Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has been listed as a passenger on a private jet that crashed north of Moscow, killing all 10 passengers, the Russian authorities said.
It remains to be confirmed if the Wagner chief had boarded the flight.
Since the rebellion by Wagner forces in June, Prigozhin has been seen as the biggest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority since he came to power.
Yesterday, US President Joe Biden said he was “unsurprised” at news that Prigozhin may have died in a plane crash in Russia.
“I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I’m not surprised,” Biden said, adding: “There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind. But I don’t know enough to know the answer.”
The Kremlin has allowed the Wagner Group to keep its Central African Republic (CAR) businesses after mounting a failed mutiny at home, Bloomberg reported last month, citing two anonymous sources with knowledge of the discussions.
Wagner-linked companies run gold, timber and beer brewing operations in CAR for helping the former French colony fight off a rebel insurgency in recent years.
Wagner fighters have been accused of torturing and executing civilians in the CAR.
The deal allowing Wagner to hold onto its CAR foothold “has the support” of President Vladimir Putin, Bloomberg cited one of its sources.
According to another source,” Putin will leave Wagner in charge of operations in other African countries that “pay for themselves” while seizing those that directly depend on Moscow as he assesses options.
Wagner has substantial forestry operations in Central Africa
In September 2022, a European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) report claimed that the Wagner Group was engaged in a multi-million dollar forestry racket in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Bois Rouge’s report was conducted with All Eyes on Wagner, an open-source investigative project by French NGO OpenFacto that tracks Wagner’s global influence.
Wagner has been reported to offer private security services to African partners – the CAR, Mali, and Sudan – in return for exclusive rights to gold and diamond mining in strategic areas.
However, now All Eyes on Wagner confirms that Wagner’s interests also extend to the forestry trade in the CAR.
On 9 February 2021, a forestry permit was allocated to Bois Rouge (or “Redwood Trees”) in the prefecture of Lobaye.
The area is situated in the Congo Basin and contains some of the world’s largest undeveloped tracts of rainforest.
All Eyes on Wagner says the 30-year concession provides Bois Rouge access to 186,596 hectares of some of the world’s rare forests.
Although Bois Rouge is registered in the CAR and is headed by a local woman, the project says that earlier registry filings presented it as a Russian company selling wood from Central Africa, represented by two Russians.
“While we cannot further investigate these two individuals in open sources, we get more evidence that Bois Rouge is more Russian than African.”
“Thanks to photos obtained by EIC/OpenFacto, we can see many white Caucasian men working at the Bois Rouge concession along with a lot of Russian equipment.”
The report argues that around the same time, an exploitation permit was granted to Bois Rouge in February 2021, and multiple military operations were launched by the FACA (Central African governmental army) and Wagner mercenaries in several cities in the Lobaye region to remove rebel armed groups.
“We know for sure Wagner mercenaries were in control of Boda and its areas [sic] by the time Bois Rouge was awarded the forestry concession tender.”
All Eyes on Wagner argues that the forestry concession could yield considerable profits for the company.
“Taking the hypothesis that 30% of the concession is exploited, the revenue potential could reach 890 million dollars on international markets, which is significant,” write the authors.
“Even if such numbers should be refined and some inputs are missing, wood exports could be a profitable business for the Wagner/Prigozhin galaxy and a way to bring back cash to a sanctioned Russia.”
The report also states that Bois Rouge is importing a lot of equipment from Russia, mostly heavy machinery or machine parts.
It finds evidence of trading with Broker Expert, a St Petersburg-based company that trades with other Wagner/Prigozhin companies.
“The company [appears] to play a role in sourcing specific equipment and re-exporting them to Prigozhin’s operational entities,” says the report.
Kremlin-linked conflict timber continues to infiltrate global markets
Last month, Wood Central reported that conflict timber connected to Russia war with Ukraine continues to infiltrate global timber markets.
The ICIJ’s Deforestation Inc identified new routes through China, Turkey and other countries, adding to the traders using Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan previously reported by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
Reporters used customs data to trace cases of Russian wood bypassing bans and entering the EU, identifying upticks in EU timber imports from several countries after sanctions were imposed on Russia.
The group allege that more than 100,000 tonnes of lumber have entered Germany, France and other EU countries as part of one of Russia’s biggest illegal timber scandals.
In Russia, the state similarly owns – and therefore benefits financially from them – the country’s forests.
It temporarily grants rights to companies and individuals for commercial logging.
Several oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin, including Yevgeny Prigozhin, who controls the Wagner mercenaries, own Russia’s largest timber companies, and together hold a forested area as large as France, according to Earthsight, a British environmental nonprofit.
Messages obtained by the ICIJ partners revealed traders with connections to Russia offering to sell timber from Turkey, Kazakhstan and China.
Some masked timber origins with false certifications, while others explicitly outlined how they manoeuvred around sanctions.
“We have our own processing company and can easily process the imported [Russian] larch and export it to you,” reads one leaked message from a Chinese trader.
In Europe, key stakeholders such as the European Confederation of Woodworking Industries say they know the issue.
“We have been alerted by several of our national member organisations about their companies receiving offers from countries that normally should not have the production capacity to make such offers,” a statement from CEI-Bois read.