Whistleblower claims the Kremlin is the largest foreign player in Sudan’s huge mining sector
By Tom Collins IN NAIROBI3 March 2022 • 6:00am
Russia has smuggled hundreds of tonnes of illicit gold from Sudan over the last few years as part of wider efforts to build “fortress Russia” and ward against anticipated Ukraine-related sanctions.
The Kremlin has more than quadrupled the amount of gold held in Russia’s central bank since 2010, creating a “war chest” through a mix of foreign imports and vast domestic gold reserves as the third largest producer of the precious metal in the world.
Russia held more gold than US dollars for the first time in June 2020 with bullion accounting for more than 23 per cent of the total reserves, which rose to $630bn as of last month.
While official statistics suggest that Sudan exports hardly any gold to Russia, an executive of one of the largest Sudanese gold companies told The Telegraph that the Kremlin is the largest foreign player in the country’s huge mining sector.
“Russia has a lot of operations in Sudanese gold and a lot of it is smuggled in small planes from military airports dotted across the country to Russia,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He believes that around 30 tonnes are flown to Russia each year from Sudan, though it is impossible to gauge the true scale of the operation.
The miner adds that Russia is allowed to do so because of its connections with Sudan’s warlord turned paramilitary leader, Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Daglo, who emerged from a military takeover last year as the country’s de facto vice president. Hemedti travelled to Moscow last week as Russian troops were pouring over the border into Ukraine, in another sign of strengthened bilateral relations between the two countries.
Experts say that the Wagner Group, a private military company run by Kremlin-linked oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, is training Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – a large paramilitary organisation that sits alongside Sudan’s regular army.
The two heavily armed groups have worked together to secure important gold mines for Russian mining companies in Sudan, where security is weak in remote areas.
“One of the things that we’ve seen when Russia started to deploy its Wagner personnel to Sudan is that they were very focused on protecting the gold mining efforts,” says Sim Tack, cofounder of Force Analysis, a Belgium-based consultancy that specialises in conflict.
Russian companies such as M-Invest, which has a local subsidiary called Meroe Gold, started operations in Sudan after former dictator Omar al-Bashir met Vladmir Putin in 2017, offering him mining concessions and allowing him to build a naval base on the Red Sea.
Another Russia-linked mining firm is the Kush for Exploration and Production Company which has been active in Sudan since 2013. Tack says that although these companies are established entities, the amount of gold they export to Russia is “completely unknown”.
Despite M-Invest listing its core activities as “extraction of ores and sands of precious metals”, a CNN investigation found that the firm had led a disinformation campaign against the 2019 revolution that ousted 30-year islamist ruler al-Bashir.
In 2020, the US said M-Invest was owned by Prigozhin and served as a cover for the Wagner Group, which is currently staging an “online anti-revolution campaign” against a second wave of protests that have destabilised Sudan after the military interjected in October to remove a civilian-led administration.
During Sudan’s brief experiment with democracy, where the government tried to mend relations with the West after years of crippling sanctions, Russia largely shunned the country’s civilian leaders, working instead with Hemedti who retained power in an uneasy transitional coalition between the military and the executive.
The engagement of a mining company in cyber-warfare also mirrors Putin’s broader strategy in Africa, where Russian-affiliated entities blur the lines between private security operations and resource extraction.
Tack says that while Sudan is possibly the most important source of African gold for Russia, it is not the only country on the Kremlin’s radar.
“Minimising the effect of sanctions through gold is something that has informed Russia’s approach in Africa, because we are seeing very similar things in Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic. econThey are going after countries that have plenty of natural resources to help them up their reserves,” he said.