Central African Republic Mine Displays Stakes for Wagner Group’s Future

Amid the fallout of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s attempted mutiny against the Russian Ministry of Defense, the future of the Wagner Group and its broad network of shell companies and financial intermediaries remains uncertain, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the bulk of the network operates. Although Prigozhin is likely to fight to maintain control over his shadowy network of businesses, Moscow cannot afford to lose the political, military, and economic benefits that Wagner brings—potentially leaving important relationships and lucrative resource exploitation efforts in dispute. This uncertainty offers opportunities for the United States to target and disrupt key nodes in the Wagner resource network—as it did, for example, with recent sanctions against Wagner-linked companies that lead resource exploitation and laundering activities in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Wagner has been at the forefront of Russia’s efforts to expand its footprint and influence in Africa, and its profitable resource exploitation activities have grown in importance in the wake of Western sanctions following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Since roughly 2017, Wagner—acting in close coordination with the Russian state, including the Kremlin, Ministry of Defense, and intelligence services—has exchanged paramilitary services in African states for Russian geopolitical gains, as well as access to lucrative natural resources such as gold, gemstones and minerals, oil, natural gas, timber, and other goods. Since arriving in CAR in early 2018, for example, Wagner has secured a series of mining concessions, particularly for gold and diamonds, and has become heavily involved in the timber industry.

One of Wagner’s most significant gold mining operations is at the Ndassima gold mine in CAR, which lies 60 km north of Bambari, Ouaka prefecture. Midas Resources—a shell company linked to Prigozhin and Wagner and one of the Wagner entities sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in June 2023—has led operations at Ndassima for approximately three to four years. According to government documents obtained by Politico, within the past year Midas secured a new, long-term permit to significantly expand its operations at Ndassima—consistent with CAR’s 2009 Mining Code, under which the government may issue industrial mining permits for 25 years, with the option to renew for consecutive five-year periods. Although it is difficult to assess production quantity, some estimates claim that Wagner could reap up to one billion U.S. dollars in annual profit from its operations in CAR alone.

This analysis outlines what is known about the growing operations at Ndassima, which can serve as an example of the financial benefits that are at stake as Moscow weighs the future for Wagner’s operations.

Expansion at Ndassima Gold Mine

CSIS analyzed satellite imagery of the main Ndassima mining site from February 2022 and February 2023. During that one-year period, Wagner-linked operatives significantly expanded both the headquarters and processing facilities at Ndassima, as well as a new open pit mine slightly southeast of the main facilities, as shown below. Although there is an existing open pit mine just northeast of these locations beside the village that houses miners, this area has not noticeably changed between 2022 and 2023.

Ndassima Gold Mine

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Catrina Doxsee
Fellow, Warfare, Irregular Threats, and Terrorism Program
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Jennifer Jun
Project Manager and Research Associate (Imagery Analysis), iDeas Lab and Korea Chair
Remote Visualization

The main processing area at Ndassima expanded between February 2022 and 2023, strongly indicating increases in production. As shown below, Midas increased the number of headquarters and support buildings, installed a new tank battery, and expanded the tailings storage ponds—artificial holding areas for the waste produced by ore extraction processes. The ability to increase production at sites such as Ndassima is particularly important to Russia as it seeks to smuggle gold and other raw materials to loosely regulated markets in order to offset the damages of Western sanctions.

Main Processing Area,Ndassima Gold Mine, Central African Republic

Remote Visualization

Close-Up View of Main Processing Area, Ndassima Gold Mine, Central African Republic

Remote Visualization

In addition to the expanded processing capabilities at Ndassima, Midas has enlarged a new open pit mine to the southwest of the facility’s existing open-pit mine. This provides further evidence that the company increased (or intends to increase) production and profits from the mine. As seen below, the new mine was in the early stages of development in 2022, and by February 2023 it had significantly expanded. Meanwhile, the existing open pit mine did not see construction during this period, and it shows signs of foliage growth in the 2023 images—indicating that it has likely fallen out of use as attention shifts to the new pit.

New Open Pit Mine Development

Remote Visualization

Close-Up of New Open Pit Mine Development

Remote Visualization

The core Ndassima mining operation shown here makes up a small portion of the broader mining concession that Wagner recently secured as a long-term asset—which totals over 700 square km—but it is the most thoroughly developed. CSIS identified at least 12 other locations of mining activities within the area of the mining concession, but all appear to be exploratory and inactive for heavy activity, though artisanal mining operations may be present. These sites are dispersed and relatively small, and most are shallow, flooded excavations.

With a longer-term industrial mining permit secured, whoever controls Wagner will be able to further develop and exploit the most promising of these locations in the coming years, as well as continuing exploratory activities at other sites. The ability to develop so many different sites within the Ndassima concession—let alone the other areas to which Wagner holds mining rights in the country—demonstrates the scale of the group’s potential profits over the next quarter century, if it can maintain control amid ongoing political turmoil both in CAR and in Russia. This is significant both for the financial benefits it offers Wagner or Russia and for the level of economic harm inflicted on the CAR—already one of the world’s poorest countries—through large-scale resource exploitation.

Outlook

The growing scale of operations at Ndassima and other resource-rich areas illustrates the importance of continued Wagner operations to both Prigozhin and Putin—potentially setting up a larger competition between the two. Moreover, it helps to explain the difficulty in simply replacing Wagner. Wagner and its various shell companies have established relationships—both personal and legal, as in mining concessions—that will likely be difficult to dissolve and replace. Despite Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s reassurances that Wagner would continue operations in Africa, it is uncertain who will control the Wagner network moving forward and how their priorities may alter the current state of activities.

At the same time, operations such as Ndassima showcase opportunities for the United States and its allies to target important nodes in the Wagner network that hold mining permits or execute smuggling operations. Recent U.S. sanctions against Midas and other similar entities, including those that facilitate loosely regulated gold sales in the United Arab Emirates, are a smart move for combatting Wagner’s financial network, and this strategy should continue. However, sanctions and other punitive measures need to be accompanied by efforts to prevent evasion of consequences, including further diplomatic efforts to prevent sanctions evasion in countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

More broadly, transparency about resource exploitation should be included in documentation of the harms imposed on host countries by Wagner and its affiliates, in addition to war crimes, other human rights abuses, and the worsening of local security challenges. If Wagner—in some form—remains in CAR and other nations in Africa continue to face weak governance and ongoing security challenges, this evidence can be used to shed light on the true costs of continuing to work with the organization and can be used to guide sanctions and other efforts at punishment and accountability.

Catrina Doxsee is an associate director and associate fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. is a senior fellow for imagery analysis with the iDeas Lab and Korea Chair at CSIS. Jennifer Jun is a project manager and research associate for satellite imagery analysis with the iDeas Lab and Korea Chair at CSIS.

Special thanks to William Taylor in the CSIS iDeas Lab for imagery markup design and to Rayna Salam for editing and publication support.