In February 2018, people in the Russian town of Asbest were surprised to learn that several of their fellow citizens had died in Khasham, eastern Syria, 4,000 kilometers (2,489 miles) from home. When Maxim Borodin, the star reporter from the newspaper Novy Den (New Day), arrived in Asbest, the deaths were still shrouded in mystery. Asbest, in the Sverdlovsk region, is known mainly for its asbestos factories, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, the population in this industrial hamlet was hit hard. Residents lost their jobs, and to feed their families they increasingly turned to employment opportunities in private security for individuals and companies, a sector that has grown since the early 1990s, thanks to the associated risks of doing business in Russia’s nascent market economy.
Borodin was determined to find out what the men were doing in Syria and how they had died. He interviewed relatives and the commanders of the deceased and attended their secret funerals. His resulting article provoked a national scandal and drew attention to a topic the Russian government had wanted to keep quiet: the use of private military companies (PMCs) to serve the Kremlin’s foreign policy objectives and secure and protect the business interests of the kleptocrats in charge of Russia’s most lucrative resources. The article would be Borodin’s last.
On April 12, 2018, Borodin was found seriously injured and in a coma in his hometown of Yekaterinburg. Police say Borodin “fell” from his balcony while smoking. The day before, he had contacted a friend and told him that he’d spotted armed men in camouflage near his apartment. Three days later, he was dead.
Through his investigation in Asbest, Borodin discovered that the dead had joined a mercenary force known as the Wagner Group, a PMC created in 2014 and financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and catering magnate close to President Vladimir Putin. While PMCs are technically illegal, private security companies are not. PMCs like the Wagner Group adopt the façade of a security company, but at the same time they have clear ties to Russian intelligence agencies such as the FSB (national security services) and GRU (military intelligence) and to both the Russian special forces and the army. In making the connection between the deaths of Russian civilians in Syria and their work with the Wagner Group, Borodin uncovered a tangled web of state, business, and security interests that are primarily concerned with preserving their influence and power.
There are a number of PMCs in Russia, but the Wagner Group typifies the way global business and geopolitics operate in Putin’s Russia. Mercenaries who work for companies like the Wagner Group provide security to sites (such as mines and oil fields) that are of strategic interest to the Kremlin and its kleptocrats. PMCs also perform such functions on behalf of foreign governments, and in this way, they have become an important tool for the Kremlin to promote its foreign policy objectives. For each of the key parties involved — the Kremlin, foreign governments, state industries, and private business interests — PMCs not only offer lucrative opportunities but, due to their quasi-legal structure, also provide plausible deniability for their clandestine activities.
The origins of the Wagner Group can be traced back to the Soviet period and evolved out of several decades of military adventurism, particularly during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s but also during the wars in Chechnya in the early 1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, veterans of these wars have been hired as commanders and advisers to the Wagner Group. For example, Wagner’s main commander, Dmitry Utkin, is a former colonel and commander of the GRU and a veteran of the Chechen wars. As the recipient of four Orders of Courage, Utkin was an official guest in the Kremlin for the Day of Heroes of the Fatherland on Dec. 9, 2016, where he posed for photos next to Putin. Utkin also has ties with Prigozhin. In 2014, Utkin fought with fighters from the Wagner Group in Luhansk, and in 2017 Utkin became director of Concord Management and Consulting LLC — a subsidiary of Prigozhin’s Concord Catering company, which secured a substantial state contract to deliver food to the regular Russian army.
The Wagner Group also employs tactics that were developed during the Afghan war. The Soviet army used so-called Muslim Battalions, special units made up of Muslims from Central Asia whose main task was to carry out covert operations disguised as locals. In the spring of 1979, Moscow sent eight Mi-8 helicopters, a signal center, and an An-12 aircraft to transport a paratrooper battalion to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Although the military personnel were Soviet, the markings on the helicopters were Afghan, and the crew, including the paratroopers, wore the insignia of the Afghan army. This technique bears an uncanny resemblance to that used by the so-called Little Green Men — the soldiers who appeared without insignias in Crimea in February 2014 and helped Russia annex the territory.
According to Maj. Yuri Kozlov, who was monitoring the Soviet unit on behalf of the GRU, the Muslim Battalion was the first of its kind among the Spetsnaz (special forces). For three months, under the command of Maj. Habib Halbaev, the battalion members trained for special operations, intercepted enemy communications, captured airports, held mountain passes, and engaged in urban battles.
In the 1990s, the military and political elite deployed Muslim Battalions to Chechnya and “volunteer detachments” to the Balkans to fight on the side of the Serbs. And once the marriage of the old guard with the new economic elite was consummated in the person of Vladimir Putin, the lessons of Afghanistan and Chechnya combined to produce Russia’s private mercenary industry.
Since Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine, out of which the Wagner Group was founded, PMCs continue to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances. Many PMCs affiliated with the security establishment perform defensive functions. Some, such as the E.N.O.T. Corp, serve more as ideological tools in the Balkans, Belarus, and Ukraine, where they have organized the so-called patriotic camps for young people. And others, like Wagner, are moving step-by-step from providing security to performing offensive operations on the front line and behind enemy lines, as during the conquest of Palmyra.
While researching Russian mercenaries for our book, “Russian Invisible Armies,” Kirill Avramov and I came across two shadowy forces so wrapped in symbolism and mystification that many analysts deny their existence: the Turan Battalion and the ISIS Hunters. Their personnel are mostly from Central Asia, and they are involved in operations in the Syrian provinces of Homs, Aleppo, and Hamah. They appear to serve the same function as the Soviet-era Muslim Battalions, but instead of state funding, they are supported by businesspeople close to the Kremlin. The two groups are thought to be nothing more than Wagner subsidiaries and are used as a propaganda tool.
An episode from December 2016, when Syrian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali Ghanem visited Moscow without fanfare, is significant. Details of the episode didn’t emerge until March 2017, when Alexander Novak, then the Russian energy minister, revealed in an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper that the participation of several Russian companies in oil and gas exploration and production projects in Syria had been discussed with Ghanem, with an emphasis on security. Euro Polis, a shell company established in 2016 for the purposes of Prigozhin’s business, has been appointed to perform these security tasks and fulfills the initial security orders in Syria for the exploration and production of oil by Russian companies.
In early 2017, Oleg Erokhin, a former soldier of the Russian special forces who was often seen with Putin’s close ally, Prigozhin, became general director of Euro Polis. In May 2017, a branch of Euro Polis was registered in Damascus and the mercenaries joined the security of the energy sites. Oleg Krinitsyn, chief executive officer of the private military consulting firm RSB Group, told Russian media that the Wagner Group was involved in guarding the oil fields but that the decision was “taken from above” — at the state level, together with Prigozhin. According to Krinitsyn, the participation of groups such as Wagner in Syria is both normal and expected when Russia invests so much.
Meanwhile, Prigozhin also owns a media holding company, Patriot, made up of the Federal News Agency and 16 websites, with a total audience of 36 million. It was through this media group that the most widely read articles related to ISIS Hunters, Turan, and Wagner have appeared. Turan and the ISIS Hunters are often presented in the Russian pro-government media as “local groups” and thereby provide a façade for corporate armies working with regular Russian forces that serve purely private interests.
Putin’s campaign relies on companies outside Prigozhin’s empire. In 2016, it emerged that another prominent, Putin-linked oligarch, Gennady Timchenko, who is the head of Stroytransgaz, had signed a contract with the Syrian government to protect gas production and transportation from various threats. The company had been present in the country for at least 20 years and was involved in the construction of the South Middle Area gas pipeline and a gas processing plant in the vicinity of Raqqah in central Syria.
Such operations have multiple benefits: They support Russian private interests connected to the Kremlin while helping regular Russian forces in sabotage and reconnaissance activities. The PMCs also train select local units in special forces techniques and weapons. In addition, the propaganda effect of such operations on the local public and beyond is enormous. From the point of view of Russian state and private interests, such combat formations, consisting of experienced mercenaries and local associates, represent a flexible and adaptable military option.
But the Wagner Group and other Russian PMCs are more than just security companies: They are a lever for influence and a means for protecting that influence. In recent years, Russia has sent mercenaries as part of its forces to Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, and others that have had good connections to Moscow.
The Central African Republic is instructive of the way the Kremlin engages PMCs as a geopolitical tool to fulfill its foreign policy objectives. Having experienced serious security problems for years, the territory of the Central African Republic has been divided between the government and rebel forces. In 2017, the Kremlin saw an opportunity to expand its foreign policy and sent weapons, military instructors, and civilian advisers in support of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Touadéra accepted the support at a meeting in Sochi with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s minister of foreign affairs. Touadéra’s military agreement with the Kremlin has expanded Russia’s reach in Africa, where it is competing for influence with France, China, and Turkey, all of which have been developing their presence on the continent for years.
In the Central African Republic, as well as in Sudan, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe, Russia is increasingly involved politically and economically, concluding several agreements with local authorities without much fuss. Mercenaries provide security for sites of interest to both the Kremlin and its affiliated oligarchs, such as gold mines, in all three countries. Proceeds from mining are then included in Russia’s state budget, which has been hit hard by U.S. and EU sanctions. PMCs are the perfect hybrid of public-private partnerships, and to observers and the local population and administration, it is not clear where state interests end and private interests begin.
There is particular demand for Russian PMCs among countries with autocratic regimes, rich in natural resources, and torn by internal conflicts. Local elites, under siege by their own population, benefit from the suite of specialized services of PMCs that go beyond the traditional forms of military diplomacy and equipment to include the provision of instructors, cyber mercenaries, political technologists, and the provision of private security. These services amount to Russian insurance to guarantee the survival of local entities against domestic and international pressure. On the Russian side, too, the return on investment is high: In exchange for these services, the Kremlin acquires influence and control of lucrative resources.
Before being assigned to Libya or the Central African Republic, many mercenaries begin their operations in Syria, which continues to be a major base for Russian special forces and the Wagner Group. Like Afghanistan decades ago, Syrian territory has been used as a springboard for further lucrative exploits. There is an entire range of PMC formations being developed, backed by the FSB and GRU, with veterans from the former Yugoslavia, Abkhazia, Chechnya, and Ukraine.
While PMCs may offer a variety of “services” adapted to fit the needs of companies or regimes, their core function is to secure and protect the interests of the Kremlin and its kleptocrats. The overlap of state, business, and security interests, along with the principle of plausible deniability, underlie the power and robust quality of PMCs. Borodin’s investigation into the deaths of Russian mercenaries in Syria and his subsequent premature death are a testament to this.