A trove of leaked classified Pentagon documents highlight US anxieties over growing Chinese and Russian influence in Latin America and Africa. Among the details are references to Russian mercenary group Wagner exploring a contract to fight criminal gangs in Haiti, and a Chinese company negotiating to build a deep water port in Nicaragua.
One US military document describes a sweeping propaganda plan by Russian intelligence to shape public opinion in Africa, including peddling conspiracy theories about US biological labs with the goal of “realigning” African countries with Russia.
Another document mentions Russian support for a Brazilian effort to establish a group of “supposedly impartial” countries to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine.
The documents shed new light on a global struggle between the US and its adversaries to win over public opinion in the developing world – a contest that has accelerated since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
The documents – many of which appear to be produced by the intelligence arm of the US Joint Staff, the Pentagon’s most senior uniformed leadership – were posted to social media platform Discord over a month ago and have prompted the Pentagon and Justice Department to open investigations. It’s unclear who was behind the leak.
Senior Biden administration officials have expressed concern about Russian and Chinese influence in Africa and elsewhere, which can take the form of arms sales, infrastructure projects or media campaigns.
In a March trip to Africa meant to boost US support for the continent in the face of Chinese and Russian influence, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Wagner Group of fueling violence and unrest in Africa.
“Where Wagner’s been present, bad things inevitably follow,” Blinken said on a visit to the West African country of Niger.
Chipping away at Western influence
Russia has longstanding security and military relationships with some African countries that date back to Soviet times, said Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, director of the Africa Program at the Center for International and Strategic Studies. But Russian proxies like Wagner Group have made a push in recent years to fill security gaps in war-torn countries such as the Central African Republic (CAR), Dizolele said.
“This is happening in the context of Russia trying to carve its own sphere of influence in Africa,” he told CNN.
Though many Americans may have not heard of the Central African Republic – a landlocked country of about 5.5 million – it’s one of numerous poor or developing countries where Russia or China has tried to chip away at Western influence in recent years.
Another of the leaked documents indicates that a Wagner Group employee named Vitaliy Perfilyev pitched officials in the Central African Republic on an anti-US media campaign to counter a reported US plan to oust Wagner from that country. A 2019 CNNTA investigation found that Russia’s drive for influence in the CAR is financed by a Wagner-controlled investment fund that bankrolls propaganda and trains army recruits.
US worries about Wagner feature elsewhere in the documents.
As of late February, Wagner associates planned to “discreetly travel to Haiti” to assess potential contracts with the Haitian government to fight criminal gangs that have paralyzed the Caribbean country, one of the US intelligence assessments says.
The geopolitical consequences of Russia’s attack on Ukraine are another throughline in the leaked documents.
Nicaragua still views Russia as its “primary security partner,” but has “expanded its defense ties” with China since the Ukraine war, reads another leaked US document.
China “has no stated aspirations” for military access in Nicaragua, but the Nicaraguan government “probably would consider offering” Beijing naval access in exchange for Chinese economic investment, the document says.