When anti-government protests erupted in Sudan in December 2018, then President Omar al-Bashir resorted to oppression and violence to quell the protests that have left dozens dead. He also resorted to spreading misleading information through social media, accusing Israel of stoking the unrest.
In a surprise twist, the Sudanese government did not come up with such a strategy, revealed documents seen by CNN. They were in fact drawn up by a Russian company linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with close ties to the Kremlin.
Multiple government and military sources in Khartoum have confirmed to CNN that Bashir's government received the proposals and began to act on them, before Bashir was deposed in a coup earlier this month.
One official of the former regime said Russian advisers monitored the protests and began devising a plan to counter them with what he called "minimal but acceptable loss of life."
The documents seen by CNN, which include letters and internal company communications, are among several thousand obtained and investigated by the London-based Dossier Center, run by exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
The Dossier Center receives data, documents and other information from a variety of sources, often anonymous, and shares them with journalists. Khodorkovsky ran afoul of President Vladimir Putin after alleging widespread corruption in Russia and spent several years in prison for alleged tax fraud -- which he has always denied.
CNN has assessed the documents to be credible. They are also consistent with the accounts of witnesses who say Russian observers were seen at the recent protests in Sudan.
What the documents reveal
The documents seen by CNN originate from a St. Petersburg-based company, M-Invest, which has an office in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. M-Invest lists as its core business the "extraction of ores and sands of precious metals." As CNN has previously reported, the company was granted concessions for a gold mine in Sudan.
According to the documents reviewed by CNN, M-Invest drew up a plan to discredit and suppress those protests.
It suggested the government "simulate a dialogue with the opposition and demonstrate the openness of the government" in order to "isolate leaders of the protest and gain time."
M-Invest proposed ways to make the government look good -- through widely publicized "free distribution of bread, flour, grain, food."
But most of its focus was on the protests. It recommended fabricating evidence "of arson by protesters against mosques, hospitals and nurseries, [and] stealing grain from the public store."
It also suggested blaming the West for the protests and using "extensive media coverage of the interrogation of detainees, where they admit they arrived to organize civil war in Sudan." And it even proposed "public executions of looters and other spectacular events to distract the protest-minded audience."
One document from early January, reviewed by CNN, proposes spreading claims that protesters were attacking mosques and hospitals. It also suggested creating an image of demonstrators as "enemies of Islam and traditional values" by planting LGBT flags among them. And it proposed a social media campaign claiming that "Israel supports the protesters."
CNN made multiple efforts to reach M-Invest. Its phone number in St. Petersburg did not work. An Arabic speaker answered a call to its office in Khartoum but hung up. CNN visited the address but was told the space was leased to a Russian company called Mir Gold.
Prigozhin -- known as "Putin's chef" for the catering contracts he held with the Kremlin -- was one of 13 Russians charged as part of the investigation into Russian election interference by US special counsel Robert Mueller. The US alleges that fictitious social media sites were set up to polarize voters with inflammatory and, in some cases, fake information.
Prigozhin has denied any involvement in election meddling, and has denied any connection to the Internet Research Agency. Calls to his main company, Concord Management and Consulting, went unanswered.
The documents reviewed by CNN do not indicate that official Russian security agencies were directly involved in trying to suppress the protests in Sudan.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova said at a press briefing in January: "We are informed that some employees of Russian private security firms, who have no relation to the Russian government authorities, are indeed working in Sudan. But their functions are limited to personnel training."
Time starts to run out
Sources in Khartoum have told CNN that Bashir's government did try to begin implementing some of M-Invest's plans.
For example, it began detaining students from the Darfur region and accused them of trying to foment civil war -- one of the ploys recommended by M-Invest. The sources say Russian advisers from a private company were placed in several ministries and the National Intelligence Service.
But it was too little, too late.
In a letter to Bashir, drafted on March 17, Prigozhin complained that the Sudanese government's "inaction" had "provoked the intensification of the crisis." And he added, with unknowing prescience: "The lack of active steps by the new government to overcome the crisis is likely to lead to even more serious political consequences."
Another letter from Prigozhin, dated April 6, praised the longtime Sudanese ruler as a "wise and far-sighted leader" but urged immediate economic reforms to solve the crisis.
Five days later, Bashir was deposed.
The military dimension
Sudan is a resource-rich nation which has borders with seven other countries. Its Red Sea coast was of particular interest to Moscow, because of recent moves by the United States and China to establish a military presence in the region. Moscow has been eyeing the development of a naval base at Port Sudan.
Again, M-Invest was involved. In June 2018, it drafted a letter on behalf of Sudan's Military Industrial Corporation to push closer military links. It mentions a visit the previous month by the deputy commander of the Russian navy, Lt. Gen. Oleg Makarevich, which had discussed "the possibility of creating on the territory of the Republic of Sudan point of logistics ships of The Russian Navy."
The letter is addressed to Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian armed forces. Gerasimov is credited with promoting the use of alternative measures to military force -- including political and economic levers as well as influencing public opinion through social media -- to destabilize adversaries.
Yevgeny Prigozhin has been a pioneer and partner in Russia's hybrid strategy. Not only was the Internet Research Agency connected to his company Concord Management; he was also linked to a company, Evro Polis, which secured oil exploration rights in Syria.
At the time, fighters of a company called Wagner, a private military contractor were also operating in Syria. As CNN has previously reported, Wagner is led by Dmitry Utkin, who is under US sanctions for assisting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Utkin has long been close to Prigozhin's inner circle
Prigozhin's sprawling business empire is difficult to unravel. But the mining concession on behalf of M-Invest in Sudan was signed by a director named Mikhail Potepkin. A man of the same name also co-owned a company called IT-Debugger with Anna Bogacheva, one of those named in Mueller's indictment of 13 Russians as working for the Internet Research Agency.
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