Fishing in Stormy Waters: Russia’s Gold Rush in Sudan

As conflict rages across Sudan, Mark Conrad highlights how Russia has taken advantage of the chaos to boost its access to coveted gold markets​.

Published: May 26, 2023  |  

Investigative journalist and writer


Despite what some will tell you, it’s rare that journalists accurately predict anything. But when we do, we tend to bang on about it—to make audiences think we possess a superpower that does not exist. And I am no different!

My first column for New Thinking in May 2022 warned that sanctions against Russia should alert the world to the risk that Vladimir Putin’s regime would target global gold markets to boost Moscow’s coffers and potentially circumvent international embargoes.

And, lo, it may have come to pass.

The brutal conflict in Sudan—superbly explained in Kunwar Khuldune Shahid’s recent article—has many unfortunate impacts and consequences for regional and global stability. But one aspect of the battle between warring Sudanese generals that often goes unreported is the role of Russia and the sanctioned Wagner Group—the “private military army” with close ties to Putin and Moscow.

I put “private military army” in convenient journalistic quotation marks because others describe the Wagner Group as a paramilitary front for Putin’s regime. Or Vlad’s mercenary army: claims the Wagner Group and Moscow deny. The precise relationship between Wagner’s and Putin’s regimes is difficult to define. But it is conveniently symbiotic.

According to evidence presented to the UK Parliament by Jason Blazakis, executive director at the Centre on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, the Wagner Group is “an organization that continues to exploit natural resources and engage in human rights abuses across the globe.”.

In particular, Blazakis adds, “the Wagner Group has become instrumental in Putin’s ambitions in gaining access to natural resources throughout Africa; whether gold, oil or diamonds, the Russian Federation has acquired fungible assets that keep the war machine churning in Ukraine.”

Wagner has long been present in Sudan of the group’s key roles, providing security for the gold mining operations in areas of the state controlled by General Hemedti, such as Darfur, have been their staple.

Hemedti, of course, is the leader of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), attempting to overthrow the country’s de facto leader and army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Previously, these two powerful men were aligned within the Sudanese military when led by al-Burhan, who seized power in a 2021 coup. It is their power struggle, as well as historical/cultural factors, underpins Sudan’s current conflict.

Martin Plaut, a former BBC Africa editor and now a senior research fellow at the University of London, recently told British MPs: “The Wagner Group is backing Hemedti, and Hemedti is, in return, allowing gold to be flown out from the mines that he controls in Sudan to help pay for Putin’s war in Ukraine.”

Plaut believes that while the Sudan conflict is not specifically about gold, access to the precious resource is “one of the major issues” fuelling it. Hemedti’s RSF effectively controls Darfur and other mining areas in the center and west of Sudan. Meanwhile, al-Burhan’s Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) control other parts of the center and the east of the country—including vital Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Russia and the Wagner Group are experts at fishing in such troubled waters—taking advantage of uncertainty and chaos within vulnerable states to secure access to valuable resources. It is why Russia, and the Wagner Group, are also crucial players in neighboring Libya.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported that three dozen Russians were among fifty-eight workers from the Al-Sawlaj for Mining Ltd company questioned over accusations of gold smuggling. Plaut’s view is that Al-Sawlaj is a front for the Wagner Group (though Wagner and Moscow deny this).

The claim is that the Wagner Group—and, by association, Russia—is assisting Hemedti and the RSF by supplying them with weapons in return for gold. Reportedly, the wider “smuggling” route in and out of Sudan is via Libya’s vast border with the RSF (Hemedti) controlled side of the country. Again, Russia and Wagner deny any wrongdoing.

One recent estimate put the value of Sudan’s gold likely to be moved through unofficial markets at $4bn. Noting the potential for Russia’s cut of that to fund the war in Ukraine, Plaut warned: ‘If you put that into weapons, it makes a huge difference.’

But Dame Rosalind Marsden, former British ambassador to Sudan and current associate fellow at the Chatham House foreign affairs think-tank, is quick to remind us that Russia’s influence in Sudan spreads beyond Hemedti and the RSF.

According to Dame Marsden, the Russian state has also engaged directly with al-Burhan’s regime.

“The Russians have also been a major supplier of military hardware to the Sudanese army,” Dame Marsden told MPs in April. “[Sergey] Lavrov [Russia’s foreign minister] was in Khartoum just a few months prior. On that occasion, he met both Burhan and Hemedti.”

Never underestimate the ability of third parties—states, private militias, businesses, and others—to get involved in domestic conflicts when they spot a business opportunity. That should not normalize or excuse the actions of states or firms seeking to make a quick buck and expand their sphere of geopolitical influence.

I’m often asked, by NT’s business audience, “Why does any of this matter?” Well, it matters because the future stability of any state and its people is important—and third-party involvement is often destabilizing. It is also important domestically and regionally because the conflict in Sudan is displacing hundreds of thousands of people—many of whom will become refugees for life.

But it also matters to businesses—in the US, Europe, and elsewhere—when the risk of potential sanctions-busting trades or commerce escalates. Experts have long warned that Russia could seek to exploit international gold markets to circumvent sanctions—potentially using criminal enterprises, or unsuspecting third parties, to wash clean the proceeds of gold sales. And having greater access to Sudan’s gold during Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine only increases that risk.

As I warned you 12 months ago: all that glitters is not gold!

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