A front company for the Russian mercenary group Wagner acquired tens of thousands of protective helmets from China late last year, at the same time as the group’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was raising a vast prisoner army to attack Ukraine.
The Financial Times has found that entities used by the warlord to equip his operations in Africa have continued to export and import items freely across international markets despite a barrage of western sanctions intended to stop a private army designated as a “transnational crime organisation” by the US.
A Wagner-connected, Russia-based company called Broker Expert bought 20,000 polymer-based helmets from a small Chinese company called Hangzhou Shinerain Import And Export Co in November and December last year, according to customs declarations analysed by the FT, and interviews. The Chinese group claimed they were for “gaming use”.
The purchase of the helmets, split over four shipments for a declared value of just over $2mn, came as Prigozhin was recruiting tens of thousands of Russian convicts to send to the front line in Ukraine.
Since then a large number of these Wagner forces have died in a brutal war of attrition to seize control of the city of Bakhmut, with the US estimating recently that more than 20,000 Russian fighters had been killed in Ukraine since December.
The FT also found that Broker Expert has continued to ship items to Wagner operations in Africa through the port of Douala in Cameroon during the invasion. This underlines the apparent inability of western sanctions — which include measures such as asset freezes and bars on accessing funds — to choke off the mercenary group’s ability to finance itself from Prigozhin’s overseas natural resources operations.
According to Russian customs declarations, Broker Expert last August shipped power generators, welding electrodes and fireproof insulation materials to a Prigozhin-controlled logging company in the Central African Republic. The US said in January that Wagner fighters in CAR had engaged in crimes including “mass summary executions, rape, arbitrary detention, torture, and displacement of civilians”.
“That Prigozhin is still able to field armed contractors in Ukraine and at least three African countries, buy equipment from China, and smuggle resources show how resilient of a network he’s built,” said Marcel Plichta, a research fellow at the Centre for Global Law and Governance at the University of St Andrews.
The US estimated in December that Wagner had recruited 40,000 convicts to fight in Ukraine. Wagner unsuccessfully asked China for supplies of weapons at the start of this year, according to a leaked US intelligence report. Prigozhin said in February that Wagner had stopped recruiting prisoners.
Broker Expert’s Chinese supplier, Hangzhou Shinerain, is based in the eastern province of Zhejiang and has between five and 15 employees, according to its Alibaba page. It normally sells women’s clothing, meaning the shipment of protective headgear to Russia does not appear to be in its regular pattern of business.
“We are a private company and don’t get involved with national affairs or military issues, and obey the law. We produced helmets for gaming use,” said the company, adding that the helmets would have little protective use on the battleground. The Russian import declaration for the helmets states they are “not for military use”.
The Chinese group said it had no knowledge of Prigozhin or Wagner Group, or anything about Broker Expert’s connections with Wagner. “We simply meet the orders that we get in, and we obey the law, we wouldn’t ship anything illegal.” It declined to explain what was meant by “gaming use” or send photos of the helmets to the FT.
CNN reported in January that western intelligence officials were concerned about Chinese companies supplying non-lethal equipment such as flak jackets and helmets to Russia, but that it was unclear whether China’s central government was aware of the sales. Private Chinese companies are not obliged to follow western sanctions, and imports from China have surged over the past year as Russian companies seek alternatives to western suppliers.
Broker Expert’s large purchase from China during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was its first declared import into the country since 2017, according to commercially available customs data.
The company, which did not respond to a request for comment, says on its website that it supplies equipment for geological surveys, industrial extraction and construction. It is not directly controlled by Prigozhin but shares an obscure auditor with Wagner front companies under 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, Broker Expert, which has not been placed under sanctions by any western government, has regularly shipped equipment from Russia to companies in Sudan and CAR on which the US has imposed sanctions for being fronts for Wagner mercenary activity.
The FT reported earlier this year that Prigozhin generated more than a quarter of a billion dollars in revenues from his overseas natural resources empire in the four years before Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, despite western sanctions.
“For the UK, US, France and others the news that Prigozhin’s enterprises are still going strong after all these measures highlights the need for co-operating with as many African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries as possible to restrict his access to global markets,” said Plichta.