THESE days it is rarely out of the headlines. This past week alone, the United States has formally labelled the Wagner Group a “transnational criminal organisation”, unveiling a wave of sanctions against the Russian mercenary force.

Not that the Kremlin appears to much care about how Wagner is viewed from abroad.

On January 17, reports emerged that for the first time since its foundation in 2014 by Yevgeny Prigozhin – a close ally of Vladimir Putin – Wagner has appeared on Russian government databases as a legitimate entity.

To put this another way, Wagner, which is notorious for alleged war crimes in Ukraine and Syria, is now officially registered under the Russian Unified State Register of Legal Entities as a non-joint public stock company.

And there you have it, mercenaries posing as “management consultants”, under the trading name of “PMC Wagner Center.”

As you might expect, however, Wagner’s workings remain shadowy, with neither Prigozhin nor any of the militant commanders listed as shareholders in the new business model, hence the CEO has been named as Alexei Tensin – who previously headed the main production site of the Kalashnikov weapons manufacturer based in Izhevsk.

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Wagner’s makeover will do little to disguise the fact that it continues to function as a de facto part of the Russian state and military, given that it operates in support of Russian interests, receives military equipment from the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) and uses installations of the MoD for training.

For some time now, Wagner has been expanding, with many analysts saying that it is not just a criminal syndicate, but something more akin to a terrorist group.

“Like ISIS before it, Wagner engages in extreme violence and is now actively recruiting foreign fighters to join its armed campaigns in numerous countries across Europe, Africa and the Middle East,” say Justyna Gudzowska and Nathalia Dukhan who are part of the investigative and policy team at The Sentry WHICH reports on dirty money and those who benefit from violent conflict, repression and kleptocracy.

Writing recently in Politico magazine, both Sentry investigators highlighted the range and severity of Wagner’s activities.

“Mass murder, rape and torture; using terror to subjugate civilian populations; control of territory; looting of natural resources; enlistment of foreign fighters; sophisticated, Hollywood propaganda glorifying the groups and Russia,” and all of these, say The Sentry, present “much more of a global threat than the average criminal racket”.

Money, of course, remains a major motive for Wagner. The group’s recent costly siege of the Ukrainian town of Soledar, many say, was motivated by a desire to control salt and gypsum mines in the area. Much further afield, as part of Wagner’s nefarious global activities, recent reports suggest it’s the same story.

To give just a few examples in sub-Saharan Africa, over the past year Wagner’s profits from its involvement in mining in the Central African Republic (CAR) are estimated to be almost $1 billion. They are also said to have built up a lucrative business empire that includes a coffee roastery, while propping up CAR’s dictatorship and guarding diamond mines in the impoverished country.

On the other side of the continent, in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, meanwhile, there are reports that in return for helping fight jihadists, there Wagner has been given access to gold-mining by the country’s military authorities.

As reported by Foreign Policy magazine, speaking before the United Nations Security Council this month, James Kariuki, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the UN, warned of the “destabilising role the Wagner Group plays” in the Sahel, a conflict-ridden stretch of territory spanning western and north-central Africa, from Senegal to Sudan.

“They are part of the problem, not the solution,” Kariuki concluded.

The backdrop against which all of this needs to be seen, of course, is Russia’s war in Ukraine. For Wagner, it matters little how it achieves its intended aims on the battlefield there.

For months, while locked in a bloody battle of attrition to take the towns of Bakhmut and Soledar in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Wagner is said to have been using convicts as cannon fodder to overwhelm Ukraine’s defences.

But while the lives of others, as Wagner sees it, might come cheap, prosecuting a war still costs money and that’s where its lucrative global activities create a pipeline of funding for Russia’s war against Ukraine. This is where the real danger lies.


THE Israeli military was busy yesterday boosting its forces in the occupied West Bank after a Palestinian gunman shot dead seven people near a synagogue on the outskirts of the city.

The shooting, which was the deadliest in Jerusalem since 2008, took place on Holocaust Remembrance Day and on the Jewish Sabbath – Friday – and came a day after Israeli commandos killed nine Palestinians during a raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank which targeted militants from Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

As a journalist who has followed events in the region for many years, there is a depressing familiarity about these seemingly never-ending acts of violence. Nothing can excuse the shooting of those Israelis on Friday in what has rightly been called an act of terrorism.

But as ever, when viewing unfolding events and individual acts of violence in the region, it’s important also to keep an eye on the wider political backdrop and context.

The current flare-up is the first big clash since Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line new government, widely seen as the most right-wing in Israel’s history, took office in December with ultranationalists in critical security posts pledging to take a tougher stance against the Palestinians.

Seen from a Palestinians perspective, as far-right groups have grown stronger in the Israeli government, the occupation has looked even more entrenched. 

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Last year was the bloodiest for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2005, according to the UN, with Israeli forces killing 151 Palestinians in the territory after stepping up their activities there following a spate of attacks by Palestinians that began last spring and killed 31 Israelis in 2022. Against this backdrop, already there is talk of another – third – Palestinian uprising or Intifada

Observers say any number of incidents could act as the spark to set off the tinderbox that exists right now. It could, for example, be clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem.

It could be triggered by another Israeli war on Gaza, and this weekend Israeli jets were bombing the Palestinian coastal enclave overnight Friday in response to rocket fire from Gaza.

Another potential spark for an uprising could come in the shape of displacement of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank or a deadly Israeli raid into a Palestinian refugee camp.

Similar events were part of the first and second Intifadas, which tell us just how dangerous a moment this is right now.


This weekend, America is reeling from the harrowing video footage showing police beating Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, earlier this month. The injuries he sustained were so severe he later died, making for a terrible indictment of policing that night in Memphis.

That the images were caught on police bodycams made it all the more chilling. Even before the footage was released, demonstrations had begun on Friday, and Memphis leaders remain unsure as to how the community might still react.

The terrible incident in Memphis was just the latest to shock America which in the past days has also seen three mass shootings in a week. Speaking of the death of Nichols, US president Joe Biden said he was “outraged and deeply pained” after watching the video.
Shocking as all these events are, they serve to remind of those aspects of American society that appear broken.

They underscore how much the nation remains a brittle, fractious and sometimes volatile place, despite the many positive things that come out of the country. Perhaps nothing has defined the country’s differences and divisions more in recent times than the January 6, 2021, Capitol Hill riots following the defeat of then-US President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

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For many, Trump remains a divisive figure, but that has not stopped him from hitting the campaign trail this weekend for a whistle-stop tour of New Hampshire and South Carolina, two key early-voting states, as the former US president presses ahead with his as-yet uncontested bid for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2024.

As one political commentator observed a few days ago: “Trump is the Lazarus of presidential politics. Just when you think he’s tapped out, he returns from the political dead.”

But as the US political website The Hill pointed out on Friday: “Trump’s 2024 campaign has already had one notable failure right off the bat. It failed to establish his dominance or intimidate other possible contenders from coming forward, despite getting into the race at such an unusually early stage.”

Trump was quick off the mark, declaring his candidacy on November 15, exactly one week after the midterms, in a meandering speech at Mar-a-Lago. His current allies insist Trump is hitting the campaign trail with the wind in his sails.

But at the moment, he is the only one on the trail, with others such as former vice-president Mike Pence, former secretary ofsState Mike Pompeo and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley all obviously mulling their own White House runs.

For the moment, many Republicans are eager to move beyond the divisive politics and personality of Trump, despite having no clear alternative. Meanwhile, there remains the GOP’s vocal “Make America Great Again” wing, which has no cohesive agenda yet is quick to attack the status quo in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

As for Trump himself, he is already showing signs of his old attack-dog politics. Writing on his Truth Social online media platform this month, he said it was time to “take our country back from the evils and treachery of the Radical Left monsters who want to see America die.”

Time will tell whether his own party and the American people will once again fall for such divisive rhetoric.


It's a country that has all but been forgotten. In great part, that’s because access for international reporters and observers is so restricted. It’s almost two years ago now that the military took power in a coup in Myanmar, with a brutal crackdown on any dissent or opposition within the country once known as Burma.

So far, soldiers have killed almost 2800 people and arrested more than 17,400 in the crackdown on pro-democracy opponents. There have been death sentences for activists, some of them university students, and reports of extrajudicial executions.

Throughout that intervening period, Myanmar, one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations, has slid into an intractable civil war. A nationwide armed resistance movement has now emerged led by the underground National Unity Government.

Now, by announcing plans for an election later this year – on its own terms, of course – the military junta is gambling it can project just enough legitimacy to ease outside pressure from the international community.

But pressure or not, the one thing that the war has also impacted on is opium production. According to a recent UN report, opium cultivation in military-ruled Myanmar jumped 33% last year, reversing a six-year downward trend.

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Myanmar’s opium fields are in the north, many in the jungles of the so-called “Golden Triangle”. The eastern Shan State, which borders China, Thailand and Laos, saw the biggest increase in cultivation, at 39%.

The growth was “directly connected” to the political and economic turmoil in Myanmar since the military took power in a coup nearly two years ago, an official at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said.

“This all about poverty,” said Jeremy Douglas of the UNODC. “A lot of people left opium farming… It’s not a desirable form of employment, but those employment opportunities are now gone as a result of the situation in the country.”

To garner data, the UN report primarily used satellite data to determine cultivated areas. While poverty might be rife in the country, few doubt the junta will benefit from the opium boom.

This, after all, is a source of big money, with the value of opium produced annually in Myanmar reaching up to $2 billion, with much of the drug smuggled out to neighbouring countries and on to the global market.

As many international officials have warned, it’s time to really start paying attention again to what is happening in Myanmar.