A U.S. news crew went to the Central African Republic to investigate the activities of the powerful Russian-based mercenary group, Wagner. It’s been implicated in the death of three Russian journalists there and numerous other unsavory activities around the world.

Wagner is also known as “Putin’s private army.”

CNN’s chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, and her team ended up with damning evidence that Wagner has something it wants to hide.

Soon, Ward and her co-workers discovered they were being trailed by a group they later learned were Russian.

“We were being followed and filmed by someone surreptitiously, while standing in the hotel with my colleagues — standing outside the airport. That is unnerving,” Ward told WTOP.

The surveillance created a sobering sense of concern.

“We were in a small mining town outside of the capital [Bangui]. I don’t think any of us slept very well. Our security guy stayed up throughout the night watching the gates of this tiny motel that we were staying at,” Ward said.

The encounters were absolutely designed to harass and frighten them, but the crew later realized the primary objective was to discredit them.

A 15-minute video turned up on the internet, produced by a company linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a billionaire Russian oligarch and close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prighozhin was sanctioned by the U.S. Justice Department for his role in Moscow’s meddling campaign during the 2016 presidential election.

The video, Ward said, “was filled with lies, which I guess is not surprising, but they had actually managed to find people who claimed that we had bribed them to say bad things about the Russians.”

But in Ward’s story, it was a Russian saying bad things about the Russians.

His name is “Oleg.” He’s a former Wagner mercenary, and he sat down with Ward to spill the beans on the company, its connection to the Russian government and Moscow’s ultimate objective. Asked if Russia is trying to reassert itself as a superpower, he responded, “100%.”

“What he said that stayed with me was, ‘Russia is trying to get the better of the U.S. — to smash the U.S.,’” Ward remembered.

Moscow is no stranger to what’s commonly called “dark public relations.” It’s the practice of using questionable media tactics and sources to harass and ultimately discredit one’s rivals. They also deploy trolls to do it. Sometimes, they are used in tandem.

In 2017, at the Marrakesh Security Forum in Morocco, David Pollock, one of D.C.’s pre-eminent experts on the Middle East, confronted a Russian “scholar” who belittled the U.S. military and blamed the U.S. for Africa’s terrorism issues. Shortly thereafter, Pollock was the victim of a vicious trolling campaign.

Sergey Kostalyanets, a senior research fellow on African Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, took direct aim at the U.S. military’s Africa Command in front of the entire audience at the conference, saying it undermines Africa’s ability to find its own solutions to terrorism.

Pollock, the Kaufman fellow at The Washington Institute, took to the podium and systematically dismantled each claim Kostalyanets made, with a fact-based diatribe. Forty-eight hours later, Pollock had returned home only to be hit by a blistering robo-call attack that lasted more than 24 hours straight.

“It started probably about 7 a.m. and continued many hours after that. I was getting robocalls from Russia in Russian,” he said.

Some of the relentless callers left messages. “Sometimes, they hung up,” he said. “And sometimes, there was just noise after I answered.” For nearly an entire working day, Pollock said, “the calls were coming in so fast; I couldn’t block them or delete them until many hours went by.”

Americans are not the only targets.

Dutch daily newspaper Telegraaf reported for the first time on Aug. 9 that wives of Dutch F-16 pilots who patrolled Baltic air space were targeted in early 2017 by a nasty telephone harassment campaign. According to the paper, which spoke with Dutch Military Intelligence (MIVD), the pilots called home from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Shortly thereafter, their partners got the harassing phone calls — suggesting that the pilots’ calls were probably intercepted and that their phone numbers and the call destination were captured.

Moscow’s “Dark PR” campaign activities are a part of what U.S. intelligence officials recognize as a tool of hybrid warfare. That’s a military strategy that blends political warfare and conventional, irregular and cyber warfare with other elements of influence — including disinformation, diplomacy and foreign electoral intervention — to achieve its goals.

Moscow’s overarching objective appears to be to return to its Cold War-era glory. But corruption, the country’s economic decline and rising opposition to the Putin regime seem to suggest that is unlikely.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up