Multiple interviews with high-level Sudanese and US officials and troves of documents reviewed by CNN paint a picture of an elaborate Russian scheme to plunder Sudan's riches in a bid to fortify Russia against increasingly robust Western sanctions and to buttress Moscow's war effort in Ukraine.
The evidence also suggests that Russia has colluded with Sudan's beleaguered military leadership, enabling billions of dollars in gold to bypass the Sudanese state and to deprive the poverty-stricken country of hundreds of millions in state revenue.
In exchange, Russia has lent powerful political and military backing to Sudan's increasingly unpopular military leadership as it violently quashes the country's pro-democracy movement.
Former and current US officials told CNN that Russia actively supported Sudan's 2021 military coup which overthrew a transitional civilian government, dealing a devastating blow to the Sudanese pro-democracy movement that had toppled President Omar al-Bashir two years earlier.
"We've long known Russia is exploiting Sudan's natural resources," one former US official familiar with the matter told CNN. "In order to maintain access to those resources Russia encouraged the military coup."
"As the rest of the world closed in on [Russia], they have a lot to gain from this relationship with Sudan's generals and from helping the generals remain in power," the former official added. "That 'help' runs the gamut from training and intelligence support to jointly benefiting from Sudan's stolen gold."
At the heart of this quid pro quo between Moscow and Sudan's military junta is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and key ally of President Vladimir Putin.
The heavily sanctioned 61-year-old controls a shadowy network of companies that includes Wagner, a paramilitary group linked to alleged torture, mass killings and looting in several war-torn countries including Syria and the Central African Republic (CAR). Prigozhin denies links to Wagner.
In Sudan, Prigozhin's main vehicle is a US-sanctioned company called Meroe Gold -- a subsidiary of Prigozhin owned M-invest -- which extracts gold while providing weapons and training to the country's army and paramilitaries, according to invoices seen by CNN.
"Through Meroe Gold, or other companies associated with Prigozhin employees, he has developed a strategy to loot the economic resources of the African countries where he intervenes, as a counterpart to his support to the governments in place," said Denis Korotkov, investigator at the London-based Dossier Center, which tracks the criminal activity of various people associated with the Kremlin. The center was started by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, now living in exile in London.
CNN, in collaboration with the Dossier Center, can also reveal that at least one high-level Wagner operative -- Alexander Sergeyevich Kuznetsov -- has overseen operations in Sudan's key gold mining, processing and transit sites in recent years.
Kuznetsov -- also known by his call signs "Ratibor" and "Radimir" -- is a convicted kidnapper who fought in neighboring Libya and commanded Wagner's first attack and reconnaissance company in 2014. He is a four-time recipient of Russia's Order of Courage award and was pictured alongside Putin and Dmitri Utkin -- Wagner's founder -- in 2017. The European Union sanctioned Kuznetsov in 2021.
The growing bond between Sudan's military rulers and Moscow has spawned an intricate gold smuggling network. According to Sudanese official sources as well as flight data reviewed by CNN in collaboration with flight tracker Twitter account Gerjon, at least 16 of the flights intercepted by Sudanese officials last year were operated by military plane that came to and from the Syrian port city of Latakia where Russia has a major airbase.
Gold shipments also follow a land route to the CAR, where Wagner has propped up a repressive regime
and is reported to have meted out some of its cruelest tactics on the country's population
, according to multiple Sudanese official sources and the Dossier Center.
CNN has reached out to the Russian foreign ministry, the Russian defense ministry and the parent organization for the group of companies run by Prigozhin for comment. None has responded.
Responding to the findings of CNN's investigation, a US State Department spokesperson said: "We are monitoring this issue closely, including the reported activities of Meroe Gold, the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, and other sanctioned actors in Sudan, the region, and throughout the gold trade.
"We support the Sudanese people in their pursuit of a democratic and prosperous Sudan that respects human rights," the spokesperson added. "We will continue to make clear our concerns to Sudanese military officials about the malign impact of Wagner, Meroe Gold, and other actors."
Receding into the shadows
Russia's meddling in Sudan's gold began in earnest in 2014 after its invasion of Crimea prompted a slew of Western sanctions. Gold shipments proved an effective way of accumulating and transferring wealth, bolstering Russia's state coffers while sidestepping international financial monitoring systems.
"The downside of gold is that it's physical and a lot more cumbersome to use than international wire transfers but the flip side is that it's much harder if not impossible to freeze or seize," said Daniel McDowell, sanctions specialist and associate professor of Political Science at Syracuse University.
The hub of Russia's gold extraction operation lies deep in the desert of northeast Sudan, a bleached landscape peppered with gaping chasms where miners toil in searing heat, with only tents fashioned from scraps of tarpaulin and sandbags providing any respite.