President Vladimir Putin sent Russian mercenaries to fight in Syria and Ukraine, according to a new report released on Wednesday.
The report by Russian independent newspaper Fontanka claimed that the Kremlin had hired mercenaries from a private military contractor called Wagner for secret missions inside Syria and the Donbass region of Ukraine.
Their investigation showed the group’s casualties were concealed and they were decorated for their service in secret by a high-ranking member of the Russian intelligence service, many times posthumously. The military honors were signed by Putin himself, and photographs of the awards were included in the Fontanka report.
President Putin has repeatedly denied the presence of any Russian troops fighting in eastern Ukraine fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists, despite numerous reports and evidence to the contrary, as the Washington Times noted.
“It has been patently obvious that some type of Russian-backed force was operating in the Donbass region east of Kyiv. Some Russian soldiers have been captured and massive amounts of Russian armaments have been brought across the border. Scores of long truck convoys have routinely brought ‘relief supplies’ into Donetsk from the Russian side. Many analysts have concluded that the conflict in East Ukraine would subside as the Russian expedition in Syria ramped up. This definitely turned out to be the case; however, fighting in Donbass is heating up again as Russia slowly withdraws forces in the Middle East. The war in East Ukraine smolders on.”
The use of mercenaries in Russian military intervention gives Moscow the ability to send personnel to these countries while maintaining plausible deniability. This may become especially relevant for the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, as Russia begins withdrawing its main forces from Syria.
The Telegraph reported on the shadowy status of Wagner, which was originally formed out of the remnants of the mercenary unit “Slavonic Corps,” which fought in Syria in 2013.
“Wagner is believed to have a membership of around 1,000 mercenaries, but officially the group does not exist since Russian law forbids private military companies. But Wagner is registered in Argentina and has a training camp in the Russian village of Molkino – the same village that hosts a training site of the 10th special forces brigade of the GRU military intelligence.”
Former members of Wagner that were interviewed by Fontanka further claimed there were dozens of casualties in the past year alone. Many of the fighters of the Wagner unit were killed fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and 2015. The report profiled several Wagner members, including their unit and detailed records of their activities, all the way from their training centers in Russia, to battlefields like the Lugansk region of Ukraine and the Syrian city of Palmyra.
The Interpreter published the findings of the report in English, including identifying Wagner’s leader and his origins.
“At the center of the group is 46-year-old Dmitry Utkin, a lieutenant colonel who finished his professional service in the 700th Independent Spetsnaz Detachment of the 2nd Independent Brigade of the GRU (military intelligence) in 2013. Utkin then went to work for the Moran Security Group, a shady, Moscow-based PMC whose offshore ownership structure leads to Belize and the British Virgin Islands.”
Utkin survived his mission in Syria, only to re-emerge as a fighter for the so-called rebel “People’s Republic” in Ukraine’s Lugansk region in 2014. Despite Putin’s claims to be “fighting fascism” by opposing the Kiev government in Ukraine, Wagner’s leader is well-known for appreciating a fascist aesthetic.
“An aficionado, as Fontanka puts it, of the aesthetics and ideology of the Third Reich, Utkin assumed the nom de guerre of Wagner in tribute to Hitler’s favourite composer, and became the commander of his own, eponymous unit. In Lugansk, he was known for eschewing a modern Russian battle helmet for a Second World War Wehrmacht coal-scuttle type.”
Interestingly, Putin campaigned for the legalization of such private military companies during his term as Prime Minister in 2012, calling them “tool for the implementation of national interests without direct participation of the state.”
[Photo by Matt Dunham – WPA Pool /Getty Images]