The mercenaries fighting for the Kremlin | The World Weekly
In early February, US fighter jets and helicopter gunships took to the skies of eastern Syria to repel a large-scale attack on the local headquarters of Washington’s main ally in the country, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). American soldiers reportedly were present at the base during the attack, which initial reports said was carried out by several hundred pro-regime fighters. According to US estimates, around 100 attackers were killed on February 7.
Based on initial information, the incident already stood out for its brazenness, but shortly afterwards reports surfaced that among the dead were Russian nationals. Moscow had told Washington during the incident that it was not involved in the attack, but the case shone a light on Russia’s use of private military contractors in Syria and beyond.
After an initial silence, foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on February 15 became the first Russian official to directly acknowledge the possible deaths of Russian citizens. “We could be talking about the deaths of five people - presumably Russian citizens - as a result of an armed confrontation whose causes are being examined,” she told a news briefing, adding that none of them were Russian military personnel.
Russia has had an official military presence in Syria since 2015, including an air and naval base in western Syria, but denies the use of private military companies (PMC) in foreign conflicts.
Reuters news agency reported that about 300 men working for a shadowy private military company known as Wagner were killed or injured in Syria earlier this month, citing three sources. The timing coincided with the February 7 attack. Accordingly, the wounded were treated in four Russian military hospitals after being evacuated from Syria. The sources spoke of a death toll of between 80 and 100 people. Spokeswoman Zakharova dismissed reports of dozens or hundreds of Russians having been killed or injured as “classic disinformation”.
Other reports, however, including interviews with relatives of the deceased, provided further evidence that dozens of Russians may have died during the battle.
If accurate, the events on that day in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province marked the deadliest single-day battle involving Russian citizens since heavy clashes in Ukraine in 2014. It would also mark the biggest direct confrontation between Russian and US forces since the end of the Cold War.
This week the foreign ministry changed tack and confirmed that “several dozen” Russian citizens were killed or injured in a “recent armed clash”.
Wagner: fighting on orders from the Kremlin?
One of the largest employers for Russians fighting in Syria is believed to be St. Petersburg-based Wagner Group, a shadowy company whose reported main financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is a key ally of President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Prigozhin, in the media often referred to as the president’s “cook” because of his catering contracts with the Russian government, was put on a sanctions list by the US treasury in 2016 in relation to the conflict in Ukraine.
Wagner was reportedly founded by Dmitry Utkin, a 46-year-old former special forces brigade commander at Russia’s GRU military intelligence service. Mr. Utkin retired in 2013 and is said to have started working for Moran Security Group. Senior Moran managers were involved in setting up another PMC, Slavonic Corps, whose fighters, including Mr. Utkin, went to fight in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, Russian newspaper Fontanka revealed. After a fierce gun battle with Islamic State (IS) militants the unit was evacuated to Moscow and two Moran executives were jailed for ‘mercenarism’.
Mr. Utkin subsequently went to fight in Ukraine, heading his own unit of mercenaries, now known as the Wagner Group. Local and international media reports said Slavonic Corps veterans were instrumental in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and also fought in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region. Moscow has denied any direct involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The company’s name, officially known as ChVK Wagner, is derived from Mr. Utkin’s nom de guerre, Wagner, based on his alleged affection for Adolf Hitler. The Nazi leader’s favourite composer was Richard Wagner.
Much remains unknown about Wagner’s activities - the existence of private military is illegal according to Russian law - but Wagner’s “activities in Syria have received a lot of coverage in Russian media”, says Aleksandr Konovalov, a Middle East expert in St. Petersburg.
Wagner operatives are said to have participated in the battle against IS over the ancient city in Palmyra and battles in Deir Ezzor, where the clashes with US forces occurred. There is almost no information about its operations in Ukraine, Dr. Konovalov added.
Russian private military companies in Syria are “Moscow’s force multipliers,” says Samuel Bendett, a Russia expert at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organisation located in the US. They also serve another crucial function, Mr. Bendett told The World Weekly, as they allow a “degree of deniability from Moscow should things go wrong”, for example when contractors are captured or killed.
Russia’s intervention in Syria was accompanied by a lot of media fanfare, but public opinion at home appears split. A poll by the Levada Centre last year indicated that 49% of Russians wanted their country’s military campaign in Syria to end; 30% said it should complete the operation.
Especially during an election year, Russian casualties abroad can be a sensitive issue for the Kremlin. “In the modern world, governments don’t like to take the political risks of leading ‘official troops’ into battles” that end in mass casualties, Dr. Konovalov told TWW. If continued military involvement in Syria or elsewhere “proved unpopular at home”, Mr. Bendett adds, “Moscow can continue to use PMC organisations to maintain forces on the ground, assist allies and coordinate military action.”
Honouring the heroes
A gala event in December 2016 to honour “heroes” of the Soviet Union and Russia provided further hints at the ties between Wagner Group and the Kremlin. As the event was broadcast on state television, investigative journalist Denis Korotkov noticed two interesting guests: Mr. Utkin and Andrei Troshev, his deputy.
Mr. Troshev is a veteran who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya and received two Orders of the Red Star and two Orders of Courage. Fontanka newspaper, however, reported that the retired colonel was granted the status of ‘hero’ for his involvement in the battle over Palmyra, Syria, in 2016, years after his retirement. A photo showing President Putin with Mr. Utkin, Mr. Troshev and two other guests spread online after the event.
Days later Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed Mr. Utkin’s presence at the event, stating that he had been invited as a holder of the Order of Courage without elaborating what he had received the honour for.
Relatives of fallen private contractors who fought in Syria have told various media outlets that their husbands or sons had received medals honouring their service abroad.
He ‘wanted to earn some money’
Despite reported high honours for some, several family members of mercenaries who have died in combat told media they felt abandoned by the state.
“They came under fire, many of them were killed, including Ruslan,” the mother of Ruslan Gavrilov, one of the contractors thought to have died in the February 7 attack, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “He didn’t have a regular job,” she added, “it was temporary, hanging doors or putting up ceilings… he wanted to earn some money”. As of last week, she had not received any official confirmation of her son’s fate.
Each contractor receives 300,000 rubles ($4,600) per month, a report by Russian media outlet RBC said in August 2016. Accordingly, an ordinary soldier’s monthly salary was 80,000 rubles.
The widow of Stanislav Matveyev, another contractor who died in Syria, said her husband had been fighting as a mercenary in Syria for months and had previously been involved in combat operations in eastern Ukraine for which he received a medal. “I want everyone to know about my husband. Not only him, but all the guys who died there for no reason,” she told RFE/RL. “Wherever they sent them, there was no protection. They just [slaughtered] them like pigs.
The government should avenge them somehow. There should be something in their memory, so that their wives won’t feel ashamed of their husbands and their children can be proud. - Yelena Matveyeva, widow of military contractor Stanislav Matveyev
According to the defence ministry in Moscow, 44 Russian servicemen have died in Syria since the start of operations in 2015. However, independent media reports said PMCs like Wagner have suffered heavy casualties from early on. One fighter told Fontanka on condition of anonymity this was related to battlefield tactics, which exposed contractors to high risks: “We go as the first wave. We direct the aircraft and artillery, push back the enemy,” he said.
When asked why people would take such a risk, another returning fighter said: “Beyond Moscow and Petersburg there’s no work anywhere. If one is lucky – 15-20,000 a month isn’t considered bad, but the price of food – it is as if we live in Antarctica.”
President Putin has in the past supported plans to create a legal framework for private military companies, stating that they "serve as an instrument of realising our national interests without the direct participation of the state." For now, however, Russian PMCs will continue to work in the shadows.