'Join Wagner' website bears telltale signs of Russian propaganda
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Pictures taken out of context, a fake map and enticing visuals: a website that went online in November and bills itself as a recruitment platform for the Russian paramilitary group Wagner seems – at first glance – to be a scam. But a closer look at some of the site's elements suggests that its links to the mercenary group are more concrete than they appear. And it may be part of a larger propaganda initiative.
The website only has one main page, with text in both English and French.
A striking image proclaims "JOIN WAGNER" in English, imploring visitors to "protect the peace and tranquillity of civilians from bandits and terrorists". The site also features a map and an online form you can fill out.
The page is mysterious, to say the least. According to the site’s “WHOIS” – a widely used Internet record listing that identifies who owns a domain – join-wagner.com was created on November 16, 2021. The site administrator also added a location: Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.
It’s not a secret that there are mercenaries from the Wagner Group operating in the Central African Republic. While local authorities (and Russia) say that the people on the ground are just training local soldiers, the United Nations has urged CAR to cut ties with the group. Media outlets and NGOs have reported numerous acts of violence thought to have been carried out by the paramilitary group.
A questionable map
When the site was first put online in November 2021, there was no map on the homepage – it was added on December 13, 2021. The map, which shows Africa and part of the Middle East, apparently shows where Wagner mercenaries have been stationed and how many of them are in each location.
“Up to 50,000 in total, up to 200,000 in reserve,” says the site. Though no one is sure how many people Wagner employs worldwide, these numbers are certainly hugely inflated. In December 2021, the SBU (the Ukrainian intelligence services) and the Ukrainian Center of Analytics and Security (UCAS) identified 4,184 Wagner mercenaries, living or dead, who have operated around the globe.
The SBU estimate is surely lower than the reality, but also very far from the 250,000 operatives mentioned on the map. According to the map, there are Russian paramilitary groups operating in Algeria, Mauritania, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Botswana. But, as of yet, no evidence has emerged of mercenaries operating in these zones. It is clear, however, that Wagner is operating in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and, now, Mali.
Published in the Central African Republic, picked up by pro-Wagner sites
Our team ran a reverse image search with the map to determine if it appeared online prior to being published on join-wagner.com, with no luck. According to the site's index, which is openly accessible, the map was published online on December 13, 2021 at 10:14am UTC. Less than three hours later, at 1pm (or 4pm in Moscow, which is UTC + 3) the map was picked up and shared by media outlets with close links to the head of the Wagner Group.
Colin Gérard, a researcher at French research institute GEODE and the author of a thesis about the Russian strategy for information and influence, mapped out the virtual journey of this map back in December 2021. After appearing on the site "join-wagner.com", the map was picked up by several media outlets with close links to the founder of Wagner. When contacted, he told our team:
The map was picked up by several Russian media outlets, some with close ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin [Editor’s note: the man who heads up the Wagner Group]. One of the outlets that picked up the map was Vek, which often covers speeches made by Prigozhin or Maxim Shugaley [Editor’s note: a businessman with close ties to Prigozhin].
This fake map was also picked up by the site "dni.ru". They also claimed to have spoken with the founders of "join-wagner", who they alleged were Ivorian nationals attempting to recruit for Wagner. But what interested me the most is that all of the Russian media outlets said that "join-wagner.com" was an African site, even though it doesn’t say anywhere on the site that it is based in Africa.
The fact that the Join-Wagner site published a map, which was picked up soon after by pro-Wagner information channels and media outlets makes it likely that the site was created by people with connections to the group’s traditional contacts. The article on the site "dni.ru" says that Wagner has become "a strong symbol" of "the idea of peace and security” in Africa and that Russians are “always welcome” in Africa.
Colin Gérard continued:
There are lots of little clues that make it likely that the Join-Wagner site is a mini operation carried out by the wider Prigozhin ecosystem. It’s always complicated to figure out exactly who is behind these actions, but this isn’t the first time that I have seen these media outlets act as information channels serving Prigozhin’s interests.
Generally, a propaganda effort like this is carried out to support some kind of political action. That’s the case in the Central African Republic with Lobaye Invest, a mining company owned by Prigozhin. This company sponsors the Central African Radio station Lengo Songo. Sometimes content from Lengo Songo is then republished in Russian by RIA FAN [Editor's note: part of the Patriot Group, owned by Prigozhin].
It's happened before, where different sites pick up and relay the same piece of information or false information in a short amount of time. In general, when there are rumours or information that come from sites connected to Prigozhin, they are usually picked up by the sites connected to the Patriot Group in the following hours.
One concrete example of fake information being shared has to do with a photo alleged to show Wagner mercenaries training Malian soldiers. In reality, these photos were taken in the Central African Republic, as we explained in a previous article. However, this fake news story was picked up by the media outlet Vek, which also shared the Join-Wagner map.
>> Read more on The Observers: Doubt cast on photos alleged to show Wagner mercenaries training Malian soldiers
The visuals used by join-wagner.com are also very interesting. A version of the site archived on December 9, 2021 features a photo montage that says “Wagner, always on the good side” in English and an image of an armed man with a child holding on to his leg as if seeking his protection.
This image was first posted in February 2021 on the Telegram channel called "Reverse Side of the Medal", which has more than 63,000 followers. This channel regularly shares documents and information about the Wagner Group and is clearly supportive of their activities. The visual is part of a series of about a dozen other photomontages that were shared within the Telegram group at the same time. All of the images have the same aesthetic – an armed soldier, hidden in the shadows, standing in front of a fiery backdrop. Some of these images have since been screen printed on t-shirts and worn by both civilians and army recruits in the Central African Republic.
The image that was on join-wagner.com, showing a soldier with a child holding onto his leg, actually shows a statue. There are two versions of the same statue, one in Russia and another in Syria.
According to Radio Free Europe, the Russian statue was put up to honour “Russian volunteers” in Ukraine. The statue in Syria was meant to honour mercenaries from the Wagner Group who died in the country.
The statue in Syria features a cross that you find on medals given to Russian volunteers in Syria.
Photos taken out of context
The website also features many photos, which you can find and download from the page's source code. It turns out none of these photos are originals. They were all picked up elsewhere on the internet. Some of them don’t even have a direct link to the Wagner Group.
Some of these images actually show Russian special forces in Syria. Many are from the operation to retake the city of Palmyra from the Islamic State organisation in 2017.
Three other photos do, however, seem to show Russian mercenaries – though they are all also from 2017. Jack Margolin, a researcher at C4ADS, a research centre that analyses conflicts around the world, posted these photos on Twitter on September 16, 2021, calling them, "Alleged photos of Russian PMCs at Akerbat, Syria in 2017".
Alleged photos of Russian PMCs at Akerbat, Syria in 2017. Note mine detection equipment.— Jack Margolin (@Jack_Mrgln) September 16, 2021
Russian military officials commented on Russia’s involvement in this offensive at the time. https://t.co/FS7niOSWjzhttps://t.co/DhwOpYPb82 pic.twitter.com/dtO74QDb4F
The website "join-wagner.com" does seem to be feeding into the channels that the group uses to spread information and is also picking up images from those channels. These clues suggest that this isn’t an isolated initiative, but part of a wider propaganda machine. But, conversely, there is nothing that proves that this is an official recruitment site.
We tried to fill out the online form, but, for the time being, we haven’t received a response from the creators of the site.
We also managed to find the email address provided when the page was created in November 2021. The address is registered via Proton, a web messaging service considered fairly secure because it is encrypted at both sides. We also emailed the address but haven’t received a response.
In reality, this group’s recruitment is very opaque, like the rest of the organisation. Several media outlets and researchers located the headquarters of Wagner in Molkino, a small town in the south of Russia. At least some Wagner recruits travel here, where they are trained and then deployed. For the time being, that is one of the only certitudes about the way that the Wagner Group hires and recruits mercenaries.