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According to a document acquired by AFP, the Russian mercenary outfit Wagner inked a contract with a Chinese firm in 2022 to purchase two satellites and use their photographs to strengthen its intelligence operations, as the organisation wanted to further Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The agreement was made more than six months into Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, when Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner group, was playing a crucial role on the front lines.
According to a European security source, the satellite photos were also used to support Wagner’s operations in Africa and even its failed rebellion in June, which eventually led to the de facto dissolution of the group and the deaths of Prigozhin and other important figures in an air crash in August.
What was the contract with the Chinese firm?
According to the contract, which was signed on November 15, 2022, and was written in both English and Russian, Nika-Frut, a company that was then a part of Prigozhin’s business empire, purchased two high-resolution observation satellites from Beijing Yunze Technology Co. Ltd., which belonged to the Chinese space giant Chang Guang Satellite Technology (CGST). Two Chinese satellites, JL-1 GF03D 12 and JL-1 GF03D 13, are in orbit at a height of 535 kilometers above the Earth. The satellites and extra services cost more than $30 million (235 million yuan).
According to the European security source who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, the contract also calls for the provision of images upon request, which allowed Wagner to obtain satellite images of both Ukraine and the African nations where its mercenaries were operating, including Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Mali.
This source claims that around the end of May 2023, Wagner even ordered photographs of Russian territory all along the path between the Ukrainian border and Moscow, which were taken by Wagner’s men at the end of June during the brief mutiny.
Within a day, the rebellion was put down, officially severing ties between Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, ordering images of Russian land is not included in the contract, and AFP was unable to independently authenticate the supply of such images.
Moreover, there have been media stories claiming that Western intelligence services, particularly those in France and the United States, received information about the impending mutiny before it actually occurred.
Wagner has received the opportunity to submit bids for more satellite pictures from the network operated by the Chinese operator CGST, which now has about 100 satellites and plans to have 300 by 2025. The deal with the Chinese firm was still in effect, according to the European security source.
Response and Reaction in Global order
When asked to comment on the contract, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry stated that he was unaware of the circumstances and further stated that China would always approach relevant export issues with caution and responsibility and strictly adhere to Chinese policies, laws, and international obligations.
The US Commerce Department announced on February 24 that Beijing Yunze Co. Technology and the satellite image broker Head Aerospace Technology would be added to its sanctions list, based on a decision of a multi-department commission. This action appears to indicate that Washington was already aware of Wagner’s access to Chinese satellite data.
Additionally, on April 12, the State Department announced sanctions against 80 organizations and people it claimed were still aiding and abetting Russian aggression. Among these targets was Head Aerospace Technology, which the State Department referred to as a “satellite image reseller that supplied satellite imagery of positions in Ukraine to entities associated with PMC Wagner and Yevgeny Prigozhin.”