A former Kremlin envoy to the EU whom European diplomats link to Russian intelligence has been dispatched to the Central African Republic (CAR) to oversee coordination between the Wagner mercenary group and local security forces, a new RFE/RL investigation has found.
Denis Pavlov is a secretive Russian diplomat who left his post in Brussels in early 2023. His arrival in CAR's capital, Bangui, comes as Moscow seeks to maintain its influence in Africa following the death of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in August.
Prigozhin's forces, which the Russian state has been reining in and effectively absorbing, had close Kremlin-approved security ties with the CAR government and backed juntas elsewhere in Africa, where Russia has been expanding its footprint over the past decade.
Multiple sources in CAR say the task of liaising between Wagner mercenaries and local police has fallen to Pavlov, while photographic evidence independently corroborates the diplomat's presence together with Russian military brass in the African nation, the joint investigation by RFE/RL's Russian Service and All Eyes On Wagner (AEOW), a Swiss investigative NGO, found.
Two sources working for international and humanitarian organizations in CAR said Pavlov, who has also served at Russia's permanent mission to the UN Office and other international organizations in Geneva and Paris, arrived several months ago to take charge of coordinating work with local police.
This role had previously been handled by Vitaly Perfilyev, a mercenary hit by EU sanctions in February and U.S. sanctions in September for his role as a security adviser to the president of CAR, the sources told AEOW on condition of anonymity, citing fears for their security.
Wagner forces are accused of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses in CAR and other African nations.
"Given his influential position in CAR and his leading role in the Wagner Group, he is responsible for serious human rights abuses committed by the Wagner Group in CAR," the EU said in its announcement of sanctions targeting Perfilyev.
One of the sources told AEOW that CAR authorities were notified of Pavlov's arrival in advance through a letter from Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia's foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR.
Reporters were unable to independently corroborate this. But three European diplomatic sources claimed independently of one another that Pavlov, 46, worked for Russian intelligence.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, which is listed in leaked Russian databases as Pavlov's official employer, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the SVR. Pavlov's office is located in the Russian Embassy building in Bangui, according to AEOW sources.
When a reporter called a phone number associated with Pavlov, his wife, Yevgenia Pavlova, answered but said to call back because neither she nor her husband was available to speak. Follow-up calls went unanswered.
Neither Pavlov nor his wife responded to e-mailed requests for comment.
Pavlov is still listed as political adviser at the Permanent Mission of Russia to the EU in Brussels, but a source close to the EU told RFE/RL that he left the post in the spring.
Identifying 'Colonel' Pavlov
In early September, a high-level Russian delegation visited CAR. Among the guests were Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Andrei Averyanov, the deputy head of Russia's main military intelligence directorate, known as the GRU, who has been linked to the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal in England and acts of sabotage in Europe.
The Russian delegation visiting Bangui also included Konstantin Mirzayants, who is linked to a Moscow-based private military company called Redut-Security, which has recruited mercenaries primarily to work in Syria and Africa. (The GRU operates a secretive recruiting network also called Redut for Russia's war on Ukraine, though that network's possible links to Mirzayants are unconfirmed, a recent RFE/RL investigation found.)
Most of the Russian delegation was easily identifiable by their photographs, with the exception of a man sitting just down the table from Mirzayants, wearing a blue jacket and writing in a notebook.
Using facial-recognition software and a Russian passport photo reporters obtained, RFE/RL was able to establish that this is Denis Pavlov, the man sources in CAR said had been tasked with overseeing Wagner cooperation with local police.
Unlike Averyanov, who has stepped into the public eye recently, Pavlov has a nearly nonexistent online footprint, and leaked databases of Russian employment records reviewed by RFE/RL give no indication of his place of employment between 2003 and 2019. In 2003 he received his salary from the Russian Foreign Ministry's property department, while in 2019 and 2021 he is listed as a Foreign Ministry employee, the records show.
But RFE/RL was able to find a photograph of Pavlov taken at a New Year's party at a Geneva school at the end of 2011, when he was listed as the second secretary with Russia's permanent mission to the UN Office.
Pavlov's name also appeared among employees of Russia's permanent delegation to UNESCO in 2007.
One European diplomatic source told RFE/RL that before leaving Brussels earlier this year, Pavlov kept a low profile, while another European diplomatic source said Pavlov was nonetheless on the radar of intelligence circles in Brussels. These sources and others cited in this report spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Both Belgium and the EU expelled dozens of Russian diplomats after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, some for alleged spying.
Pavlov was not on the list of Russian diplomats to the EU who were expelled.
The Belgian State Security Service did not respond to a request for comment about Pavlov, while the Belgian Foreign Ministry said questions should be directed to the EU's diplomatic corps, EEAS.
Asked about Pavlov, an EEAS spokesperson referred RFE/RL to the Belgian Foreign Ministry, saying the ministry is responsible for registering all foreign diplomats working in Brussels, even if they are with a permanent mission to the EU.
One European diplomatic source claimed Pavlov holds the rank of colonel in the SVR, though this could not be independently verified.
Records reviewed by reporters, however, show that Pavlov's wife has documented links to Russian intelligence.
Leaked government records published online list Pavlova's place of employment in 2017 as Military Unit No. 35690, a special unit of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor agency to the Soviet KGB.
Meanwhile, Pavlov's father-in-law, Aleksandr Merinov, formerly served in Directorate B of the FSB Special Purpose Center, Vympel, and is a member of a veterans group for the center. Pavlova's family is registered in an apartment building on Ulitsa Suzdalskaya on Moscow's western outskirts that is listed as an FSB residential facility.
'Catch Some Sun In CAR'
Pavlov's arrival in CAR comes as Russia continues to send mercenaries to Africa under the auspices of the Russian Defense Ministry, chats from Telegram channels for relatives of Wagner fighters indicate.
"Small announcement, if there are those who would like to go catch some sun in CAR, first-timers or those who have served in the SVO. Please [direct-message] me," one message posted on December 3 states, using the Russian acronym for "special military operation," the Kremlin term for its all-out war on Ukraine.
Russian air-travel data also show that on November 30, an Il-76 transport plane operated by the Russian cargo airline Abakan Air took off from a military airport in the Belarusian city of Babruysk and ultimately landed in CAR, according to the military monitoring group Belarusian Hajun. A similar flight took place in October.
Babruysk is near the village of Tsel, where Wagner fighters set up a field camp following Prigozhin's abortive mutiny in June that triggered a Russian government reprisal to bring the mercenary group to heel.
Exactly whom or what the cargo flights were transporting to CAR remains unclear, though Belarusian Hajun said they were capable of transporting both mercenaries and their belongings to CAR and Mali.
Andrei Soshnikov of Systema, RFE/RL's Russian investigative unit, contributed to this report.