A subsidiary of Russia’s Wagner Group acquired tens of thousands of protective helmets from China late last year, as entities linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin continue to circumvent Western sanctions.
The Financial Times revealed that the entities that the Russian “warlord” used to equip his operations in Africa continued to freely export and import various materials through international markets, despite the wide Western sanctions aimed at stopping support for the forces that Washington classified as ” transnational criminal organization.
Wagner’s Broker Expert bought 20,000 polymer helmets from a small Chinese company between November and December last year, according to Russian customs data analyzed by the Financial Times.
Prigozhin, in an audio message sent via his catering group, told the Financial Times he had “never heard of the name of the company” involved in buying the helmets.
The signing of the deal for the helmets, which was divided into four shipments with a declared value of just over $2m, coincided with the time when Prigozhin was recruiting tens of thousands of convicts in Russian prisons to send to the front line in Ukraine.
Since then, the British newspaper says, a large number of Wagner’s forces have been killed in a brutal war of attrition to control the city of Bakhmut, where the United States recently estimated that more than 20,000 Russian fighters have been killed in Ukraine since December.
The Financial Times revealed that Broker Expert continued to supply and support Wagner’s operations in Africa via the port of Douala in Cameroon during the invasion.
According to data from the Russian Customs Administration, last August, the aforementioned company shipped power generators, welding electrodes and fire-resistant insulation materials to a subsidiary of Prigozhin in the Central African Republic.
Last January, the United States said that Wagner fighters in this African country had been involved in crimes including “mass executions, rape, arbitrary detention and torture, and the displacement of civilians.”
Marcel Plecha, research fellow at the Center for Global Law at the University of St Andrews, says Prigozhin “is still able to employ armed contractors in Ukraine and at least three African countries, and to purchase equipment from China, which shows how resilient the network he has built.”
Hangzhou Shinrain, Broker Expert’s Chinese supplier, is headquartered in eastern Zhejiang Province and has between five and 15 employees, according to an Alibaba page.
The company usually specializes in selling women’s clothing, which means that shipping helmets to Russia “doesn’t seem to be part of its normal business model”, according to the newspaper.
In response to the Financial Times’ inquiries, the company said, “We are a private company and do not interfere in national affairs or military issues, and we abide by the law,” adding, “We made helmets to be used in the field of games.” It also revealed that using this type of helmet on the battlefield will not provide protection. strong.
The Chinese group said that it had no knowledge of Prigozhin or the Wagner Group, or any data on the latter’s links to the “Broker” company, while it refused to explain what was meant by “using helmets for games” or to send its pictures to the newspaper.
CNN reported in January that Western intelligence officials were concerned that Chinese companies were supplying equipment such as bulletproof vests and helmets to Russia, but it was not clear whether the Chinese central government was aware of the sales, as Western sanctions do not apply to Russia. Chinese companies.
While Chinese imports have skyrocketed over the past year as Russian companies look for alternatives to Western suppliers, the helmet deal that Broker Expert conducted from China during Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine was the first announced transaction between the two parties since 2017, according to customs data.
The Russian company, which did not respond to a request for comment by the newspaper, said it provides equipment for geological surveys, industrial extraction and construction, according to its website.
Prigozhin does not directly control the company, but it shares a “mysterious auditor” with some of Wagner’s front companies that are subject to US sanctions in Syria, Sudan and the Central African Republic, as well as with his mother’s art gallery in St. Petersburg.
Over the past four years, the company, which has not been sanctioned by any Western government, has regularly shipped equipment from Russia to companies in Sudan and the Central African Republic sanctioned by the United States for providing fronts for Wagner mercenary activity.
The Financial Times reported weeks ago that Prigozhin made more than a quarter of a billion dollars in revenue from his offshore natural resources empire in the four years leading up to Moscow’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, despite Western sanctions.
In this context, the researcher at the University of St Andrews says, “For the UK, the US, France and others, the news that Prigogine companies are still strong after all these measures and sanctions, reveals the need to cooperate with as many African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries as possible. order to restrict its access to global markets.