Chinese Firm’s Satellite Deal with Russian Wagner Group Exposed

Chinese tech company collaborated with Russian mercenaries, providing them with spy satellites, raising questions about international espionage.

Russian police officers patrol near the PMC Wagner Centre in Saint Petersburg on June 24, 2023. (Photo by Olga MALTSEVA / AFP)
Russian police officers patrol near the PMC Wagner Centre in Saint Petersburg on June 24, 2023. (Photo by Olga MALTSEVA / AFP)

Moscow, October 5, 2023 – Russian mercenary organization, the Wagner Group, entered into a clandestine contract with a Chinese technology firm in 2022 to procure two satellites, which were subsequently employed to support their intelligence operations during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This revelation has sparked concerns about the extent of international espionage and cooperation between private military groups and tech companies.

The contract, dated November 15, 2022, was signed over six months after the commencement of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, during which the Wagner Group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, played a significant role on the battlefield.

These satellites were not solely utilized for the Ukrainian conflict; they also contributed to the Wagner Group’s operations in Africa. Notably, these satellites played a role in their ill-fated mutiny in June, which ultimately led to the group’s disintegration following the death of Prigozhin and other key figures in an August air crash. European security sources have confirmed these developments.

The contract, available in both English and Russian, detailed the sale of two high-resolution observation satellites by Beijing Yunze Technology Co Ltd to Nika-Frut, a company that was once a part of Prigozhin’s business empire. The total cost of this transaction exceeded $30 million.

The contract additionally allowed for on-demand satellite imagery, enabling the Wagner Group to acquire pictures of both Ukraine and various African regions where their mercenaries were active, including Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Mali.

According to sources, Wagner even requested images of Russian territory in May 2023, along the route between the Ukrainian border and Moscow, which had been seized by Wagner’s forces at the end of June during the short-lived mutiny. However, the contract does not explicitly mention ordering images of Russian territory, and independent verification of this claim remains pending.

Western intelligence services, including those in France and the United States, reportedly had prior knowledge of the mutiny before it occurred. This raises questions about how intelligence agencies monitored the activities of private military groups.

The European security source asserts that the contract with the Chinese firm is still in effect. It provided for the acquisition of two Chinese satellites, JL-1 GF03D 12 and JL-1 GF03D 13, currently orbiting at an altitude of 535 kilometers above the Earth. This contract also granted Wagner the right to bid on other satellite images from the network operated by the Chinese firm CGST.

Gregory Falco, an aerospace researcher at Cornell University, noted that Wagner’s reliance on Chinese technology highlights Russia’s limitations in the satellite sector, despite its historical reputation as a space power. He emphasized that Russia lacks the capabilities demonstrated by China in this domain.

In response to inquiries about the contract, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson expressed unawareness of the situation and emphasized China’s commitment to responsible export practices.

The supply of Chinese satellite data to the Wagner Group was already known to Washington, prompting the U.S. Commerce Department to impose sanctions on Beijing Yunze Co. Technology and the satellite image broker Head Aerospace Technology. These actions were based on the companies’ contributions to Russia’s military and defense industrial base, contrary to U.S. national security interests.

The contract on the Russian side was signed by Ivan Mechetin, the general director of Nika-Frut, a subsidiary of the Concord group previously led by Prigozhin. Mechetin’s past involvement with a unit of the Russian army responsible for material support for military forces, including the supply of weapons and ammunition to Russian military intelligence during the 2014 Crimea invasion, has raised questions about the nature of his role in these operations.

While the extent of the Chinese leadership’s awareness of Wagner’s interest in satellite images of Russian territory remains uncertain, experts debate the level of centralization in China and its implications for such operations.

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This revelation underscores the intricate web of international cooperation, espionage, and the evolving role of technology in modern conflicts.

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