President Joe Biden
My fellow leaders, we gather once more at an inflection point in world history.
The United Nations General Assembly kicked off earlier this week in New York City, and President Joe Biden hit on a bunch of topics during his speech climate change, China, artificial intelligence. But he saved his most direct language for the section about the war in Ukraine.
President Joe Biden
Russia alone, Russia alone bears responsibility for this war. Russia alone has the power to end this war immediately.
He called on Russia to stop the invasion, then turned it back around to the rest of the world leaders in the audience.
President Joe Biden
Can any member state in this body feel confident that they are protected? If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure? I'd respectfully suggest the answer is no.
And while the war drags on in Europe, that idea, the specter of looming Russian influence, is playing out right now in a different way on a different continent. My guest this week, is CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward. She recently traveled to Africa to figure out what is left of the Wagner empire after the apparent death of its notorious leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. We're going to talk about what she found and why the continent continues to be a major focus for Moscow.
From CNN, this is One Thing. I'm David Rind.
Clarissa, We last covered Russia on the show back in July, right after Yevgeny Prigozhin had led his troops on this dramatic march towards Moscow, only to turn them around before reaching the city. And our colleague Matthew Chance, who's based in Moscow, told me there were real questions about what would happen to Prigozhin and Wagner in the aftermath. Can you quickly catch us up? What happened next?
Well, for almost two months, it appeared that maybe the Kremlin had made some kind of a deal with Prigozhin and that he was going to be allowed to continue traveling around. He moved from St Petersburg, he flew to Belarus. He met with African leaders on the sidelines at the Africa Summit. He did a whistle stop tour around his various interests in Africa. And then, of course, almost exactly a month ago.
We do have this breaking news just in to CNN.
That the plane that he was flying in was mysteriously, shall we say, crashed.
This is the new video which appears to show the plane summarily falling from the sky.
And Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed on board, along with some very senior members of the Wagner apparatus.
That does not happen to planes flying level at altitude by accident...
And while the Kremlin has officially denied any involvement and has said that there's an investigation being carried out into the cause of the crash. Certainly, I think the wild speculation is that ultimately he was always going to be killed and that it was just about giving the state enough time to try to work out how they were going to carve up his empire and dismantle his leadership before ultimately killing him, though, of course, that is speculation.
So what has become of that empire? Because he had interests in various different places around the world, right?
He did. And the place where a lot of the focus has been is in the empire that he built in Africa, but really centering on a large, very impoverished, war scarred country called the Central African Republic, where he had about a thousand mercenary fighters on the ground propping up the government there, but also where he had a number of commercial interests. He was deeply involved in diamonds and gold and timber. He even had an alcohol business. They sell a Wagner owned company, sells beer and vodka. Wow. So there's been some question as to who would take that over. And we actually traveled to the Central African Republic to to see how things have changed.
One thing that's really striking when you spend time in Bangui, the capital city, is that Wagner is very, very popular.
Welcome to Quantica Palace.
Wow, That is quite the t-shirt.
I interviewed a senior presidential advisor, Fidel Ganga, who was wearing a t-shirt that said "Je Suis Wagner." I am Wagner.
What was your reaction when you heard that Mr. Prigozhin had been killed?
Sadness. We cried. All the people of Central Africa cried because Prigozhin with Wagner troops protect us protects our institution.
You have to understand that this was a country that was lawless, where there was a lot of fighting, where there was an attack from rebel forces. And the one thing that Wagner has been able to do there through very brutal and ruthless methods, I should underscore, is to essentially provide a modicum of security.
The Americans, you know, provide more humanitarian assistance to the Central African Republic than any other country.
You know, but this is not the same thing. They give us food, Russia give us peace. We love the peace more than food.
Because and the point that this advisor made to me as well, which I also think is important, is listen, effectively, beggars can't be choosers. We would have loved for the French to have helped us. We would have loved for the Americans to help us. We asked them to. But it was Russia who agreed to help us. And so ultimately we're sticking with them.
So it's like, even if there isn't this this boss of this shadowy mercenary unit, they still see it as Russia is our friend.
Exactly. There's still something of a question mark, though, around what happens to those lucrative mining concessions and what happens to those other economic enterprises. Before Prigozhin was killed, the Russian deputy minister of Defense. Actually traveled along with a large delegation to all the countries where Wagner has a stronghold in Africa, including the Central African Republic. And of note was the fact that also in that delegation was a senior GRU general called General Andrei Averyanov, who is well known among certain circles for having led an assassination squad. And I think the fact that he was part of that and that he also met with African leaders at the St Petersburg summit has led a lot of people to speculate that potentially he might be leading the charge. What's interesting, though, is that at the end of the day, on the ground in the Central African Republic, it's Prigozhin's lieutenants, his right hand men who are continuing to run things and their attitude from everything that they say, although they don't speak publicly much these days, is we continue to work for Russia. We serve Russia, whether that's under Prigozhin or whoever comes next. That doesn't change. It's business as usual.
So what does business as usual look like on the ground? Like how open are promotions men about the fact that Bognor is still has a presence there?
So as you would typically find with Wagner, it's all opaque. Nothing is done with transparency or clarity. And what we found is that a lot of it is centers on a place called the Russian Cultural Center La Maison Ruse, which was built by Wagner a few years ago. What's interesting about this cultural center is that it has no affiliation with the Russian state enterprise that coordinates cultural institutions all over the world.
It's just just a random Russian cultural center in the Central African Republic.
Exactly. And essentially, you walk in, we asked many times to film there and they would not allow us to. Or they just kept saying, yeah, sure, we'll get back to you. But they never did. So eventually we took a hidden camera in there and there's three tents which do offer things like Russian lessons, screening of movies. There's a merry go round for kids. Anyone can go in. But as we were talking to this woman, who is sort of the face of the Russian cultural center, we saw a Wagner fighter coming out from behind one of the tents.
And then when we saw him, the woman said, Get away. And he ran away. And we said, What's behind the tents?
And she said, basically, mind your own business.
Can we see what's there? That's weird.
So actually, what are you going to see there?
But if you talk to investigative organizations like The Century Group, All Eyes on Wagner, they will tell you that in that area behind the front of house, behind the tents, a lot of the meetings and deals take place with regards to diamonds, gold, timber and even the beer and things of this nature.
But you were here then when Yevgeny Prigozhin, when he was here...
When we first arrived at the Russian Cultural Center, there are actually photographs of Prigozhin, some of the last images of him alive. We asked her about the photograph. She scoffed and said "huh".
Oh my God, can you show me that?
Yeah...I think it was just over in that corner...
We showed it to her and you could see her face kind of blanching as she realized that.
Mmm Okay, that's good.
And this is Mr.Prigozhin no?
We also pressed her on this issue of, okay, what happens now that he's dead? Does anything change?
What does it mean for your work here? Does it change anything?
Does it change anything if, I don't know, the president of the country dies? Does it mean that the country steps to exist?
And her quote, which I found very interesting, said, If the president of your country dies, does it mean that your country ceases to exist? And this, I would say, was kind of the overarching feeling that I got from Bogner people on the ground. Yes, there is a sense that it is a state of flux or a period of flux, and there is anxiety and nervousness about what it will look like. But ultimately, we work for Russia. That work continues.
Can we take a step back here, Clarissa? Because I think when people hear that Russia has a presence in a place like Africa, they may be like, of course, Putin wants to extend his reach wherever he can. But what is it about Africa specifically that is so attractive to a country like Russia that they would be willing to maintain a presence there even after a man like Prigozhin is out of the picture?
I think, honestly, Russia is very good at improvising and taking advantage of opportunities or vacuums, and they saw that there was a clear reluctance on behalf of countries like France, who have traditionally had obviously a big foothold in Africa and the U.S. as well, that they saw kind of withdrawal slightly, a reluctance to be deeply entrenched in these in these countries. And so they basically understood that having a presence in a country like the Central African Republic could take a lot of boxes for them. It gives them a geostrategic foothold. It allows them to really challenge the influence of the U.S. of France. And at the same time, it allows them to make a grab for very valuable concessions of natural resources, which, while we don't have any estimates that I think are really reliable as to how much money the Russians are making in the Central African Republic, from timber, from gold, from diamonds, we know that it's certainly in the hundreds of millions. And we also know that it's being used to help foot the bill for the war in Ukraine. So it's sort of a no brainer for Russia. But I would say that it has been borne out of opportunism and improvising on the ground rather than some master overarching strategic plan.
Like, they saw a vacuum, so they went in.
So you mentioned the war in Ukraine. President Zelensky was here in the U.S. a few days ago on a whirlwind tour at the United Nations at the White House capital. Can you give us a battlefield progress report, though, in Ukraine? Like how is the counteroffensive going?
It is a slow grind. Progress is being made. It is real progress, but it is incremental and there is a very high rate of attrition. The hope, I think, for the Ukrainians had been that they would reach the city called Melitopol and then ultimately really get closer to Crimea and be able to put more pressure there. But that at the moment seems like a pretty distant prospect. And another thing to take into consideration is that we're heading into the fall and this is the season Rasputiza, as it's called, where there's heavy rains, where there's a lot of mud, and where it will be hard going for those Ukrainian forces on the ground to keep on pushing. The worry is, I think, for the Ukrainians, what if the world starts to lose interest? What if the U.S. no longer wants to foot the bill in the same way that they have been up until this point and what.
Desn't seem like all Republicans are on board with that in Washington?
Exactly. And I think they understand that they might come under more pressure if they can't deliver quicker results to resolve this thing at the negotiating table.
And I am aware of their attempts to make some shady dealings behind the scenes. Evil cannot be trusted. Ask Prigozhin if one bets on Putin's promises.
And as Zelensky said in his speech to the U.N. yesterday, the negotiating table for the Ukrainians is something of a nonstarter right now because look at Prigozhin. He thought he had a deal and we all saw how that ended.
Hmm. Thank you, Clarissa. Appreciate it.
One Thing is a production of CNN Audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz and me David Rind. Matt Dempsey is our production manager. Faiz Jamil is our senior producer. Greg Peppers is our supervising producer. And Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of CNN Audio. Special thanks this week to Brent Swails. And thank you for listening. We'll be back next Sunday. Talk to you then.