Russia is robbing one of the poorest countries of the gold

Reading time: 7 minutes

Just a few days after the start of Moscow’s bloody war against Ukraine, a Russian cargo plane was waiting to take off with “cakes” on board from a runway in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. But Sudan rarely, if ever, exports cakes, reports CNN in an extensive investigation about how Russia is robbing one of the poorest countries in Africa of gold to circumvent sanctions and finance its wars, informs Adevărul.

A heated argument broke out between officials in an office behind the Khartoum International Airport. Some of them were opposed to inspecting the plane, fearing it could upset the country’s military leadership, which maintains increasingly close ties with Moscow. Other previous attempts to check suspicious shipments linked to Russia have been stopped. Finally, the customs officials made the decision to inspect the cargo.

Colorful boxes of “cakes” lay before them. But, in wooden crates hidden under them, was Sudan’s most precious resource, namely gold, in the amount of one ton.

This case, which dates back to February and is confirmed by several official sources in Khartoum, is part of at least 16 known smuggling flights by Russians with gold from Sudan, Africa’s third-largest producer of the precious metal.

Multiple interviews with senior Sudanese and American officials and numerous documents reviewed by CNN point to an elaborate Russian plan to loot Sudan’s wealth as it seeks to circumvent Western sanctions and prop up its war effort.

There are indications that Russia may count on the support of Sudan’s military leadership in this plan, a secret collaboration that deprives the African country of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Instead, Russia is committed to providing strong political and military support to Sudan’s increasingly unpopular military leadership, which is violently opposed to the country’s pro-democracy movement.

Former and current US officials told CNN that Russia actively supported the 2021 military coup in Sudan that overthrew the civilian transitional government and dealt a devastating blow to the pro-democracy movement that had been pushing for the ouster of controversial president Omar al-Bashir two years earlier.

“We have known for a long time that Russia is exploiting Sudan’s natural resources,” a former US official told CNN. “To maintain access to these resources, Russia encouraged the military coup”,

he pointed out.

The Russians “have a lot to gain from the relationship with the Sudanese generals and from helping them stay in power,” added the former US official. “This “aid” ranges from training and support for the security services to sharing the gold stolen from Sudan,”

he specifies.

At the center of this “quid pro quo” (favor for favor) between Moscow and the military junta in Sudan is Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a key ally of Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin.

Nicknamed “Putin’s Chef”, 61-year-old Evgheni Prigojin controls an obscure network of companies that also includes the Wagner paramilitary group, accused of acts of torture, mass murder and robbery in several war-torn countries, more elected in Syria and the Central African Republic. Prigojin, who is on the US sanctions list, denies any connection with Wagner.

In Sudan, Prigozhin’s “main vehicle” is the Meroe Gold company, which is also on the US sanctions list. A subsidiary called M-invest takes care of the gold business at the same time as training some soldiers and paramilitaries in the African country, reports CNN, citing a series of invoices.

“Through Meroe Gold, or other companies associated with Prigozhin’s employees, he (“Putin’s Chef”, n. ed.) developed a strategy to rob the economic resources of the African countries in which he intervenes, as a counterpart to the support given to the governments in office”,

explains Denis Korotkov, a researcher at the Dossier Center, a London-based NGO that investigates the criminal activities of various people associated with the Kremlin. Dossier Center was founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia.

Based on a collaboration with the Dossier Center, CNN reveals that at least one high-level Wagner agent, namely Aleksandr Sergeevich Kuznetsov, over the past few years has overseen operations at Sudan’s main gold mining, processing and transit sites.

Also known by the codenames “Ratibor” and “Radimir,” Kuznetsov led operations in war-torn Libya and commanded Wagner’s first assault and reconnaissance company in 2014. He received the Order of Courage four times and photographed, in 2017, with Putin and Dmitri Utkin, the founder of Wagner. In 2021, Kuznetsov was included on the sanctions list of the European Union.

The ever-closer connection between Sudan’s military leaders and Moscow laid the foundation for a complicated gold smuggling network. According to official sources in Sudan, as well as flight data analyzed by CNN in collaboration with the Gerjon Twitter account, at least 16 of the flights intercepted last year by inspectors in Khartoum were operated by a military plane that usually flies from and to Latakia, a port city in Syria near which Russia operates an air base.

Gold shipments also follow an overland route to the Central African Republic, where Wagner provides support to a repressive regime.

CNN reports that it reached out to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Russian Defense Ministry and the parent organization of the Prigozhin-led group of companies for comment, but did not receive a response.

“We are closely monitoring this issue, including the reported activities of Meroe Gold, the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group and other sanctioned actors in Sudan, the region and across the gold trade,”

a spokesperson for the US State Department reacted to CNN.

“We support the Sudanese people in search of a democratic and prosperous Sudan that respects human rights. We will continue to clearly express our concern to Sudanese military officials about the malign impact of Wagner, Meroe Gold and other actors.”

he added.

Shadow business

Russia’s interest in Sudan’s gold began in earnest in 2014, after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, a territorial grab followed by international sanctions. Gold shipments have proven to be an efficient way to accumulate and transfer wealth, supporting Russia’s state treasury while avoiding international financial monitoring systems, notes CNN

“The downside of gold is that it’s physical and much harder to use than international wire transfers, but the upside is that it’s much harder, if not impossible, to freeze or confiscate,”

explains Daniel McDowell, a sanctions specialist and associate professor of political science at Syracuse University.

The center of the gold mining operation is deep in the desert of northeastern Sudan, where miners toil almost non-stop in scorching heat.

The gold is brought to al-Ibaidiya, also known as the “City of Gold”. The transport is quite difficult, being provided by carts pulled by donkeys on unpaved streets. The bidders, say the locals, come from the “Russian company”.

About 85% of Sudan’s gold is siphoned through this chain process, according to sources and official statistics consulted by CNN.

It is difficult to determine the exact amount of gold taken out of Sudan by Russia. But at least seven sources close to the file say Russia is behind most of these smuggling operations.

A source from the Central Bank of Sudan says 32.7 tons of gold went unaccounted for in 2021, amounting to an estimated theft of $1.9 billion.

But several former and current officials say the gold theft is even greater because the Sudanese military leadership greatly underestimates the gold extracted from artisanal mines favored by Russian-orchestrated smuggling.

A calculation by CNN sources shows that Sudan has been without gold worth $13.4 billion in recent years. CNN states that it could not independently verify this calculation.

A Sudanese anti-corruption investigator who spent years following Russia’s gold dealings in his country provided CNN with the coordinates of a key processing plant. When a CNN team arrived at the site of the plant, about 8 kilometers from al-Ibaidiya, they found a Soviet flag flying over the complex.

The team tried to talk to a guard. He admitted that the plant belongs to a “Russian company”, but the discussion got tense along the way. The CNN team was ordered to leave the scene, after which it was followed by a car.

Before leaving the site, an employee of Sudanese origin told reporters that he was not at a “Russian company” but at “al-Solag”. Al-Solag is a front company established in Sudan for Meroe Gold, according to sources in Khartoum.

The formation of al-Solag marked a turning point for Russia’s presence in Sudan. The new model involves the withdrawal of Russia into the shadow of the military leadership and, in this way, bypassing the state institutions, including the regulations regarding foreign companies, under the guise of a local business. CNN reached out to the Sudanese military leadership for comment, but again did not receive a response.

“Too much US surveillance”

In 2021, Russia’s envoy to Sudan, Vladimir Jeltov, convened a meeting with Sudanese mining officials.

Visibly nervous, Jeltov demanded that Meroe Gold be

“hidden” after becoming the subject of “too much US scrutiny”,

according to a source from the Sudanese Ministry of Mining.

By June of this year, Jeltov’s request appears to have been fulfilled by transferring the assets of Meroe Gold to the al-Solag company. An analysis of the two companies’ registration documents reveals striking similarities, including two identical lists of penalties.

According to Sudanese law, the shares of a company are transferred together with the judgments given against it. It is illegal to have an undeclared foreign partner.

Sudan’s anti-corruption committee, a watchdog set up to support Sudan’s transition to democracy, tried to block the transfer, according to a former civilian official familiar with details of the case. The anti-corruption committee sent a detailed report on the affair and urged the country’s armed forces not to be complicit in a “crime against the state”.

In October 2021, a month after blocking the transfer of shares from Meroe Gold to al-Solag, the Sudanese army staged a coup and abolished the anti-corruption committee

“The Russians and the Sudanese officers saw the civilians in the government as an obstacle to their plans,” says a former local official.

“Russia is a parasite. Plundered Sudan”,

he concludes.

General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the leader of the paramilitary unit Rapid Support Forces (RSF), is seen as the main beneficiary of the weapons and training provided by Moscow. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s military leader, is, in turn, considered by CNN’s Sudanese sources to be a man supported by Moscow.

Human rights activists in Sudan say the two military leaders are guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Darfur conflict.

On February 24, when Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, nicknamed “Hemedti”, came to Moscow to “advance relations” between his country and Russia.