Krem­lin’s mer­ce­nary armies kill in both Syr­ian, Ukrainian wars

Kyiv Post - - National - BY I LLIA PONOMARENK­O PONOMARENK­[email protected]

Rus­sia’s war­mon­ger­ing in­cludes this mil­i­tary phe­nom­e­non: the ex­ten­sive in­volve­ment of mer­ce­nary armies, il­le­gal and se­cret, al­though fully backed by the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment.

Non-state mil­i­tary con­trac­tors — no­tably the no­to­ri­ous Wag­ner Group — are used to do the dirty work in the Krem­lin’s wars.

Wag­ner, which emerged as a tool of Moscow in its war in Ukraine’s eastern Don­bas in 2014, is still spilling blood in Syria. Its Rus­sian spon­sors get a cut from oil and gas pro­duc­tion in the war-torn coun­try, where at least 500,000 peo­ple have been killed since 2011.

And the prac­tice has prob­a­bly spread far be­yond Syria and Ukraine. Ukrainian spe­cial ser­vices and an­a­lysts say that, start­ing from 2017, Wag­ner mer­ce­nar­ies have started to turn up in other hotspots around the world, par­tic­u­larly in Africa and the Ara­bian Penin­sula.

The con­tract­ing by govern­ments of pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pa­nies to per­form a wide range of op­er­a­tions, such as pro­tect­ing cargo ships from pi­rates at sea, or safe­guard­ing busi­nesses, is not so new.

In 2012, ac­cord­ing to the Econ­o­mist news mag­a­zine, the global mar­ket of pri­vate se­cu­rity ser­vices was worth at least $100 bil­lion, with the lead­ers be­ing com­pa­nies from the United States, Bri­tain, Is­rael and Rus­sia.

Lightly armed and closely reg­u­lated, dozens of ma­jor se­cu­rity com­pa­nies are now be­ing hired — mostly by Western govern­ments — to as­sist their own armed forces dur­ing con­flicts, in par­tic­u­lar by re­liev­ing troops from var­i­ous non-com­bat tasks, such as technical main­te­nance, train­ing or pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity be­hind the lines.

But in its lat­est wars, the Krem­lin has gone far be­yond tra­di­tional se­cu­rity.

Clan­des­tine army

Ac­cord­ing to the Se­cu­rity Ser­vice of Ukraine, or SBU, and nu­mer­ous re­ports in global me­dia, the Wag­ner Group formed in early 2014 as an off­shoot of the Rus­sian pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pany “The Slavic Corps,” reg­is­tered in Hong Kong.

Af­ter a failed short com­bat de­ploy­ment in Syria, the corps re­turned to Rus­sia in early 2014, but their fight­ers were de­tained on charges of be­ing mer­ce­nar­ies — which is il­le­gal in Rus­sia. Nev­er­the­less, one of its groups, led by former Rus­sian spe­cial forces of­fi­cer Dmitriy Utkin, who goes by the co­de­name “Wag­ner,” was al­lowed to evolve into a full-fledged un­of­fi­cial com­bat force that would have no for­mal con­nec­tions with the Rus­sian mil­i­tary or the Krem­lin, but that would fight on its or­ders.

By late May 2014, the Wag­ner Group, with some 300 men, ap­peared in Ukraine’s Luhansk Oblast as Rus­sia launched its war on Ukraine in the Don­bas. The force, along with other Rus­sian-led forces, par­tic­i­pated in the bat­tle of Luhansk Air­port and De­balt­seve be­tween May 2014 and Jan­uary 2015.

Ac­cord­ing to the SBU, it was Wag­ner mer­ce­nar­ies who downed a Ukrainian Il-76 plane in June 2014 in the skies over Luhansk, killing all 49 Ukrainian sol­diers on board.

Be­sides, as the agency said, Wag­ner was also re­spon­si­ble for high-pro­file as­sas­si­na­tions of a num­ber of Don­bas mil­i­tant war­lords, such as Olek­sandr Bed­nov (known as “Bat­man”) who had re­port­edly started to disobey the Krem­lin’s or­ders.

In clashes with Ukrainian forces in Don­bas, the Wag­ner group lost at least 35 fight­ers killed in ac­tion.

But Wag­ner's ef­fec­tive com­bat record soon earned them a de­ploy­ment to Syria, in Au­gust 2015, at least a month be­fore the Rus­sian mil­i­tary of­fi­cially in­ter­vened in sup­port of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad, in Septem­ber.

Some 1,350 Wag­ner mer­ce­nar­ies joined pro-gov­ern­ment forces fight­ing in the prov­inces of Latakia, Homs and Hama in the west of the coun­try.

Ac­cord­ing to Rus­sian me­dia out­let Fon­tanka, as well as many other Rus­sia re­sources, the mer­ce­nar­ies since 2015 have shared a home base with Rus­sia’s 10th Spe­cial Forces Brigade near the vil­lage of Molkino in Krasnodar Oblast.

For its Syria mis­sion, the Wag­ner Group quickly took on man­power among former Rus­sian ser­vice­men with a va­ri­ety of spe­cial­ist skills, as well as men with ex­pe­ri­ence of fight­ing against the Ukrainian army in the Don­bas.

As of early 2016, the group in­cluded at least four in­fantry com­pa­nies aug­mented with tanks, ar­tillery and rock­ets, and sup­ported by an ex­ten­sive lo­gis­tics net­work.

“No pri­vate mil­i­tary com­pany in whole the world has such a heavy fire­power,” an SBU agent close to the ser­vice’s in­ves­ti­ga­tions into Wag­ner’s ac­tiv­i­ties in the Don­bas told the Kyiv Post on con­di­tion of anonymity, as he was not au­tho­rized to speak to the press.

“We’re ab­so­lutely sure that the Wag­ner Group is noth­ing but a Rus­sian GRU mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence unit that, given its un­of­fi­cial sta­tus, can be used as a highly ef­fec­tive com­bat force overseas, with­out the Krem­lin or Rus­sia’s of­fi­cial se­cu­rity and mil­i­tary agen­cies hav­ing any re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for them.”

In gen­eral, ac­cord­ing to the SBU, as many as 5,000 mil­i­tants, mostly Rus­sian cit­i­zens but in­clud­ing ap­prox­i­mately 100 Ukrainian cit­i­zens, 20 Serbs, and 10 Belorus­sians, have served in Wag­ner for monthly pay of up to 300,000 Rus­sian rubles ($4,800).

Be­sides, de­spite hav­ing no for­mal al­le­giance to the Rus­sian army, Wag­ner com­man­ders and com­bat­ants are awarded of­fi­cial mil­i­tary dec­o­ra­tions, the of­fi­cial added.

For in­stance, on Dec. 9, 2016, all o the key Wag­ner com­man­ders, in­clud­ing Dmitriy Utkin him­self, were dec­o­rated by Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in the Krem­lin. How­ever, work­ing as a mer­ce­nary in Rus­sia, de­spite sev­eral at­tempts to le­gal­ize it, re­mains against the law.

Busi­ness in­ter­ests

Start­ing from early 2016, Wag­ner’s at­ten­tion fo­cused on Syria’s oil-rich cen­tral and eastern prov­inces, par­tic­u­larly on the an­cient city of Palmyra, then oc­cu­pied by the Is­lamic State ter­ror group, and also on the banks of the Euphrates River.

The rea­son was sim­ple — the prof­itable gas and oil fields ear­lier cap­tured and ex­ploited by the Is­lamists had to be re­taken.

The Rus­sian me­dia out­let RBK soon re­vealed in an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that the Wag­ner Group, which has never been of­fi­cially reg­is­tered, was di­rectly fi­nanced by Ev­geniy Prigozhin, a Saint Peters­burg-based restau­ra­teur and a highly trusted per­son from Putin’s in­ner cir­cle — of­ten re­ferred to as “Putin’s chef” by Rus­sian me­dia.

More­over, in late De­cem­ber 2017, the As­so­ci­ated Press news agency ob­tained a copy of a five-year con­tract be­tween Evro Po­lis, a busi­ness struc­ture owned by Prigozhin, and Syria’s state-owned oil and gas com­pany Gen­eral Petroleum Corp.

Ac­cord­ing to the con­tract, Prigozhin’s com­pany would get “25 per­cent of the pro­ceeds from oil and gas pro­duc­tion at fields its con­trac­tors cap­ture and se­cure from Is­lamic State mil­i­tants,” the agency re­ported.

But the Krem­lin’s shadow war for petroleum prof­its in Syria proved deadly for hun­dreds of Wag­ner fight­ers: On Feb. 7, 2018, Wag­ner forces suf­fered a dev­as­tat­ing de­feat at the hands of U.S. forces as they tried to

cap­ture a gas ex­trac­tor near the city of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria.

In a four-hour bat­tle later de­scribed as a mas­sacre, Wag­ner lost at least 100 killed in ac­tion and more than 200 in­jured, ac­cord­ing to the Reuters agency.

Be­yond Syria

Start­ing from late 2017, new re­ports show that Wag­ner’s ac­tiv­ity had ex­panded to other con­flict zones around the world.

In Jan­uary 2018, the U.S.-based pri­vate in­tel­li­gence com­pany Strat­for said that a num­ber of Rus­sian mer­ce­nar­ies had been de­ployed to Su­dan to sup­port the coun­try’s pres­i­dent, Omar al-Bashir, in his war against the break­away coun­try of South Su­dan.

Wag­ner’s new mis­sion re­port­edly com­menced af­ter a meet­ing be­tween Putin and al-Bashir in late De­cem­ber 2017, dur­ing which the Su­danese pres­i­dent asked for mil­i­tary as­sis­tance. Ac­cord­ing to Sergey Sukhankin, a fel­low of the Jamestown Foun­da­tion, Wag­ner’s par­tic­i­pa­tion is to be paid for by the grant­ing of a wide range of priv­i­leges to Rus­sian busi­nesses at Su­danese ura­nium and di­a­mond mines.

More­over, in late 2017, ac­cord­ing to SBU in­tel­li­gence sources, a num­ber of Wag­ner mil­i­tants were spotted fight­ing in Ye­men, pre­sum­ably on the side of the gov­ern­ment forces, in that coun­try’s civil war against a Shia up­ris­ing that started in 2014.

And ac­cord­ing to Sukhankin, an­other group of Wag­ner mer­ce­nar­ies was de­ployed to the Cen­tral African Republic in early 2018 to sup­port the lo­cal gov­ern­ment amid long-run­ning eth­nic and sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence in the coun­try, and en­sure priv­i­leged ac­cess for Rus­sian busi­nesses to the coun­try’s re­sources.

A con­voy of Rus­sian army mine re­moval crews moves along a de­stroyed street of Aleppo shortly af­ter the de­feat of Syr­ian op­po­si­tion forces on Oct. 29, 2017. (Min­istry of De­fense of Rus­sia)

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