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16.12.2016 | Halya Coynash

Putin caught honouring notorious Donbas & Syria ’mercenary’ commander

Utkin, Fontanka.ru collage.png
   

Dmitry Utkin, otherwise known as ’Wagner’, whose highly trained Russian fighters are known to have been involved in Russia’s invasion of Crimea, in the conflict in Donbas and in Syria, was one of Vladimir Putin’s guests at a Kremlin reception to mark ’Heroes of the Fatherland Day’​

A Kremlin spokesperson has admitted that the leader of a so-called ‘private military company’ involved in the fighting in both Donbas and Syria was one of the Kremlin’s guests at a reception on Dec 9 marking ‘Hero of the Fatherland Day’.  The presence of Dmitry Utkin, better known as Wagner, at such an event gives added weight to allegations that Russia is using such unofficial ‘military contractors’ in its so-called ‘hybrid warfare’. 

Utkin’s presence was spotted by Denis Korotkov, a St. Petersburg journalist who earlier this year suffered harassment after he began investigating the Wagner unit’s links to a billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, often dubbed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cook .  Russia has constantly denied involvement in the fighting in Donbas, and has since pushed the same line regarding men on the ground in Syria.  Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov has claimed that Utkin was present as a recipient of the Order of Courage and that nothing was known about his military unit which has no legal status in Russia.   

Korotkov notes that both 46-year-old Utkin and his deputy – 54-year-old Andrei Troshev -   were present at the occasion, wearing military honours, including Gold Stars received for the taking of Palmyra in Syria.  There are no official decrees indicating what either Utkin or Troshev received their awards for, however Putin ended his address to the 300 invited guests, saying that “each of them has written his own, colourful page in Russia’s history”. 

A bloody page for Ukraine. 

Utkin was, until 2013, the commander of a Russian Military Intelligence [GRU] spetsnaz unit.  He officially became a reserve officer that year and spent a brief period in Syria for the Moran Security Group.  He returned to Syria after Russia began its open campaign in September 2015, however is much better known in Ukraine for his extremely active and bloody role in the Kremlin-backed military conflict in Donbas. 

His use of the nom de guerre ‘Wagner’ reportedly began on his return from Syria and is linked with his anti-Semitism and fascination with Nazism (Richard Wagner having been Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer).   

From 2014, Utkin was commander of the so-called ‘Wagner private military company’ which is believed to have taken part in Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea, being used, for example, to disarm Ukrainian military bases.  From there they moved to Donbas and became involved in the military conflict on the side of the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ [LNR].  Yury Butusov, Chief Editor of the Ukrainian Censor.NET, believes that it is the Wagner unit who are really in charge of things, he asserts, with the so-called leaders like Igor Plotnitsky and Alexander Zakharchenko merely a smokescreen.  He and Korotkov both point to the highly professional level, with no locals nor Russians without experience taken on.

The amounts paid per month, if the reports are correct, far exceed any wages that the men could earn from ordinary employment or official military service.  They are also many times higher than the monthly pay to other militants.  If killed fighting, the men’s families are supposed to receive 3 million roubles (around 46 thousand EUR).  Korotkov has tracked down two of the men who died fighting in Debaltseve in January 2015.  Their gravestones admit that they died in Donbas, but claim that they were ordinary ‘volunteers’, whereas in fact they were members of the Wagner unit.  Korotkov also gives details of the Russian military honours men have received for fighting in unrecognized military formations on other countries’ territory.

This is also an extremely secret unit.  Neither the commanders nor the fighters give interviews, and there is obviously strict discipline preventing the revelations on social networks that have made it possible to track the involvement of other Russian mercenaries and / or military servicemen in Ukraine. 

Utkin and his men are believed to have carried out several killings of prominent militants, such as Alexander Bednov [Batman], Alexei Mozgovoi, Pavel Dremov and others. 

It should be stressed that much of Korotkov’s earlier report is effectively backed by a Sky news report in August 2016, based on interviews with Russian men who said that they had been trained to fight in Wagner’s military formation and flown on Russian military planes to Syria to help troops loyal to Bashar al Assad.  

The same training area in Russia near Krasnodar is mentioned, with both sources noting that Molkino houses a Russian Ministry of Defence special forces [spetsnaz] base.  Part of this base was reportedly handed over to the Wagner unit for recruitment and training well before the Wagner unit fighters began being sent to Syria, rather than Donbas, in the autumn of 2015. 

It is not just the location and military planes that indicate Russian Defence Ministry involvement.  The men in both Donbas and Syria have had highly sophisticated weapons, including some that are only available to the Russian military. 

The advantages for Moscow of such ‘private’ military formations are obvious.  Highly trained officers can be sent in to fight Russia’s undeclared wars, without having to admit to their presence and without any unfortunate statistics on military deaths. 

Photos from Fontanka.ru

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