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29.08.2017 | Halya Coynash

Russians admit to killing for money – Ukrainians or Syrians, as Russia demands

Wagner fighters in Syria, two fighters killed in the battle for Debaltseve
   

More details have emerged of the scale and the money used to recruit Russians willing to fight Russia’s undeclared wars in Ukraine and Syria.  The new documents about people fighting in the so-called Wagner Private Military Company give the lie to Moscow’s claims that all Russians fighting against the Ukrainian army in Donbas are there as ‘volunteers’, and this is not only because of the money they earn.  Several men have received fully-fledged Russian military awards for their part in key battles, they use weapons only available to the military and train at a base adjacent to one run by the Defence Ministry.  The trail also clearly leads to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a billionaire who owes his wealth to his close connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Denis Korotkov from the St-Petersburg Fontanka.ru has been tirelessly tracking the activities of the supposedly private Wagner military unit and Dmitry Utkin, its leader and a former Russian military intelligence [GRU] officer for over two years now.  Previous reports have been backed by other sources, and have presumably convinced the US State Department which included both the billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhnin’s Concord Catering company  and Utkin in new sanctions imposed in June 2017.  Prigozhin himself has been under sanctions since December 2016.

Dmitry Utkin, whose nom de guerre is Wagner, is one of two Russian GRU officers who have played a bloody role in Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine.  Both he and Igor Girkin, whom Ukraine wants tried for war crimes in both Crimea and Donbas, officially left their GRU positions in 2013. 

Although most information about the Wagner ‘Private Military Company’ [PMC] has come from its involvement and heavy losses in Syria, there were reports of its men fighting against the Ukrainian government in Donbas from back in 2014.  Korotkov earlier  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.  

The claim that this is a ‘private’ military formation enables Moscow to deny any direct involvement, although the PMC closely follows the regime’s political moves abroad. 

Fighting as a mercenary is illegal in Russia, yet not one of the men known to have fought in Donbas or Syria has been prosecuted back in Russia.  Quite the contrary:  46-year-old Utkin and his deputy – 54-year-old Andrei Troshev -   were present at a Putin-hosted Kremlin reception on December 9, 2016, marking ‘Hero of the Fatherland Day’, and Korotkov has found evidence of other fighters receiving military awards, some, like the men who died in the battle for Debaltseve, posthumously.

It was thanks to Korotkov that the Kremlin’s honouring of Utkin and his deputy, both of whom are effectively recruiting mercenaries, was noticed, and he and Irina Tumakova have now reported seeing the application forms of just over two thousand men wanting to join the Wagner PMC. 

The report provides a rather depressing identikit picture of the applicants.  Most are between 35 and 40, and from the Caucuses or former Soviet republics where ethnic Russians encountered problems after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most have secondary education, and those that do have higher education are unable to find any or, at least, decently paid, work in their profession.   

Many did indeed stay on in the army after doing military service, and are often interested in martial arts or similar. They then end up in civilian life, either without work, or doing menial and / or badly-paid jobs.  Most have experience of the war in Chechnya, and, where they do mention, ‘patriotism’ in their application, they do so with howling spelling mistakes.

In the majority of cases, the men are divorced and having to pay maintenance for one or more children.  They often also have large loans they need to repay.

It is the above that pushes more or less all of them to jon the Wagner PMC.  The money paid is much better than anything most of them could otherwise hope for. . 

With respect to Donbas, the authors believe it possible that one or two may have genuinely gone there “to defend the Russian world”.  Those few then learned that they could earn a lot if they joined the Wagner Group.  Many, however, went purely for the money and do not even try to conceal this on the form.  They write that their aim is to improve their financial situation, or quite simply “money”.

The authors report that around five thousand have thus far fought in the PMC, with just over two thousand at any one time.  Over 100 are known to have been killed in Syria, and one high-ranking member took a lot of information and left Russia.  They say that they think this unnamed person is now in Israel, and there is no way of knowing whether he is their source.

Details are provided of many fighters, though only those killed are named.  A woman calling herself the wife of Alexei Starikov, who was killed in February 2016, claims he went to Syria “to fight terrorism, defend his country”.  In his form, Starikov wrote that he was divorced, and as his reason for joining – that he needed to pay maintenance.

After being in charge of a military vehicle unit in Chechnya, he couldn’t find any occupation that suited him (and that he could earn a living doing) in civilian life.  He was first sent by the Wagner PMC to Donbas in March 2015.  From there he headed off to Syria in January 2016, and was killed a month and a half later, aged 32.

Another of the men killed around the same time was 36-year-old Alexei Malyshevsky.  He had written on the form that his aim was “money and social status”.  Although he had a legal education, he had been unable to find decent work in Bashkiria, had a wife, child and loans. 

Two months after his death, an outfit calling itself the Union of Volunteers of Donbas from Bashkiria handed his parents a cross entitled “Volunteer of Donbas”, claiming that Malyshevsky had been following the example of his grandfather who “fought for his homeland”. 

His father was clearly unconvinced.  He did not want to talk in detail about his son, but said the following:

“The information is restricted, but I can quote the “Smerch” serial: “If you work on the territory of another country, be aware that if anything happens, you weren’t there, nobody will help you, nobody sent you there.”  These words epitomize the state’s whole attitude to its own citizens.  It was always like that and will be.  Unfortunately, you won’t help us in any way. “

The authors give details, in the latest article and in previous ones, about other fighters for the PMC.  It is clear from the details about one of the men, identified as ‘Botsman’, who fought in Donbas from July 2014, that he had wanted to “improve his financial situation” before he joined the PMC.

There are plenty of other Russians who have openly mentioned the money they were paid for their services, including neo-Nazi sadist Alexei Milchakov.  See also: Russian Soldiers Sent to Ukraine Tracked by Hypermarkets and Unmarked Graves

The difference with Wagner’s fighters is the effective recognition its leaders have had, and in the strong grounds for believing that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the person widely called Putin’s Chef, who has amassed millions since Putin’s rise to power, is funding the Wagner Group. Although Prigozhin is also believed to be behind the ‘Internet troll’ factory in St Petersburg, it seems significant that US sanctions in June this year were imposed on both Prigozhin and Utkin. 

The other difference is directly incriminating.  Russia’s Defence Ministry can reject Fontanka.ru’s reports as much as it likes.  The denials are less than convincing when the Wagner Group men undergo training in Molkino, Krasnodar region, where there is also a Defence Ministry special forces base.  It is inconceivable that the ‘private’ outfit would be there, without the ministry’s direct involvement.

Much of Korotkov’s earlier report about the PMC was 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 military plane and training base cite are incriminating, but so too are the weapons that Korotkov, the Conflict Intelligence Team and other investigative journalists have managed to identify.  These include highly sophisticated weapons available only to the Russian military. 

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