Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Russia-SA: Prigozhin’s son, influence ops… & Yevgeny going from “traitor” to “hero”

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Pavel Prigozhin, the son and heir of the late Wagner Group founder, apparently has South Africa on his radar. In this interview with BizNews, SA-Russia expert Professor Irina Filatova says, “he’s particularly interested in the political side of the affairs…the elections in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Botswana.” And using private networks to manipulate social networks and influence public opinion is something his late father, Yevgeny, used to great effect in Africa. “So there’s no doubt that if Wagner’s companies, whether it is troll companies or military assistance or whatever, act in South Africa or Southern Africa, they would act in the interests of private interests of the company itself, and of course they would act in the interests of Russia. And many people think that interests of Russia are the same interests as South African interests,” Professor Filatova says. She points out that in almost every coup in West Africa, “there was somebody who was involved in that coup, who started in Russia or the USSR…was close to the Russian interests”. Meanwhile, Prigozhin Snr has gone from “traitor” to “hero” in Russia, and is being “venerated” again after his failed coup there. Professor Filatova describes his rise to power from hotdog salesman to military strongman, dissects the secret of his success in Africa, and updates current Russia-backed private military operations on the Continent where Western influence is waning fast.

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Highlights from the interview

In an interview with BizNews, SA-Russia expert Professor Irina Filatova discusses Pavel Prigozhin’s interest in Southern Africa’s political landscape, focusing on elections in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, and Botswana. Filatova highlights the influence tactics used by Prigozhin’s late father, Yevgeny, through private networks to sway public opinion. She also explores the role of Russia-backed private military operations in Africa, where Western influence is declining rapidly.

Extended transcript of the interview ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Chris Steyn (00:01.072)

Pavel Prigozhin , the son and heir of the late Wagner Group founder, apparently has South Africa on his radar. We speak to SA-Russia expert Professor Irina Filatova to find out more. Welcome professor.

Irina Filatova (00:17.558)

Hello Chris.

Chris Steyn (00:20.304)

Professor, what have you heard about Pavel’s interest in Southern Africa and in particular in South Africa?

Irina Filatova (00:28.534)

Look, there was a BBC-Russian Service investigation into this issue and their conclusion is absolutely not the conclusion is actually not conclusive about how active Pavel is.  What is absolutely true and that is confirmed by multiple sources is that Prigozhin’s son, Pavel, has inherited very many of Prigozhin’s businesses, and these include military businesses, these include his multiple economic interests in Africa, and generally speaking, after Prigozhin’s failed coup and after his death, it was announced that African affairs would continue as before. 

This is not quite quite so, because many things have changed. But as far as Pavel is concerned, the only thing, concrete thing about his participation is that he was allowed to continue with his businesses. Business as usual continues, and he’s particularly interested in the political side of the affairs. The political side, what was named, was the elections in South Africa, in Namibia, in Mozambique and Botswana. So that is the results of their investigation. 

Otherwise, yes, Prigozhin’s soldiers of fortune continue in Africa, although perhaps under different names within the different units and they act very successfully, particularly in West Africa.

Chris Steyn (02:31.696)

What would Pavel’s agenda be for expanding influence into Southern Africa and what would his modus operandi be to do so?

Irina Filatova (02:42.55)

Look, one of the strong sides of Prigozhin’s activities, he started this using internet and started using social networks. When dealing with the Soviet, with the Russian opposition very early in his career, and this was one of his greatest achievements actually. So using internet is, is using social networks is a very, very important thing in Africa.  So this is one of the methods, I suppose, that could be used both in West Africa and here. 

The purpose, well if you ask any of Prigozhin’s troops, they will tell you that they are acting in the interests of the Russian state, that they are defending their motherlands and they are patriots and they will do everything that Russia needs. 

Whether it is legal or illegal, sometimes it could be illegal, but what is legal? Whose laws are these? And this is exactly what some people in this country mention in this connection. Which constitution is it? Which law is it? It is all imposed on us by the West. That is why we are not interested in it. 

So there’s no doubt that if Wagner’s companies, whether it is troll companies or military assistance or whatever, act in South Africa or Southern Africa, they would act in the interests of private interests of the company itself, and of course they would act in the interests of Russia. And many people think that interests of Russia are the same interests as South African interests. 

So that is how it could happen, and that is the modus operandi.

Chris Steyn (04:55.952)

Could we just go back to the origins of Wagner and who Prigozhin really was.

Irina Filatova (05:03.638)

Well, Prigozhin was the childbirth of the wild early 1990s in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was approximately 10 years younger than Putin. And during the Soviet era in the 1970s, he was a small criminal thief. Then he organised, he was from St. Petersburg, then he organised a small, again, petty robber gang and robbed several flats for which he was sentenced to 13 years in prison, of which he spent 10 in prison. 

And when he got out, that was exactly at the time after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the country was collapsing, the structures were collapsing and you could either succeed, you could become a millionaire overnight, you could become a criminal, you could organise whatever – and Prigozhin was certainly in a very good position to do that. He organized several businesses starting very modestly with selling hot dogs and and making some small petty money out of it, but that was certainly not enough. 

And he simultaneously started several other businesses, some legal, some semi-legal, some illegal. This was such a normal practice in the early 1990s. Everybody did it. So what he participated in, for example, construction business, the trade and many other things. 

But one of the businesses he started, obviously the continuation of his hot-dog selling, was a restaurant business and several of his first restaurants failed. But he finally found a successful formula.

Irina Filatova (07:26.902)

Together with some partners he found the money to refurbish an old ship and opened a luxurious restaurant in it. The first time among his businesses was a casino business. To get a license he had to meet with some officials of St. Petersburg and that’s how he came across Putin and that’s how he met Putin for the first time. He was getting a license from the from the board which was headed by the mayor and Putin was mayor’s deputy. So that’s how they met. 

But when Prigozhin’s restaurant and then a network of restaurants succeeded, Putin started visiting it. And he brought there several heads of state including George Bush senior and the several other heads of state as far as I remember. There was Jacques Chirac, the Japanese Premier, so that was a very portioned and famous place, the best, the most expensive place in St. Petersburg. 

So that is how he started, but simultaneously, as I said, this was not his main money. His main money was simultaneously juggling several businesses and these several businesses could include anything. And one of his businesses was exactly the networks, private networks, which could manipulate social networks, participation in the social networks. Trailing the protest movement, just watching what are they organising, whether there’s going to be a meeting, is it going to be peaceful or not peaceful? And so that was how he continued his relations with the state.

Irina Filatova (09:49.91)

So he organised Wagner out of the remnants of previous private military companies which emerged. Many of them many of them emerged in the early 1990s. So he organised them into this Wagner company.

Where the name came from? Of course, Prigozhin was not a military commander and he was not a military person generally speaking. So, the name of the commander was Dmitry Utkin who was an officer, a retired officer, and I think of the GRU, that is military reconnaissance or intelligence, and he was the military head of the Wagner company. The name Wagner came from Utkin because he was an admirer of of Nazi, he was a Nazi himself. He had the Nazi tattoos on his body. Simultaneously, he was of course a Russian nationalist. But such combinations do happen, as we know from Ukraine where also some of the radical nationalists admired Hitler’s tattoos, Nazi tattoos on their bodies. So that is the Wagner was the composer who was the favourite composer of Hitler. And so that was his call name, Utkin’s call name Wagner. That’s how the company was got its name. 

Now what is happening now after the failed coup, is that the name Wagner still exists, but it is nothing like it was before. The former military components were dissolved into several different other companies. Some of them were incorporated in the GRU private military company, which is called Redoubt.

Irina Filatova (12:09.046)

Some of them were incorporated in another private military company which is called Storm. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of such companies now. They are organised by every big private business. They are organized by GRU, more than one. They are organised by the private military company is Akhmat regiment organised by Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya and some of the Chechen Republic, Russian Chechen Republic. So several of them joined this Akhmat regiment. So that is the situation now. 

The strength of the Wagner itself, we do not know. And how, in particular, the relations between this private company and the state are organised, we also do not know. 

The former Wagner was getting arms and money from the state. Putin spoke about it just after the coup, an attempted coup. So he said openly, yes, we were financing them. We were giving them arms and they have betrayed us. 

The name, Prigozhin’s name is now again, after being called a traitor by the head of state, it is now being turned into the name of a hero again. And it is being venerated again. 

So it is all very, Russian history is very unusual. So that is the situation as it is now.

Chris Steyn (14:04.72)

What do you think was the reason for their phenomenal success in Africa? What was the secret?

Irina Filatova (14:15.574)

There is one secret, I think, and they discovered it themselves. Their involvement started in Libya, actually. And there, they tried unsuccessfully to get the oil fields and the ports, to establish control over the ports. Now the remainder of this close relationship with East India, sorry, East Libya, they remained, but the first sort of incursion into Libya was not quite successful. 

It was much more successful in Sudan where the first relations, official relations were established during the visit of President al-Bashir, a Sudanese president to Moscow. Then Russia, Putin has signed an agreement about the Russian establishing the military base on the Red Sea coast and also about the possibility of prospecting for oil and gas and also the permission, the contract of using of the gold mine. So they developed, the Russians developed very close relationship with the Rapid Support Force in eastern Sudan where, as the media has been writing, Western media has been writing, they trained, this is Wagner already, they supplied Rapid Support Force with arms and they trained some of their military force actually.

Irina Filatova (16:38.07)

So this has become the formula. You get the access to natural resources, whether it is oil, whether it is gas, whether it is gold, whether it is diamonds or whatever. And then you pay with military support of a particular leader. And that leader obviously has to be faithful to you and not give any economic resources to anybody else. And then you also train the local forces.

This has become particularly important in West Africa, for example, in the Central African Republic, where the mode was exactly the same. The president, Touadéra, asked for assistance from the Russian state, military assistance, and it was during the second year of his presidency. And such assistance was given, but not in terms of regular military troops, but in terms of Wagner. They were not called the private military company or anything like that. They were called the specialist military advisors. And they helped to train the locals. Not many Russian military personnel is present there, but they train the locals and they get the access to the local resources.

Irina Filatova (18:48.598)

If we take Sudan, for example, according to some calculations, about 30 tons of gold has been exported to Russia in favour of Wagner, in favour of the Russian interests. I don’t know how far it is, but that is on top of some oil that they have been also getting. 

So one of the most important things I think is that Prigozhin’s trick of using the social networks. The social networks mean that means that they can propagate their message very skillfully, knowing local interests, knowing the sore points. You can send one message to one group and another message to another group. You can use anti-American moods, anti-American sentiment of one group. You can use anti-imperialist sentiments of another group, anti-colonial sentiments of a third group. You can use all sorts of local tribal uses. 

There was a publication about such a troll factory in Ghana, for example, which broadcasts all over Africa. Unfortunately, the journalists did not uncover anything more except one conversation with a guy who was head of it, a Ghanaian who studied in the Soviet Union. So this element, by the way, is very important because in Sudan, the Russians also found rapport with people who started in Russia. 

And almost in every coup that happened in South, in West Africa, there was somebody who was involved in that coup, who started in Russia or in the USSR, was close to the Russian interests.

Irina Filatova (21:04.854)

So social networks are very, very important. And of course, not only the Russians are using it, not only the Wagner is using it. It’s quite obvious. Everybody is doing that. And one of the most important messages in West Africa is the anti-colonial message. It is so popular. The new stage of liberation now is coming. We have to liberate ourselves of new colonialism. We now want to be the masters of our fate. 

And the Russian presence, the Russian military assistance may be so important also because the Western message is failing. The Western message is to watch elections, we need regular elections, we need democracy, we need the rules, we need the business which is transparent, we need the laws which are fair, we are fighting corruption and so on and so forth. But West African countries are so poor and you can, you know, this…all these messages do not work.

People are not interested in elections, they are not interested in democracy, they are not interested in constitution. They want stability and they want food on their table and that is all. And that’s the most important thing for them. And of course, with the presence of the Russian military, sometimes it works, there is more stability. Sometimes, in most cases it doesn’t work because there’s just not enough troops, for example, to stop the Islamist attacks in West Africa. 

It remains to be seen how successful that attempt is. But the promise of stability, the promise of we now have, for example, in the Central African Republic, we have Touadéra, we have stopped the endless coups and endless arguments with the opposition about who is now the president. 

By the way, if we speak about the Central African Republic, it is not uncommon – as it is in Sudan – to establish relations with both fighting sides, because the Russians are not unfriendly with the opponents of the Touadéra,  the movement which is called Seleka, and that headed by the former president, and they are not unfriendly with that group either. 

So the social networks, the message of anti-colonialism, not demanding any Western trinkets of

democracy, transparency, the law – and that is very attractive to African societies, particularly poorly organised societies and starving societies and so on.

Chris Steyn (24:46.448)

Lastly, with the influence of the West waning on the African continent, how strong do you think Russia’s position is in Africa right now?

Irina Filatova (24:59.99)

Look the whole world is changing. If I look on the only on Russia, I think that it is a bit over-extending itself. But on the other hand, if you look at the mode, this private military company, companies operate, they do get money to become, I would say, self-sufficient, but almost self- sufficient. So that mode can be sustainable if that is acceptable to the African states. 

Look what is going on in Kenya, for example. There are no Russians, but there is mass disturbances, there’s mass riots, there is mass demonstrations and so on. 

So far, I haven’t heard anything about the Russians please come and save us, and the Kenya democratic institutions have been working but I don’t know what is going on on social networks there. I would not be surprised if the Russian flag appears somewhere there as well.

Although noticeably, this only happened in Western African countries, mostly of them former French colonies. So we’ll have to see. I don’t know for how long, but I said the world is changing. Yes, the Western influence is weakening everywhere in the world, not only in Africa.

In Africa in particular, the interests of China, the interests of Russia, the interests of the Arab countries, they are growing. If it is not Russia, China has a lot of influence in African countries.

Irina Filatova (27:18.838)

And I don’t think the Chinese are also interested in the trinkets of any democracy or anything like that. I don’t know how sustainable it is. It depends on the African people themselves, whatever they got, whatever they want. But it’s very difficult to say where it will end.

Chris Steyn (27:35.952)

Thank you. That was SA-Russia expert, Professor Irina Filatova speaking to BizNews and I am Chris Steyn. Thank you, Professor.

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