It’s an obscure and sinister story, played out in inaccessible places by shadowy figures.

The stakes, though, could not be higher.

The most recent episode in this murky tale played itself out three days ago in the remote violence-plagued but resource rich country of Central African Republic when three Russian journalists were murdered in an ambush. 

For now, the identities of the assailants remains unknown, but what is recognised is that investigative reporter Orkhan Dzhemal, filmmaker Alexander Rastorguev and cameraman Kirill Radchenko were in Central African Republic (CAR) to shoot a film about the activities of mercenaries from a Russian private security company known as the Wagner Group.

To understand why the Russians – mercenaries and journalists alike – were in the country, it’s important first to cast some light on Moscow’s sudden interest in CAR, one of the poorest and most unstable places in the world. 

It was back in 2013 when the republic was plunged into violence after the nation’s longtime leader Francois Bozize, a Christian, was overthrown by a mainly Muslim Rebel alliance.

Since then France, the former colonial ruler, intervened militarily to push out the alliance before winding down its operation.

In the subsequent period, the Republic’s president Faustin Touadera, who succeeded Bozize, has been unable to control little of the country beyond the capital Bangui, the remaining territory being in the hands of rival militias. 

Adding to Touadera’s woes, CAR has been under a UN arms embargo that was only recently lifted, so allowing Russia to offer its support to the beleaguered African nation.

With Moscow now cleared by the UN Security Council to train the CAR army and supply them with weapons, relations between the Russian President Vladimir Putin and Touadera have gone from strength to strength. 

There are, of course, other reasons for Russia’s interest and involvement in CAR, notably diamonds, gold and uranium.

But, right now, Russia appears to be running with the hare and hunting with hounds, supplying arms on the one hand to President Touadera’s forces, but also using private security contractors to make contact with the rebels opposing them.

Many of the key rebel groups operating in CAR do so from remote regions that also happen to be in locations where much of the country’s mineral wealth lies and is mined.

Recent footage obtained by the France 24 news channel shows Russian Wagner operatives delivering field hospital materials to rebel groups by truck in a convoy that also contained weapons. 

In carrying out these shadowy operations, Wagner group involvement provides the Kremlin with plausible deniability if things go wrong.

Wagner’s “founder and leader” has been identified by the US Treasury Department as one Dmitry Utkin, who had previously served in a special forces brigade of Russian military intelligence, the GRU. Today it is believed the GRU now secretly oversees Wagner. 

The group also has apparent ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a onetime St. Petersburg restaurateur known as “Putin’s chef,” who now, incredibly wealthy, finds himself responsible for cooking up international plots ranging from setting up pro-Putin newspapers to election interference and sending Russian mercenaries to Syria and elsewhere to conduct military operations on the Kremlin’s behalf. 

It was an investigation into the Wagner group’s activities that the three Russians journalists were involved in when they were killed earlier this week. 

Adding to this sinister turn of events, Reports also emerged a few months ago that Maxim Borodin, another Russian reporter who wrote about Wagner group mercenaries activities in Syria, died from injuries sustained after falling from his fifth-floor balcony in Yekaterinburg. 

While, to date, there is no evidence linking the deaths, it’s unlikely Moscow would have welcomed any film or investigative journalism exposing the manner in which the Russian military and private security contractors work in tandem. 

Such activities have not always been the preserve of the Kremlin, with the US government also having deployed contractors such as the previously named “Blackwater” during American engagement in the war in Iraq.

What makes the Wagner group somewhat different from certain western contractors, however, is that while the latter primarily performed escort, guard and logistic roles, Wagner appear to operate alongside conventional Russian forces or, in the case of Syria, have been tasked with operational duties in conjunction with Syrian militia forces.

For carrying this out, Wagner’s serving officers in Syria are reported to earn up to 300,000 roubles or £3,800 a month.

The first of these Russian mercenaries were sent to Syria by an organisation called the Slavic Corps in 2013, in total 267 men, according to an investigation by the St. Petersburg website

According to other reports in the Russian press of the kind reporter Maxim Borodin was engaged in, anywhere between two to three thousand Russian contractors have been involved in military operations in Syria. 

Last February in a confrontation that left many diplomatic observers nervous, US forces in Syria faced off against a contingent of pro-Syrian-regime fighters near the city of Deir Ezzor. 

Following US airstrikes It would later emerge that up to 100 Russian citizens fighting in Syria as private military contractors, alongside forces allied to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, were killed in the battle.

Not since the time of the Vietnam War have US and Russian military forces engaged in direct combat as they did at Deir Ezzor. 

Apart from Syria and eastern Ukraine, however, Wagner would now also appear firmly embedded in the African arena.

As well as CAR, its operatives are reportedly deployed in Sudan, backing up Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s government against South Sudan forces and ensuring the ground is conducive to Russian companies in the oil rich region.

The question now is where next will Mr Putin’s dogs of war shadow army likely make its appearance? Libya, where Russian engagement has grown since 2016, seems one obvious place, as does the Balkans should conflict erupt there. 

Speaking on condition of anonymity to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty earlier this year, one Wagner commander predicted the demand for the group’s services would only continue to grow.

“There are many fights ahead,” he insisted ominously.

Despite all the doublespeak from the Kremlin over Wagner’s role, few global security watchers doubt his remarks have a real ring of truth to them.