Russia’s Wagner group fighters sighted in Syria

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet marines who arrived after a successful operation guarding the Hmeymim airbase in Syria, on the Belbek airfield near Sevastopol.

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet marines who arrived after a successful operation guarding the Hmeymim airbase in Syria, on the Belbek airfield near Sevastopol.

Vasiliy Batanov/RIA Novosti
Private military companies (PMC) are currently outlawed in Russia. Sources however allege that the ‘Wagner group’, the Russian equivalent of a PMC, has been spotted in Syria.

There is a checkpoint manned by guards armed with AK-74s near the base of the 10th Separate Special-Purpose Brigade of the Russian Defence Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) in Molkino village, in the Krasnodar Territory.

Beyond the checkpoint, reportedly, lies the camp of a private military company (PMC), said a source at the military unit. There is no information on who owns this land but several neighbouring plots are registered as belonging to the territorial division of the defence ministry’s forestry department.

The camp began functioning sometime in the middle of 2015, said two RBK sources who used to work there. There are barracks, a guard tower, a police dog unit, a training facility and a parking lot inside the camp.

The existence of the camp has not being publicized; formally, PMCs are outlawed in Russia. However, participation by the Wagner group in operations in Syria could pave the way for the legalization of private military companies in Russia.

Professional soldiers in Syria

Under Russian law, the military can only be deployed by the state. Mercenary activity is punishable with a prison term of up to 15 years. However, RBK sources in the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the defence ministry indicate that Russian authorities have no intention of giving up on the idea of legalizing PMCs. There are private military companies in Russia that operate just like those abroad, despite the fact that there is no law to regulate their activity.

It is precisely because of the lack of legal regulation that Russian PMCs mainly operate abroad, registering their subsidiaries in offshore zones. Although Russian troops were not involved in a full-scale ground operation in Syria, there are reports of fighters who performed “special tasks.” 

These are the kind of “special tasks” carried out in Syria by Major Sergei Chupov, a member of an elite unit who was killed in February 2016, an acquaintance of his told RBK. The source, who knew the serviceman well, claims that the interior ministry forces veteran, who went through both Chechen campaigns, was in Syria as an employee of a private military company known as the Wagner group.

The Russian Defence Ministry dismissed reports that appeared in the Wall Street Journal about the Wagner group’s operations in Syria as an “information attack.” However, sources at the FSB and the defence ministry told RBK that, unofficially, the Wagner group is supervised by the GRU.

The Wagner group first made an appearance in the Middle East shortly before Russia began to officially deploy special advisors to its bases in Syria in the fall of 2015, the RBK source at the Defence Ministry said. There were between 1,000 and 1,600 Wagner employees simultaneously present in Syria in 2016, said a source familiar with the operation.

Losses

According to RBK sources familiar with details of the operation, Russia’s main losses in Syria were sustained by PMCs. The sources offer differing estimates of losses. A defence ministry official insists that a total of 27 “private servicemen” were killed in the Middle East, whereas a former PMC officer puts the figure at no fewer than 100.

RBK contacted the family of a killed PMC fighter, but they refused to talk to the media. A Wagner group official explained that non-disclosure is a prerequisite for the families to get compensation. The standard compensation for the family of a killed PMC employee is up to 5 million rubles (about $80,000 at current exchange rates), the source said.

Sensitive interests

PMC fighters played a major part in recapturing the historical part of the city of Palmyra from ISIS forces, said a former officer with the group. The Wagner group, he said, is being used mainly to carry out offensives in difficult areas, thereby reducing the losses among regular troops in Syria.

It is not quite accurate to describe the Wagner group as a private military company, another market source said. “The group’s aim is not to make money, it is not a business,” he said.

For the Wagner group, the interests of the state, which required forces to tackle sensitive tasks in Syria, coincided with the desire of some former servicemen to make some money while performing tasks in the country’s interests, said an RBK source close to the FSB leadership.

“The benefit offered by PMCs is that they can be used abroad, when the use of regular troops is not very appropriate,” said Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Institute of Political and Military Analysis.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who supervises the military-defence complex, offered a similar reason in autumn 2012.

“We are thinking whether our money will be used to finance foreign private military companies or whether we shall consider the expediency of setting up companies like that inside Russia and make a step in that direction,” Rogozin said.

According to Vladimir Neyelov, an specialist with the Centre for Strategic Trend Studies, for the state, “the use of private military companies can be financially advantageous only for addressing specific tasks, but it cannot replace the army.”

Even while the functioning PMCs remains illegal in Russia, the defence ministry is considering transferring Wagner group mercenaries from Russia to Tajikistan, Nagorny Karabakh or Abkhazia, said the RBC source in the FSB.

The source is convinced that the PMC will not be disbanded as it has proven its effectiveness.

First published in Russian by RBC Magazine.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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