In the desert of eastern Syria, not far from a town called Deir ez-Zor, there’s reportedly a pile of stones surrounding a wooden board, with an Orthodox cross and an inscription burned into the wood: “2017. To the eternal memory of the warriors killed and missing in the SAR [Syrian Arab Republic].” The stone cairn is decorated with a machine gun belt, a large-caliber bullet and a Russian army helmet. The dead are identified only by their wartime nicknames: Warrior, Executioner, Scorpion, Nightingale.
All were purportedly Russian mercenaries who perished in the war in Syria. But their real names don’t appear on any death toll. Russia will never acknowledge their apparent role in the conflict. For Moscow’s secret soldiers, that pile of stones may be as close as they will ever get to official recognition.
The use of mercenaries is illegal under Russian law. But since at least the 1990s, Moscow has used them as deniable proxies for its military interventions abroad. In Bosnia and in the breakaway Moldovan province of Transnistria, teams of “volunteers” secretly backed by the Russian military went into battle—while Moscow’s real troops officially acted as neutral peacekeepers. Over the past four years, however, President Vladimir Putin has dramatically ramped up the use of private military contractors as a crucial part of his foreign policy, using them to extend Russian power in eastern Ukraine and Syria.
The shift began at dawn on March 18, 2014, when units of regular Russian servicemen, their insignia removed from their uniforms, moved out from a base at Sevastopol to occupy key military targets across the Ukrainian province of Crimea. Backing these soldiers was a motley group of unidentified fighters who swooped into radio stations and local government buildings. Some were pro-Moscow Ukrainian policemen, others were local gangsters—but many, according to Western analysts and the Security Service of Ukraine, were paid mercenaries.
Later that summer, as war flared in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s military intelligence agency, known as the GRU, began sending much larger and better-organized units of ex-Russian servicemen, recruited mostly from the North Caucasus, to fight in the Donbass. Since then, mercenaries have become “a central element of the Kremlin’s geopolitical adventures, whether in Ukraine or, even more clearly, Syria,” says Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations, a Prague-based think tank.
Outsourcing fighting to mercenaries has allowed the Kremlin to covertly participate in conflicts like the war in Ukraine, where it officially claims it is not involved. It’s also enabled Russia to boost its military presence in declared wars, such as the one in Syria, without having to announce casualties, making it easier to maintain public support.
Mercenaries are “an illegal way to provide cannon fodder for the Kremlin’s foreign adventures,” says Kirill Mikhailov, an activist at the Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team, a group that gathers open-source intelligence on Russia’s covert military activities. “But even though they are mercenaries, they are still Russians, and we believe the Russian public has the right to know about Russians dying while doing Putin’s dirty work abroad.”
The exact nature of the relationship between the Russian military and the secretive private military companies operating in Syria and Ukraine is unclear. But the Kremlin has not been shy about publicly honoring leading mercenary company officials for their services to the motherland. In December 2016, Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Utkin was photographed at a Kremlin banquet with Putin. Utkin is the founder of the Wagner Group, which the U.S. Treasury Department named as a major recruiter of Russian citizens to fight in Syria when the department imposed personal sanctions on him last year. (Wagner could not be reached for comment.)
The Russian president has also been photographed with Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg entrepreneur dubbed “Putin’s chef” by Russian media because of his extensive restaurant and catering businesses. The U.S. Treasury Department has imposed banking and travel sanctions on Prigozhin for his stake in Moscow-based Evro Polis, an oil and general trading company. Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny has revealed deep commercial ties between Evro Polis and the Russian Defense Ministry—and the independent fontanka.ru news site has called Prigozhin a front for Wagner Group’s activities in Syria. (On its website, the company lists interests in mining, oil and gas production, and in 2016 it opened an office in the Syrian capital of Damascus.) Neither Evro Polis nor Prigozhin’s Concorde Management responded to Newsweek’s requests for comment.
Over the past few years, Utkin has emerged as perhaps the most well-known figure in the shadowy world of private Russian military contractors. Like former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater, the U.S. military contractor that provided tens of thousands of private security guards during the second Iraq War, Utkin has become a key player in his country’s military deployments. But unlike Blackwater, Utkin’s soldiers have no official contract or relationship with the Russian Defense Ministry—and unlike U.S. private contractors, Wagner’s men are fighting on the front line.
“U.S. contractors do auxiliary work, such as guarding oil fields,” says Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst at the independent Moscow-based Novaya Gazetanewspaper. Companies like Wagner are more like African armies for hire, says Felgenhauer, such as the infamous Executive Outcomes, which the Angolan and Sierra Leone governments hired in the 1990s to brutally suppress Marxist insurgencies.
Born in Ukraine in 1970, Utkin commanded a spetsnaz brigade, the special forces unit of Russia’s military intelligence directorate. He retired in 2013 to work for a private military company called the Moran Security Group that specialized, according to its website, in anti-piracy operations, along with security and training missions around the world. According to a 2016 investigation by Radio Free Europe, senior Moran Security Group managers in 2013 set up a St. Petersburg–based organization known as the Slavonic Corps, which recruited former Russian soldiers to protect oil fields and pipelines in Syria. Utkin was one of their commanders. The mission was reportedly a disaster, and according to a senior London-based U.S. private security source who is not authorized to speak on the record, the Slavonic Corps was badly equipped, poorly led and suffered heavy casualties.
“It’s often hard to tell with military contractors where private interests end and government ones begin,” says the private security source who is not authorized to speak on the record. “That’s kind of the point. With the Slavonic Corps in Syria, it was probably both. Russian oil companies wanted to get into [Syria], and the [Kremlin] also wanted to have a presence in there that would be nonofficial.”
Despite the failure, Utkin founded the Wagner Group in 2014, naming it after his nom de guerre, which was reportedly inspired by a fascination with Nazi Germany. Quickly, he became a key, if unofficial, employee of the Kremlin, according to Felgenhauer, the military analyst. Utkin showed up in the rebel Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, leading a group of former soldiers who fought with local rebels. Wagner’s people are “direct proxies of Russia,” says Felgenhauer. “But they are semi-independent and give plausible deniability—the Russians can say, ‘We don’t know anything about this.’”
Utkin’s men were allegedly effective and ruthless. According to the Security Service of Ukraine, Wagner troops were involved in shooting down a Ukrainian airplane at Luhansk International Airport in June 2014, killing 40 Ukrainian paratroopers. Ukrainian intelligence alleges they played a key role in directing a withering artillery barrage that resulted in Kiev’s defeat at the city of Debaltseve in early 2015.
Wagner’s more valuable role on the ground allegedly was to help the Kremlin assassinate rebel leaders who refused to follow orders. Last November, the Security Service of Ukraine published what it said were intercepted audio recordings that proved a direct link between Utkin and Igor Kornet, the interior minister of the Luhansk People’s Republic, ordering Wagner to eliminate dissident commanders. In March 2016, a Russian nationalist website, Sputnik & Pogrom, boasted that Wagner men liquidated more than 10 Luhansk militia fighters, along with their unruly commander. The Security Service of Ukraine also claims that Wagner disarmed the Odessa Brigade of the Luhansk People’s Republic army after surrounding its base in the city of Krasnodon with the support of tanks and artillery.
Wagner is one of many Russian private military companies fighting in Ukraine identified by InformNapalm, a Ukraine-based volunteer organization that aggregatesevidence from social media on Russian involvement in Donbass. And Wagner’s efforts there were reportedly successful—rebels and their mercenary counterparts beat back a Ukrainian army offensive, and the breakaway, Kremlin-backed republics carved out a kind of independence that they retain today.
But Wagner’s big opportunity came with the launch of Russia’s official involvement in the Syrian war in September 2015. The GRU set aside the headquarters of the 10th Special Mission Brigade in the town of Molkino, near the southern Russia city of Krasnodar, as a military training camp for Wagner recruits, according to relatives of Wagner soldier Tamerlan Kachmazov. They later visited the camp to demand answers when he went missing in Syria and later spoke to the independent Dozhd TV station.
Many mercenaries are reluctant to talk about their experiences to Western reporters. But one man, who purports to be a secret soldier, tells Newsweek that he was recruited for service in Syria in 2015 by an agent for a major private military company—he refused to say which one—while fighting as a volunteer in the Donetsk militia. He gave his name only as Sergei and said he was a 30-year-old driver from Donetsk. It was not possible to independently verify his story, although the details correspond with other interviews given to the Russian press by veterans of private military operations in Syria.
“My main motivation was money, not patriotism,” Sergei claims in a telephone interview. “Most of the guys go to earn money. They offered us 150,000 rubles [$2,600] a month—back home [in Donetsk] you are lucky if you make 15,000. The recruiters told us we’d have safe jobs, guarding communications and bases and so on.”
Sergei and other new recruits flew to Latakia, Syria, in a chartered plane, posing as civilian engineers, he claims. But when they arrived, he says, they soon found themselves involved in heavy fighting. The training was “pretty basic” and the discipline harsh. He alleges, “We recruits were not allowed to go and bathe while in camp near Latakia, and the whole unit would be fined if anyone was found drinking.” The company paid a 5,000-ruble ($88) bounty on the head of any member of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) it killed, according to Sergei. The agreed compensation for a serious wound was 900,000 rubles ($16,000), while the relatives of any dead soldiers were promised 3 million rubles ($53,000). As far as Sergei knew through the “bush telegraph” of mercenaries, nobody was cheated on salary.
Wagner deployed around 3,000 employees to Syria between 2015 and 2017, according to the Conflict Intelligence Team, almost matching the official numbers of Russian military personnel—4,000 regular troops and airmen—who served there. And the Wagner forces spearheaded strategic battles, such as the fight to recapture the city of Palmyra from ISIS in 2016—a victory celebrated by the Kremlin with a concert in the Syrian city’s ancient amphitheater given by Valery Gergiev, Russia’s leading conductor.
In an interview, Robert Young Pelton, author of Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, tells Newsweek the Wagner forces in Syria are mostly functioning as “forward advisers…training and then directing fire and movement on the front lines.” Pelton adds that one of his sources working in Deir ez-Zor told him that the quality of the fighting Russians was “not that impressive…not many professionals in the team and too much blood.”
Mostly, the Wagner teams “have been effective in training and directing Syrian forces to move, shoot and communicate,” Pelton adds. They also coordinate airstrikes that helped the overwhelming Russian air supremacy turn the war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor.
According to Felgenhauer, the military analyst, Wagner and its ilk have made a crucial contribution to Assad’s war effort. “They do real serious combat…. They are crack infantry specialists running anti-aircraft weapons, artillery, rocket systems and so on.”
Compared with official U.S. military contractors, Wagner employees have far less accountability, and analysts say the company’s apparent success has come at a high cost. According to fontanka.ru, at least 73 mercenaries have died in Syria—or, by the Conflict Intelligence Team’s estimate, 101.
Despite attempts by Russian authorities to cover up those deaths, a few independent internet media outlets have published interviews with angry relatives. Last October, ISIS put a video online of two captured Wagner employees. The men identified themselves as Russian citizens Grigory Tsurkanu and Roman Zabolotny—but the Russian Defense Ministry denied all knowledge of them, and a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman cast doubt on whether they were Russian.
In December, three months after their son’s capture, Tsurkanu’s parents said in an interview with TV station Dozhd that Wagner operatives moved into their house to prevent them from speaking to the press. They were later told—again by Wagner—that their son had been killed. “I was naive,” Tsurkanu’s weeping mother told Dozhd in November. “Putin once said, ‘We don’t abandon Russians.’ I believed it. Now I understand that was a lie. Damn them, Wagner, all of them.”
Despite official denials of direct links, the Kremlin seems to have honored Wagner’s commanders for their service. Utkin and his deputy Alexander Kuznetsov, who has convictions for kidnapping and robbery, have reportedly won the Order of Courage four times. Both were photographed at a private audience with Putin in December 2016, alongside Andrey Bogatov, head of Wagner’s fourth reconnaissance and assault company (he lost an arm in the battle for Palmyra), and Wagner Executive Director Andrey Troshev. Bogatov and Troshev have also been awarded the Hero of Russia medal for exceptional service to the country, according to Russian press reports. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed the authenticity of the photos but not the awards.
“It is possible that it was the result of some lobbying by the Syrian government,” Russian Senator Franz Klintsevich, deputy head of the Defense and Security Committee of the upper house of Russia’s parliament, tells Newsweek. “Perhaps they said, These guys are real heroes. They deserve to be decorated…. But there is no official link between these men and the Russian government.”
For years, Klintsevich has been lobbying to make mercenaries legal in Russia. “We need to make use of the U.S. experience and integrate private military companies into our military planning,” he says. “But we have been unable to pass the necessary laws because of a conflict between the Defense Ministry and the Federal Security Service over who would control such military groups. They have heavy serious weapons, not just AK-47s, so there is a security issue with their regulation.”
Sergei Zheleznyak, deputy head of the State Duma’s foreign affairs committee, concurs. “The American use military contractors all the time,” he tells Newsweek. “Why shouldn’t we?”
Yet the debate about legalizing private military companies misses the key point, some analysts say. And not just because American contractors—who are also controversial—perform different roles. The close relationship between the Russian military and the mercenaries allows the Kremlin to deploy them as secret soldiers in places the Russian army can’t officially go. Private armies are a perfect tool for the Kremlin’s newfound brand of hybrid warfare, which mobilizes covert forces and private companies to accomplish the state’s aims. Wagner “looks like a private sector body, and sometimes it will act as such, but whenever it is needed by the state, it is pressed into service,” says the Institute of International Relations’ Galeotti. “A company like Wagner is simply an extreme example of the prevailing hybrid business’s model—with private enterprises used not just to further the Kremlin’s aims at home but now to fight its wars abroad.”
Russia’s Syrian intervention has revived the Kremlin’s ambitions to be a power broker in the Middle East—and mercenaries provide a perfect vehicle for projecting power without official Kremlin involvement. “Wagner has become rather well organized and demonstrated that they can be very much of use,” says Felgenhauer.
In March, ex-soldiers from RSB Group, a private military company, appeared to de-mine areas of Libya captured by Moscow-backed warlord Khalifa Haftar near Benghazi, supposedly at the invitation of a local cement company, RSB owner Oleg Krinitsyn told Reuters. More recently, Russian regular forces have moved into the Egyptian air base in the town of Sidi Barrani, about 60 miles from the Egypt-Libya border, as well as deploying a 22-member Russian special forces unit to a nearby base at the Mersa Matruh seaport, though it’s not known if any of Moscow’s mercenaries are still operating in support of Haftar.
Now, as Russia winds down its military involvement in Syria, many are speculating on where Putin will send his private armies next—and where the next monument to Russia’s fallen secret soldiers will rise from the ground.