Ride of the Russkis: The Wagner Group in Syria

The last two weeks have seen the widespread coverage of clashes between U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and Russian private military contractors. As many as 300 Russian nationals fighting with the Wagner PMC (private military company) were reportedly killed in Syria, including by possible US airstrikes. If true, this would constitute the most serious Western-Russian military clash since Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015.

By Sean Crowley and Steven Luber

Background – Nightfire

On the evening of 7 February 2018 in Syria’s Dayr az-Zur province, a position occupied by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella militia for Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen fighting forces involved in the country’s bloody civil war, came under attack from a 500-strong militant force loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. Crossing the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, the attacking pro-regime elements came within three miles of the SDF headquarters outpost and opened fire with a barrage of 122-milimeter howitzer fire along with older-model, Soviet-made T-55 and T-72 main battle tanks (MBTs) discharging 20 to 30 rounds at the mostly-Kurdish fighters. Next, the assaulting forces staged a battalion-sized dismounted infantry attack using their artillery and tanks as well as mortars and multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) for cover.

United States military advisers stationed at the outpost with the SDF fighters called for air support. Above the carnage, MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and F-22 Raptor multirole air superiority fighters (ASFs) provided intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); overwatch; and counter-air defense. Meanwhile, U.S. military officials reached out to their Russian Federation counterparts as the base was separated from pro-regime areas of operation (AO) by a deconfliction line established by Washington and Moscow. Russian military officials assured their American counterparts that Moscow’s forces would not engage the besieged position.

With this guarantee, American officers approved the use of lethal force against the attacking regime elements. Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) on the ground coordinated close air support (CAS) with an initial wave of strike aircraft that arrived to support the Raptors and Reapers. These included F-15E Strike Eagle multirole fighters, B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers, and AC-130 CAS gunships. Army AH-64 Apache helicopters fired on any retreating militants while Marine Corps personnel provided supporting artillery fire from the ground using 155-mm M777 towed howitzers, which fire Global Positioning System (GPS)-guided shells, and 277-mm High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). Tanks also participated in the counterattack with the exchange of fire lasting three hours. 

After the firefight ended, reports emerged regarding the attackers’ exact identities. Interestingly, a minority of the assault force consisted of Syrians and Iranians with the remaining aggressors being members of Wagner, a Russian private military company (PMC). The number of Wagner mercenaries killed in the attack remains in dispute, though 100 killed and 200 wounded is the most often cited figure. Particularly interesting following the attack was Moscow’s denial of Wagner’s presence in the area. Mariya Zakharova, the spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ministerstvo inostrannykh del Rossiyskoy Federatsii; MID), claimed that only five Russian citizens died in the firefight and that they had no connection to the Russian military. The U.S. initially claimed that its forces killed only 100 pro-regime militants. Michael Kofman,  an analyst of Russian military affairs, disputed all of these accounts, estimating that the casualties consisted of 40 Syrian Arab Army (SAA) personnel (including a brigadier general) of the 5th Assault Corps, 20 members of a pro-Asad militia, and 13-15 Wagner contractors. According to Kofman, 40 dead and 70 wounded are the most likely casualty figures.

Igor Girkin, a veteran Russian mercenary fighter (turned anti-Putin critic) of the civil war in Ukraine’s Donbas region, made unsubstantiated claims that Russian personnel cremated many of the bodies on site to hide the extent of Moscow’s involvement in Syria. In leaked calls, Wagner personnel described the 7 February assault as “a total fuckup.” Further casting doubt on the true casualties suffered by the mercenary force, one voice in the recording mentions a Wagner squadron losing 200 personnel with another losing ten. A third lost an unknown number. Yet another voice maintains that 215 is the total number of dead contractors. Apparently, Wagner lost all its vehicles in the attack except for one tank and one BRDM (Boyevaya Razvedyvatelnaya Dozornaya Mashina; Combat Reconnaissance Patrol Vehicle).

Whatever the true casualty numbers, here is what is known thus far about the incident and what this article intends to investigate:

o   A force of Russian-speaking mercenaries, together with local pro-Asad forces, attacked the positions of U.S.-backed SDF personnel near Dayr az-Zur.

o   The presence of U.S. advisors at this location later came to light.

o   The Russian Ministry of Defense (Ministerstvo oborony; MO) has repeatedly denied any involvement, and subsequent reports indicate that local pro-Asad actors hired the mercenaries to seize YPG/SDF held oil and gas fields.

o   US and coalition airstrikes repelled the attackers, resulting in an unknown number of casualties.

o   U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has emphasized the defensive nature of US airstrikes.

o   U.S. officials have stated that Washington is not “looking for conflict with the [Syrian] regime.”

o   The names of 74 Wagner M.I.A. personnel have been released on social media.

o   The MO has stated that no Russian servicemen were involved in the attack, nor are any stationed in the region of Dayr az-Zur.

This information obviously leaves more questions unanswered than answered. What is the nature of the relationship between Wagner and the Kremlin? What purposes does the PMC serve for the Russian government and to what extent can Moscow control it? Most importantly, with the U.S. committed to remaining in Syria, will Russia tolerate another massacre of this scale of its own citizens by American forces?

An optimal place to begin this investigation, though, would be a look into the origins of the Wagner group.

Rise of the Valkyries: Wagner’s Shrouded Beginnings

Private military groups are a sensitive topic in Russia. (In Russian, they are referred to as chastnye voennie kompaniy, or ChVK.) While ChVK (used interchangeably with PMC for the remainder of this article), private military entities that engage in offensive action, are illegal in Russia, private security companies (PSCs) are not. However, many analysts argue that Russian leadership circles have become more accepting of ChVK. President Vladimir Putin argued that they are “a way of implementing national interests without the direct involvement of the state.” In 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitriy Rigozin proposed setting up PMCs with official state backing. That same year, a bill was passed allowing companies like Gazprom and Transneft to maintain their own security forces. (Their personnel had been allowed since 2007 to carry heavier firearms than most security officers.)

However, much of the Russian government does not feel the same way about PMCs as the Kremlin hierarchy does. In fact, those opposed to the legalization of such groups even include members of the Kremlin’s upper echelons. For example, in 2014 the Security Council shot down legislation proposed by the lawmaker Gennadiy Nosovko that would have legalized mercenary activities. The military and the security services were particularly opposed to this bill, fearing that ChVK could end their monopoly on violence. Others feared that businessmen would use such forces to their own ends.

Wagner, therefore, stems from a PSC called the Moran Security Group. Its founder is a Moran employee, one Dmitriy Utkin, who is currently under sanction for illegal activity in Ukraine by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. According to the Security Service of Ukraine (Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrayiny; SBU), Utkin was formerly a Ukrainian citizen, and later fought against Ukrainian forces with the separatist Lugansk (Luhansk) People’s Republic (LNR or LPR). However, as a Russian national Utkin reportedly served in a special operations (spetsnaz) unit under the control of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (Glavnoye razvedyvatel'noye upravleniye; GRU), the Pskov-based 2nd Spetsnaz Brigade. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel during his service. The name “Wagner” comes from Utkin’s callsign as a spetsnaz operator and is a reference to German nationalist composer Richard Wagner, whose music Adolf Hitler greatly admired. (Utkin, reportedly, is quite enamored with the German leader.)

After his military service, Utkin joined Moran, an entity that describes itself as “an international group of companies offering premier security, transportation, medical, rescue, and consulting services.” According to an investigation by Fontanka, an independent newspaper based in Saint Petersburg, the Moran Security Group possesses numerous offshore assets in Belize and the British Virgin Islands. Foreign Policy reported on Moran in 2013, citing the from the group’s website that the company "offer[s] targeted approaches in the world’s current hot spots, such as the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, which include the enlistment of local experts in these dynamic and highly sensitive environments." The group’s primary specialty is maritime security, protecting ships passing through pirate-infested waters. Most Wagner personnel are Russian citizens, but some have Ukrainian and Serbian passports. It has been suggested that some of the latter may include veterans of the Bosnian and Kosovo wars of the 1990s.

The war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that followed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was perhaps Wagner’s first public appearance. According to the SBU, Wagner fought primarily on behalf of the LNR throughout the Donbas war. Ukrainian reports also suggest that Wagner has been involved in leadership changes in the LNR, categorized by some as political coups. Former separatist leader Igor Girkin (also known as “Strelkov’) confirmed in an interview with Russian media that Wagner remains actively involved in the LNR as of December 2017. More recently, there have been rumors of possible deployment to other fronts, including Tajikistan (where Russian forces have been very active in a counterterrorist capacity), Narogrno Karabakh, and/or Abkhazia.

However, the focus of Wagner deployments as of late has been Syria. The group “officially” entered combat alongside Russian forces in the country in late 2015, but investigations by independent Russian media outlets reveal that before Wagner’s founding, personnel associated with Moran were involved in a scheme to deploy Russian citizens to Syria as volunteer fighters. Investigating the fiasco surrounding the so-called “Slavonic Corps” (which Utkin played only a minor role in) will serve to highlight how the Kremlin’s attitude toward mercenaries fighting in Syria changed from 2013 to 2015.

“You’re Going to Give Mercenaries a Bad Name:” The Curious Case of the Slavonic Corps

Before the official formation of Wagner, the Moran group attempted to organize an ad hoc mercenary force to fight for Syria’s Asad government. Many Russian citizens travelled to fight in Syria as volunteer soldiers when that country’s brutal civil war began, but this was the first large-scale effort to recruit a force consisting of such personnel. It seems that Moran created a Hong Kong-registered front group, Slavonic Corps Limited, to recruit for its Syria campaign. Vyacheslav Kalashnikov, a lieutenant colonel in the Federal Security Service (Federal'naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii; FSB) reserves and the head of the Moran Security Group, attempted to poach up to 2,000 men for the cause using an Internet recruiting campaign. (Wagner no longer uses such tactics to attract members.) The Slavonic Corps boasted that its recruits had experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, eastern Africa, Tajikistan, the North Caucasus, and Serbia.

In September 2013, Slavonic Corps recruits arrived at Potapovskiy Lane, Building 5 in Moscow for processing. (Much of the recruiting also took place at no. 5, Aleksandr Blok St. at the Baltic Shooting Center, the Slavonic Corps’ official address.) However, they did not fill out paperwork until preparations for departure at a St. Petersburg railway station. (Some candidates refused to continue working for the Slavonic Corps at this point and went home.) Promised $4,000 per month of combat pay (still the average pay for a Wagner contractor), the mercenaries flew to Beirut, from there drove to Damascus, and finally settled at a military base in Latakia, the ancestral of home of the Asad family.

By October 2013, the Slavonic Corps in Syria consisted of 267 men split into two companies (one made up entirely of Kuban Cossacks) based out of the stables of a former racetrack located between Latakia and Tartus (home to Russia’s premier naval installation in Syria). Managed by Moran’s deputy director, Vadim Gusev, the mercenaries carried assault rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers with heavier weapons including 1939 model anti-aircraft (AA) guns, mortars from 1943, four T-72 MBTs, and several BMP infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs).

The Slavonic Corps’ first official operation, to protect an oil field in Sukhnah (between Palmyra and Dayr az-Zur) commenced on 15 October. The mercenaries were not told that the oil fields were already under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Before departing, the force had to leave behind its outdated, 1979-model BMPs and replace its T-72s with T-62s only to scrap them as well. The final assault force’s vehicles included only JMC jeeps and Hyundai buses with makeshift armor. En route to their objective, the mercenaries had to rescue a downed Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF) helicopter pilot, whose aircraft crashed into their convoy, wounding one of the fighters, and divert to an airfield in Homs. The force spent two days at the airfield before heading to the Sukhnah oil fields on 18 October to assist pro-regime militias under attack by ISIS jihadists.

Upon arrival, the Cossacks advanced under the aegis of regime aircraft and self-propelled guns (SPGs) to combat the rebel force that numbered between 2,000 and 6,000. After sustaining six combat injuries (two serious), the Slavonic Corps fighters retreated. In the chaos, one mercenary, Aleksey Malyuta from Abinsk in Krasnodar, dropped a bag carrying identifying documents that the jihadists used to expose the presence of Russian mercenaries in Syria. (Malyuta, who previously worked for Moran seizing captured ships from pirates, later admitted to Russian journalists that he served with the Slavonic Corps in Syria, but he denied taking part in any combat.) It is highly unlikely that the Slavonic Corps’ contract (supposedly worth $4 million) was with the Syrian government, though the mercenaries never discovered their client’s true identity. Gusev reportedly argued with this unknown employer after the failed attack on the oil fields, and the client cut the Slavonic Corps’ five-month mission in Syria short, forcing the mercenaries to surrender all their weapons save for their rifles. No mercenary received their promised $4,000.

The FSB arrested several Slavonic Corps executives and detained them at the infamous Lefortovo prison upon the group’s return from Syria at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. Gusev and Moran human resources director Yevgeniy Sidorov were among those charged. Authorities failed to locate another man believed to be involved in the Slavonic Corps scheme, one Sergey Kramskoy. Officially, Kramskoy was the Slavonic Corps’ director. A St. Petersburg resident, he first registered the company in Hong Kong on 12 January 2012, though another organization called the “Slavonic Corps” was registered that April. Another individual whose name appears on documents related to these companies, Sergey Sokharev, admitted to knowing Kalashnikov when interviewed by Russian journalists but denied any connection to Moran. (He does not work for Moran, but many of its employees are familiar with him.) Kalashnikov and fellow Moran manager Boris Chikin also denied any connection to the Slavonic Corps. (Chikin is a shooting instructor and author of bodyguard training manuals who is listed on Slavonic Corps documents as the organization’s deputy general director.)

All this begs the question of what the Slavonic Corps was. Most likely, it was a money-making scheme that the Russian government did not approve. Still, given Kalashnikov’s status, some members of the FSB must have known about this operation. According to Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s armed forces and security services, someone in the FSB reserves running a PMC would be contact with handlers from that agency. The fighters most likely went to Syria under the impression that their mission was government-approved. Some speculate that the FSB burned their people upon their return to Moscow because the mission failed. Nevertheless, no evidence suggests that planning for this operation reached as high up as the Kremlin. The saga of the Slavonic Corps all but came to a close in 2014 when Vadim Gusev and Yevgeniy Sidorov received three-year prison sentences for organizing mercenary activities in Syria. Mercenaries would return Syria in late 2015 in a more official capacity under the guise of Wagner.  

What We Do in the Shadows: Russian Mercenaries as a “Legitimate” Force in Syria

In September 2015, at the request of the Asad government, Russia dispatched a military contingent to Syria to combat the jihadist and Islamist rebels threatening the regime’s survival. The most visible face of this intervention were the dozens of aircraft employed by the Russian Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily Rossii; VVS) against rebel positions. Mercenary forces such as Wagner, operating with all but the Kremlin’s approval, joined the VVS pilots as part of the intervention force. Operating alongside them were numerous spetsnaz personnel, and it is important to make a distinction between the two types of ground forces.  

Even before the air campaign began in September, Russia maintained operatives from Zaslon, a deep cover black ops unit attached to the Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba vneshney razvedki; SVR), in Syria. These forces mostly conducted embassy security. After formal military operations began, spetsnaz from the Ground Forces (Suhoputnye voyska Rossiyskoy Federatsii; SV) secured the port of Tartus and the newly-established Khmeymim air base. Additionally, they conducted reconnaissance to call in airstrikes and artillery strikes especially in January and February 2016 during the bloody siege of Aleppo. Other spetsnaz personnel in Syria include military advisers from GRU, 431st Naval Reconnaissance Point (Brigade) frogmen, and a detachment of Special Operations Forces Command (Komandovanie sil spetsial’nalnykh operatsii; KSSO) scouts and counter-snipers.

Initially, Wagner personnel were used for base security and the protection of other government installations, roles not too dissimilar from their spetsnaz counterparts. As the Asad government’s armed forces regained the offensive, Wagner mercenaries became more involved in the fighting. (They reportedly earned $88 for every IS jihadist that they killed.) They suffered dozens of losses while spetsnaz operators remained behind friendly lines. Russian mercenaries were involved in the retaking Palmyra and operated T-90 MBTs during the fighting. Russia’s seizure of the city was a major propaganda coup for its Syrian war effort. Reportedly, Wagner were the first in to Palmyra followed by regular Russian forces, and then the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) for publicity reasons. Wagner has also deployed in Latakia and Homs. While spetsnaz operate on their own or with support from the VVS, Wagner works closely with local forces, especially pro-Asad militias such as the “ISIS Hunters” (which participated in the 7 February attack on the SDF headquarters). Hardly professional forces, Wagner contractors still handle most of the training for such regime forces, serving as forward advisers by directing fire and movements in battle. They operate AA systems, rockets, and artillery and occasionally coordinate airstrikes.

Officially, 44 Russian servicemen have died in Syria, though the Kremlin is often reluctant to admit such casualties. In March 2016, Moscow acknowledged that Captain Fyodor Zhuravlev of the KSSO died fighting in Syria in November 2015. He was the first casualty of his unit. In some circumstances, though, announcing the death of a serviceman can prove advantageous for Moscow. Such was the case with Denis Tukmanov, a GRU commando killed fighting Islamic State (IS) jihadists near Palmyra in March 2016. Russian state media claimed that Tukmanov, surrounded by jihadists, called in an airstrike on his own position, sacrificing himself and taking the attacking IS fighters with him. However, IS militants later recovered Tukmanov’s equipment, most of which was in near-perfect condition. Similarly, earlier this year rebels shot down a Sukhoi Su-25 “Frogfoot” CAS jet piloted by one Roman Filipov over Idlib. He reportedly fired on approaching jihadists until martyring himself with a grenade shouting, “This is for our boys!”

Given that mercenary service is still illegal under the Russian Criminal Code, using groups like Wagner for combat operations in Syria means that Moscow does not have to officially declare these casualties. In September 2017, for example, IS kidnapped two members of Wagner near Dayr az-Zur, Roman Zabotnyy and Grigoriy Tsurkanu. The MO denied all knowledge of them and an MID spokesperson questioned if they were even Russian. Tsurkanu’s parents were advised by Wagner not to speak to the press, and Wagner representatives later falsely informed them that their son died. As the latest Levada polls show that half of Russian citizens surveyed want the Kremlin to end the Syria campaign, Russia seeks to minimize the number of officially-declared casualties lest its Levantine operations become too unpopular. (This is especially important given that President Putin is up for reelection.) Wagner mercenaries die in combat with no state recognition while accomplishing battlefield objectives and Russia can report false casualty figures, fictionalizing the heroism of those who died to sustain support for the intervention. 

Most estimates indicate that Wagner has 2,000 to 3,000 personnel operating in Syria. The number reportedly reached 5,000 in early 2017. Other estimates are significantly lower, placing the total number of Wagner personnel worldwide at about 1,000. According Ukrainian authorities, 88 Wagner mercenaries had died in Syria by January 2018. Other sources claim 73 or 101 killed. According to documents obtained from the Russian consulate in Syria, 131 Russian citizens died in Syria with 54 of those deaths occurring in September 2017 alone. One should note that the Russian consulate does not keep records of military deaths, meaning that these casualties were all but certainly mercenaries. Interestingly, there is reportedly a memorial to Wagner mercenaries in Dayr az-Zur, a pile of stones surrounding a wooden board decorated with an Orthodox cross, a machine gun belt, a bullet, and a Russian military helmet. Only nicknames identify the men: Warrior, Executioner, Scorpion, and Nightingale. 

Such memorialization is often not enough to comfort the families of Wagner personnel killed in Syria. Though Wagner mercenaries receive $16,000 for compensation for serious wounds and their families get $53,000 in the event of their death, many relatives of slain Wagner men have expressed outrage at Moscow publicly denying the deaths of their husbands, sons, and fathers. Many of these men come from unprivileged backgrounds and joined Wagner simply to make ends meet. For example, Valentina Berdysheva said that her son, Wagner mercenary Aleksandr Potapov, fought in both Chechen wars but went to Syria after being unable to find work in his village. Igor Kosoturov, a former grocery shop owner, went to Syria with Wagner because he truly believed that Russia needed to stop IS there. His home town of Asbest hosts the world’s largest open-pit asbestos mine. The residents are mostly unhealthy and earn an average salary of $440. Some, such as Stanislav Matveyev, who, like Kosoturov, died in the 7 February firefight do not even have military experience.

Desperate to make a living in rough economic times, for what did these men die fighting for on 7 February 2018? More importantly, for whom did they die for?

The Man Behind the Curtain: Who Controls Wagner?

In the aftermath of the 7 February firefight, Russian officers called their American counterparts to ask for permission to recover any bodies while assuring U.S. military officials that the mercenaries did not inform the Russian military hierarchy in Syria of their plans to advance on the U.S. and SDF positions. The week before the attack, the U.S. observed the buildup of pro-Asad forces in the area and informed Russian officers via the deconfliction line. Whether Russian military officials alerted the Wagner fighters about this remains unknown, but it is unlikely. During the 7 February attack, Wagner troops received no aerial cover from the VVS. Indeed, other reports indicate that Syrian militias authorized the attack, reaching a deal with Wagner personnel who, in turn, did not inform the military hierarchy.

Nevertheless, while Wagner may not have informed the MO about this operation, there is strong evidence pointing to a close working relationship between the two entities. After the failed assault, a Moscow doctor reported that three military cargo planes specially equipped to carry two or three intensive care cases and several walking wounded arrived at his hospital. He treated about 50 patients, 30 percent of whom were seriously injured. Indeed, mercenaries wounded in the Dayr az-Zur assault reportedly received treatment in five Russian hospitals all connected with the MO – the Central Hospital of Khimki (outside Moscow), the Third Vsihnevskiy hospital (outside Moscow), the Burdenko hospital (near Moscow’s city center), the Balashikha hospital (near Moscow), and the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg. Staffers and patients at all hospitals contacted by the press denied the presence of any fighters wounded in Syria.

Other sources specifically tie Wagner to the GRU. When Russia intervened in Syria in 2015, the GRU set aside a compound, officially belonging to the 10th Special Mission Brigade, in the town of Molkino in Krasnodar in southern Russia to train Wagner mercenaries. The MO reportedly provides Wagner with everything from ammunition to food and even military airlifters to transfer its personnel in and out of Syria. 

However, if the MO did not authorize the assault on the SDF’s Dayr az-Zur headquarters, this begs of the question of who did. Communications supposedly intercepted by U.S. intelligence reveal the missing link between Wagner and the MO as none other than Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the man behind the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the infamous “troll factory” accused of recently interfering in the U.S. political process. Often referred to as “Putin’s chef,” Prigozhin kicked off his entrepreneurial career in the 1990s as a hot dog salesman. He later expanded this venture operating fast food chain and fancier restaurants. His companies have catered Kremlin events attended by President Putin, and Prigozhin’s businesses also have contracts with the MO. Indeed, Prigozhin and his company Concord Catering are under sanction for their ties to another company that built a Russian military base on the border with Ukraine. 

According to the communications intercepted by U.S. intelligence, Prigozhin spoke to Syrian officials, namely Minister of Presidential Affairs Mansour Fadlallah Azzam, before the 7 February attack. Azzam assured Prigozhin that he would receive payment for his work. The communications also reveal that Prigozhin had been planning the attack as early as January, and he even stated that it would take place between 6 and 9 February. As for his motivation, Prigozhin owns a Russian gas company called Evro Polis, and in 2016 the Syrian government, through a contract with Damascus’s General Petroleum Corp, promised this company 25 percent share of oil and natural gas produced on territory seized from IS. The attacking force was most likely trying to retake the Omar oil field and Conoco gas field in Khusham. Evro Polis has contracts with the MO. 

Again, though MO personnel in Syria appeared unaware of Prigozhin’s plans, this does not mean that the caterer did not receive permission for the assault through other channels. Indeed, Prigozhin assured a Syrian official that he secured permission for the attack from an unidentified Russian minister. However, it is easy to speculate as to who this official was. Prigozhin spoke with President Putin’s chief of staff, Anton Vayno, and his deputy, Vladimir Ostrovenko in the weeks leading up to the attack. Their communications resumed after the 7 February firefight.

President Putin’s connections to Prigozhin are well known, but it is unclear what he knew in the leadup to the 7 February clash between Wagner and their pro-regime allies and U.S. and Kurdish forces. Nevertheless, his relationship to Wagner is a little more personal than one might expect. In December 2016, at a celebration of the Day of the Heroes of the Fatherland, Dmitriy Utkin personally received an award for military valor from President Putin. Utkin and his deputy, Aleksandr Kuznetsov (who has convictions for kidnapping and robbery), have received the Order of Courage four times. (One should also note that another Prigozhin’s companies, Concord Management and Consulting, is headed by Utkin.) Both were photographed with President Putin and Andrey Bogatov, head of Wagner’s fourth recon and assault company (who lost an arm fighting in Palmyra), and Wagner executive director Andrey Troshev. Bogatov and Troshev received the Hero of Russia award. Curiously, President Putin’s press secretary, Dmitriy Peskov, claimed that while the photographs were real, the awards were not.

Looking Forward

In all likelihood, Wagner and its relationship with Prigozhin represent a common trend in Vladimir Putin’s Russia: government and private entities in part supported by the state allowed to carry out their own activities so long as they do not challenge the Kremlin’s interests. While Prigozhin’s activities in Syria got Russian citizens killed by U.S. forces, the Kremlin is unlikely to restrain such operations. It will continue to employ groups like Wagner in Syria (and for other foreign policy ventures) as an alternative to sustaining uniformed casualties and risking domestic pushback against its overseas objectives. It is very likely that U.S. forces could again kill Wagner personnel in a clash in Syria, but that is ultimately what such forces are meant for.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons