By Gigi Lee and Fong Tak Ho
The Russian private military company Wagner Group, which made headlines over the weekend by starting to march on Moscow amid an apparent dispute with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has longstanding ties to Hong Kong, records show.
Public domain information shows that its predecessor, the Slavonic Corps, was founded in the city by two employees of the Russian private security firm Moran Security.
And Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch-turned-military leader known as “Putin’s chef,” has raised funds for at least some of his ventures in the city, via a number of Hong Kong-registered companies held by several affiliated parent companies, according to a survey of public records carried out by RFA Cantonese.
The Wagner crisis comes amid growing concern over the use of Hong Kong as a domicile for a growing number of shell companies hiding illicit operations following the 2018 arrest in Canada of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou for alleged business dealings with sanctioned Iranian companies.
Hong Kong has also been used by the ruling Communist Party’s financial and political elite as both a haven and channel for its private wealth, with top Chinese leaders and their families owning luxury property in the city.
The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and other studies have detailed how the Corps’ first deployment – to Syria in 2013 – ended in disaster due to supply and logistical problems at Deir al-Zour, after which it was disbanded.
Along with the Russian opposition-backed Dossier Center, CSIS describes Wagner as an unofficial Russian army with operations in Ukraine, Syria and Africa in recent years.
However, affiliated companies remained in existence in Hong Kong until 2020, when they were named and sanctioned by the United States.
Research has shown that Wagner Group doesn’t actually exist as a legal corporate entity, yet until last weekend, it enjoyed the full support of the Kremlin, according to the CSIS.
Yet the group’s affiliates have longstanding ties to Hong Kong and mainland China.
Customs records show that these companies have had frequent transactions with Russian companies over the past 10 years, and reveal a network of Russian financial dealings criss-crossing Hong Kong and mainland China.
Wagner’s predecessor, the Slavonic Corps, is typically reported as having been founded in 2013, but a search of Hong Kong’s Companies Registry showed it was established in 2012, with the founder named on the record as “Vadim Gusev, deputy director of Moran.”
Another board member is named as Sergei Kramskoi, another former Moran employee.
In early 2013, the Slavonic Corps placed a recruitment ad on several Moscow military websites, successfully recruiting 267 people, some of whom were military veterans, including one Dmitry Utkin, a former high-ranking officer of the Russian intelligence special ops forces, Spetsnaz GRU.
Dmitry Utkin later used the call sign “Wagner,” sparking speculation that he founded the group from the ashes of the Slavonic Corps.
An investigation by RFA Cantonese found a copy of the advertisement, which shows a Hong Kong address for the company in an office building at 1 Duddell Street, Central.
However, the company’s 2013 and 2014 annual reports show the company address as being in New Trade Plaza, Shatin. Few contact details are given other than an email address.
At the end of the same year, the Slavonic Corps started operating under the name Wagner. It took part in the annexation of Crimea the following year, including attacks on Ukraine.
The company registration in Hong Kong remained unaffected, and it wasn’t until 2021 that it was officially deleted and dissolved by the Hong Kong Government Companies Registry, because it was believed not to have been operating for several years.
By July 2020, the US Department of Defense had accused the Russian government of running a huge mining operation in Tripoli through Wagner, bankrolling the now-fallen dictatorship in Sudan and exacerbating the Libyan conflict.
The resulting sanctions targeted Wagner and Prigozhin, along with various companies in Hong Kong and Thailand that U.S. officials said had helped Prigozhin conduct 100 transactions worth a total of U.S.$7.5 million between 2018 and 2019.
According to the U.S. Treasury, the list of sanctioned companies included three Hong Kong-registered companies: Shen Yang Jing Cheng Machinery Imp & Exp Co. Ltd (formerly Anying Group Ltd); Shine Dragon Group Ltd and Zhe Jiang Jiayi Small Commodities Trade Co. Ltd, all of which were held and managed by Russian businessman Igor Valerievich Lavrenkov, acting as an intermediary.
The address given in the Hong Kong Companies Registry for all three companies was “Chaoyang, China.”
In its July 15, 2020 statement announcing the sanctions, the Treasury described Prigozhin as the financier of Wagner, “a designated Russian Ministry of Defense proxy force.”
“Wagner’s activities in other countries, including Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, and Libya, have generated insecurity and incited violence against innocent civilians,” the Treasury said.
The three companies had “facilitated transactions … [that] supported [Prigozhin’s] activities in Sudan and maintenance of his private aircraft,” it said.
“Shine Dragon Group Limited, Shen Yang Jing Cheng Machinery Imp&Exp. Co., Zhe Jiang Jiayi Small Commodities Trade Company Limited, and Lavrenkov are being designated for having materially assisted Prigozhin,” the statement said.
All three companies were founded in 2009 and dissolved between 2021 and 2022, according to Hong Kong company records.
The U.S. customs trade data platform Import Genius shows that Shen Yang Jing Cheng mostly served Russian clients, exporting some 50 tons of oil-drilling and pipeline equipment on five occasions to several different Russian companies between 2014 and 2017.
Zhe Jiang Jiayi Small Commodities shipped more than 7,000 tons of plastic products and parts to at least 10 Russian companies over a 10-year period; the two companies report that most of their products are sourced from China.
According to the U.S. Treasury, Lavrenkov set up another company in Hong Kong in 2012 called SD Airport Security Systems Ltd, using a different passport, but the registration was suddenly withdrawn in January 2017.
According to “Import Genius”, a company using the same name repeatedly shipped metal detectors, X-ray detectors and related parts to the same Russian company in May 2015.