew it was for him.” Prigozhin did not respond to TIME’s requests for comment via his companies and his lawyer.
It’s not clear whether the strategy was ever implemented. Sudan’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to several interview requests. But the ambitions set out in the document suggest that Russia has begun to offer its allies in Africa the sort of soft-power assistance with state building typically provided by NGOs and development agencies. “They’re learning from us,” says Paul Stronski, a Russia expert and former contractor for USAID, the development arm of the U.S. government, who reviewed the document at TIME’s request. The key difference, he says, is that the reforms on offer from Russia seem mostly cosmetic. “They tick the boxes Sudan would need to improve its credit rating, but they don’t really address the corruption in the system.”
Russian hard power, including armed mercenaries, is more worrying to Sudan’s opposition movement. Since December, when El Roubi first spotted that Ural truck, her fellow demonstrators have posted photos and videos of similar scenes online. “What we’re seeing in Khartoum are Russian mercenaries, and that’s the last thing the country needs right now,” says Eric Reeves, a researcher at Harvard University who has studied Sudan for 20 years.
Russia has for years used private mercenary outfits for its strategic missions abroad. Their first big test under Putin came on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, where these loose formations of volunteers, ex-convicts and veterans helped the Russian military seize control of Crimea in 2014. In the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, they helped establish Russian protectorates known as People’s Republics.
The groups exist in a legal gray zone. Private military companies are technically illegal in Russia, and serving in one can lead to a sentence of up to seven years in prison. But for the Kremlin, the law has provided a convenient way to control these companies through selective enforcement. “There’s a criminal case waiting for every single fighter that steps out of line,” says Evgeny Shabaev, a former paramilitary who has campaigned for the law to be overturned.
The war in Syria offered these groups a more complex battlefield on which to demonstrate their usefulness–and no company has succeeded like the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary outfit whose fighters have told investigative journalists in the U.S., Russia and other countries that Prigozhin is the Group’s founder and financial backer. (He has denied having anything to do with private military companies.) Along with its commander, Dmitry Utkin, the company has been under U.S. sanctions since 2017 for its role in the conflict in Ukraine. But it was in Syria that Utkin earned the Kremlin’s gratitude. At an official awards ceremony in 2016, he even posed alongside Putin for a photo. When asked by journalists about the Wagner Group and the ban on private militaries, Putin was magnanimous. “If they comply with Russian laws,” he said, in December 2018, “they have every right to work and promote their business interests anywhere in the world.”
Those interests have sometimes landed the Wagner Group in trouble. In February 2018, Russian mercenaries and Syrian troops tried to seize a gas plant guarded by a small group of U.S. Marines who, when faced with a barrage of artillery fire, called in air support. U.S. fighter jets and attack helicopters reportedly killed dozens of Russian fighters and destroyed their column of military hardware. To the surprise of U.S. officers, the Russian military denied having anything to do with the combatants, who were overheard speaking Russian on their radios throughout the battle. “The Russian high command in Syria assured us it was not their people,” James Mattis, who was then the U.S. Defense Secretary, told Senators last spring.
In reality, the mercenaries often work in lockstep with the Russian armed forces. This appears to be the case in Sudan, where one lease agreement obtained by TIME shows that in order to run flights in and out of the country, a company run by a close associate of Prigozhin chartered Russian military planes. Many Western officials see the Wagner Group operating as an instrument of the Kremlin, behind a facade of deniability. As U.K. Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson put it in a February speech, the Wagner Group “allows the Kremlin to get away with murder while denying blood on their hands.”
Last year three Russian journalists set out to report on the activities of Russian mercenary groups operating in the Central African Republic (CAR), which borders Sudan. All three of them–conflict reporter Orkhan Dzhemal, filmmaker Aleksandr Rastorguev and cameraman Kirill Radchenko–were shot dead on the side of a road on the night of July 30. The Russian government–which has been sending arms and contractors to CAR since early 2018–said the murders were the result of a robbery, possibly committed by rebels who control parts of the nation. But the journalists’ friends and colleagues at the Dossier Center launched their own probe into the murders. Like all their work, that investigation was financed by Khodorkovsky, one of Putin’s most vocal critics in exile. “We knew there was more to the story,” the businessmen told TIME at his central London office.
The investigation concluded in January that Russian mercenaries were involved in a plot to kill the journalists in central Africa. The Kremlin was quick to deny these claims as a “conspiracy theory,” and Russian state media pointed out the grudge that Khodorkovsky carries against Putin’s regime, which imprisoned him for 10 years on charges of fraud and tax evasion before allowing him to move to Europe in 2013. But a lot of the documentary evidence uncovered by the Dossier Center was compelling: it included phone records that appeared to show Russian military contractors tracking the reporters before they were killed. (In the course of its investigations, the group also acquired a trove of documents related to Russian efforts in Sudan. After extensive vetting and verification, some were incorporated into this report.)
There’s little mystery about the presence of Russia’s private military companies in Sudan. Even though the regime has denied it, Russia has admitted they have been training local security forces since the end of last year. Asked about the deployment in January, Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian diplomat in charge of relations with the Middle East and Africa, said it was a natural part of a burgeoning relationship. “We’re in touch with the Sudanese leadership,” he told Russian news agencies. “We know their needs, their requirements and requests to various Russian structures, both state and private ones.”
The al-Bashir regime’s primary need right now is to end the revolution. Sudan’s police chief, Ahmed Bilal Osman, has denied that Russian mercenaries have played any role in doing that. But their presence in the country may have emboldened al-Bashir to go even further than closing schools, imposing nationwide curfews and censoring the media, critics say. In February, al-Bashir declared a state of emergency, dissolving the central and regional governments and ordering the military to rule in their place. “Bashir is in full survival mode,” says Reeves. “And the reason he thinks he can survive is the protection he is getting from the Russians.”
Russia did not always advocate for an end to the order defined by the West. “After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, we tried hard to fit in with the globalized world,” Vladimir Yakunin, an old friend and colleague of Putin’s from their service in the KGB, tells TIME. “But it was naive to assume that the family of civilized nations would really integrate us.” The resulting sense of exclusion came to a head in 2007, when Putin gave a landmark speech in Munich to an audience of Western statesmen. He told them that the rising strength of Russia, China and other developing nations would soon end the American century. “That speech was not about Russia baring its fangs,” says Yakunin. “It was a prophecy that, unfortunately, the Western leaders failed to heed at the time.”
Today, while some in the West still offer sermons about democracy and human rights, the value that Russia champions on the world stage is sovereignty–which holds that each regime has the right to rule its territory without fear of foreign interference. Long exploited as a cover for the brutal suppression of dissent by autocratic regimes such as China, the principle got a boost when Trump took office. In his first speech to the U.N. General Assembly, the U.S. President used the word 10 times while conspicuously embracing autocratic leaders in Egypt, the Philippines and China. But it’s Russia that’s building a foreign policy around respect for rogue regimes without much judgment of their actions at home. “We don’t tell anyone how to live,” says Yakunin.
Russia offers its new friends a powerful weapon: its veto in the U.N. Security Council, which has been used to block at least a dozen Security Council resolutions on chemical-weapon use, war crimes and cease-fires since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. By coming to the aid of the Assad regime, Putin won the right to claim that Russia will stand by its allies even when they gas, bomb and torture their own citizens. “We don’t toss any of our friends aside,” says Klimov, the Russian senator. “In the West people often switch sides. They have different priorities.”
Other nations have taken notice. In Africa, where the rule of law is too frequently tenuous, at least 18 governments have signed military-cooperation deals with Russia since its warplanes roared in to save Assad in 2015. According to the head of the Kremlin’s arms-export monopoly, sales have also spiked since the Syrian intervention, pushing its backlog of orders to $50 billion last year.
At the same time, Russia is seeking to forge a reputation as a peace broker, especially in areas where the U.S. is seen to have fallen short. The Taliban, for instance, has been banned in Russia since 2003 as a terrorist organization. But its military successes against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan cast the group in a new light. In a widely publicized summit in November, Taliban leaders were welcomed in Moscow for what the Kremlin billed as a round of peace talks. “The West has lost,” Russia’s special representative in Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, told reporters after the talks. “The U.S. has had enough time, 17 years,” he added, referring to the longest war in American history. “We don’t need that kind of leadership.”
With neither U.S. nor Afghan delegates in attendance, the talks were not going to produce anything but attention. But Moscow still seemed eager to elbow its way into the debate and demonstrate that it could bring the Taliban to the table. “There are bigger strategic games at play for Russia,” says the former Afghan diplomat Omar Samad. “They see Afghanistan as a potential bargaining chip.”
A lot of Putin’s new entanglements in the developing world could be explained that way. Russia and many Putin allies are under sanctions imposed by the West, and the more hot spots where Russia has a hand, the more opportunities Putin might see for leveraging relief. By this calculation, Putin’s placing bets around the globe the way a gambler lays chips on a felt table.
Will they pay off? You can’t win if you don’t play. Some of Russia’s initiatives could indeed ease tensions in far-flung conflict zones. At a peace conference held in Sudan last year, for instance, Russia managed to bring warring factions in the Central African Republic together. “One has to recognize that they have helped us,” says Ambassador Smail Chergui, who chaired the talks on behalf the African Union, an intergovernmental body that promotes peace across the continent.
In Venezuela, if Russia resolved to end the standoff between Maduro and the opposition, the Kremlin would have no trouble bringing the dictator to the negotiating table: His regime subsists almost entirely on help from Moscow. Stakes in his country’s enormous oil reserves have been snapped up by Russian energy firms at fire-sale prices.
But U.S. officials see scant evidence of altruism in Moscow’s behavior, and little chance of its playing mediator. “Russian strategy is to support this regime,” Elliott Abrams, the U.S. official in charge of resolving the conflict in Venezuela, told reporters in response to a question from TIME in March. “They are completely unconcerned by the degree of repression that the regime is using … They are trying to protect the money that they’re owed by Venezuela.”
And apart from the money, Putin also has a reputation to protect. In Syria, Sudan and other parts of the Arab world, as well as in Africa and much of Latin America, he is seen as a bulwark for autocrats, the man who will defend his allies’ sovereignty no matter how much pressure they face from the West. This, above all, explains why Russia has created for itself a ragtag empire of pariah autocracies and half-failed states. There’s a reason the world’s dictators are lining up to sign cooperation deals with Russia.
It’s working for Moscow. Eight months after meeting al-Bashir in Sochi, the Russian President was busy hosting the World Cup soccer tournament in cities across the country. But he did not miss a chance to sit down with Sudan’s fugitive President, this time in the Kremlin. Putin noted that in the intervening months, trade between their countries had doubled and military ties had gotten stronger. Al-Bashir, looking a lot more confident than he had in Sochi, thanked Putin for acting as a “counterweight” to the West in the U.N. Security Council. In particular, he was glad that Russia had demanded the withdrawal of international peacekeepers from Darfur.
The meeting was brief. Both leaders had plans to watch the final of the World Cup the next day. But before parting ways with the man accused of carrying out the worst genocide of the 21st century, Putin smiled and had something to say. “We are glad to see you, Mr. President. Welcome!”
–With reporting by PHILIP ELLIOTT/WASHINGTON and ALEC LUHN/MOSCOW