Editor's Note: Shortly after Polygraph published this fact check on February 22, The Washington Post published a story that details information the newspaper obtained from U.S. intelligence sources that bolsters Polygraph’s reporting on ties between the Kremlin and the private military company Wagner. The information focuses on Yevgeny Prigozhin, and updates the section below detailing the Putin ally’s involvement.
The Wagner Group, allegedly a “private military company,” attracted worldwide attention after some of its personnel in Syria were killed and wounded in a devastating air and artillery strike by the U.S. military targeting pro-Syrian government militia forces on February 7.
Mercenary forces are illegal in Russia, yet there is evidence the government established and supported Wagner’s early growth, operations in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, and their operations in Syria.
Estimates of the number of Russian citizens killed in the February 7 incident ranges from "five," to more than 200, according to Wagner personnel.
The Conflict Intelligence Team, an NGO that investigates reports of military activity in Ukraine and Syria, has confirmed the deaths of ten “contractors” -- nine Russians and one Ukrainian.
Russian officials from the Kremlin, Foreign Ministry, and Defense Ministry initially denied or downplayed the number of Russian victims. Statements have been contradictory, at times accusing the press of spreading “disinformation” and other times admitting higher casualty figures while still denying any knowledge of the Russian citizens’ activities in Syria.
This week, (February 21) the Russian Foreign Ministry admitted there were “dead citizens of Russia and the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries” and "several dozen" wounded in the clash.
“Our guys were going to commandeer an oil refinery and the Yankees were holding it,” said a paramilitary fighter in an audio recording obtained by Polyraph.info from a source close to the Kremlin and published February 16.
“So they tore us to pieces for sure, put us through hell, and the Yankees knew for sure that the Russians were coming,” the unidentified soldier said.
In recent days, some Russian state media started acknowledging higher Russian casualty figures even while reporting on official denials. In reporting, earlier, that “dozens” of “Russian and CIS citizens” had been killed in the attack, RT quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying:
“There are Russian citizens in Syria, who went there on their own will and for various purposes. It’s not up to the Foreign Ministry to judge the legality of the decisions taken by those people.”
The same article noted: “Moscow denies any direct involvement with such paramilitary troops and insists that they act as private citizens. Being a mercenary or organizing a mercenary force is a crime in Russia, although in practice only a handful of people have been prosecuted for it.”
Indeed, despite overwhelming evidence that Russian citizens crossed international borders to wage wars to advance Russian state interests in such places as Ukraine, very few have been prosecuted for mercenary activities. On the contrary, some have been lauded as heroes by the state media specifically for their mercenary service. One Russian video on Youtube calls Wagner "our heroes."
The Origin of Wagner Group
A pair of individuals who were arrested for mercenary activities, however, has an interesting connection to the Wagner Group, and its story may shed some light on the role of the Russian security services in organizing this “private military company.”
In the spring of 2013, a Hong Kong-registered “private military company” called “Slavonic Corps” went to Syria to conduct combat missions on behalf of the Assad government. The organization recruited mostly on Russian Web sites and sought to attract former members of elite Russian military units in the airborne forces, naval infantry, and special forces (spetsnaz). Officially, the Slavonic Corps had been “hired” by another Russian Hong Kong-based firm known as the Moran Security Group. Moran Security Group is a security company, specializing mainly in anti-piracy and security for high-value sites. While private security companies are legal under Russian law, private military companies are not.
The story of Wagner begins with the Slavonic Corps and its failed mission in Syria. In fact, “Wagner” was the code name of one of the group’s contractors, Dmitry Utkin, a Russian former special forces officer. When Wagner and his comrades returned to Russia, two of the “company’s” executives were arrested by the Federal Security Services (FSB), charged with mercenary activity and sentenced to jail terms.
Utkin and his new “PMC” (Private Military Company) Wagner would again appear in 2014, during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where the unit fought against Ukrainian government forces in the Donbas region. Hacked emails reveal that the FSB was closely involved in recruitment operations for this supposedly “private” outfit. But subsequent investigations by the Russian independent news outlet Fontanka revealed far more connections between Wagner and the state.
First, Wagner was allowed to use a military facility as its training base. The facility, located in Molkino in Russia’s Krasnodar region, is also home to the 10th Special Forces Brigade of the GRU (military intelligence).
The Russian news agency RBC talked to a former mercenary who spoke about his experiences with the outfit during its first deployment to Syria in 2016. According to him, the company was well supplied. Ammunition was plentiful, and the unit, organized as a “battalion tactical group” with an estimated total strength of over 2,000 men, was equipped with modern T-72 tanks, D-30 122mm howitzers, and BM-21 “Grad” multiple rocket launchers. Pay was high and always on time.
In addition to the generous supply of money and equipment, as well as the right to use a Russian military base, members of Wagner also received state medals typically awarded to members of the Russian armed forces. These individuals received state medals despite the fact that their activities appear to be illegal and Russian authorities, from the Kremlin to the Defense Ministry, have routinely denied knowledge about this group’s operations in Syria.
In addition, some sources claim Wagner troops have been transported to and from Syria on Russian military transport aircraft, and that its food and other essential supplies come from the Russian Defense Ministry. Fighters wounded in the February 7 attack have been found in Russian military hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Under New Management?
All this would seem to cast doubt on the initial claims of the Kremlin, Foreign Ministry, and Defense Ministry that they know next to nothing about the Wagner Group and the fate of its personnel in Syria. It is possible that the outfit lost some of its state support in 2017. This is based on claims that during the group’s second deployment to Syria that same year, soldiers suddenly experienced unexplained pay cuts and salary arrears. There were also complaints about severe shortages of ammunition and that, in contrast to the modern equipment they received for their 2016 deployment, in 2017 they were furnished with out-of-date weapons.
This theory is also supported by reports of Evgeny Prigozhin’s involvement. He is the owner of a number of businesses that are linked to the Kremlin and a close associate of Vladimir Putin. The Washington Post reported February 22 that U.S. intelligence had intercepted communications between Prigozhin and a Syrian official, in which he claimed to have received permission from an unnamed Russian government minister to move forward with a “fast and strong” initiative which would take place between February 6-9. Prigozhin reportedly told the Syrian official that his initiative would be a “good surprise” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Post report said “U.S. intelligence believes that Prigozhin also ‘almost certainly’ controls Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria,” specifically Wagner.
Prigozhin is also linked to a company called Evro-Polis, which opened an office in Damascus in 2017. According to AP and Fontanka, Evro-Polis signed a deal with Syria’s state-owned oil company whereby it would receive 25% of any oil and gas revenues produced at facilities it recaptured from the Islamic State or rebel forces. Fontanka’s report on Wagner found that it was cooperating with Evro-Polis in 2017. Survivors of the February 7 battle claimed their mission was to take control of an oil refinery. Prigozhin is also the owner of the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, better known as the “troll factory.” He was sanctioned by the U.S. government in 2016 over his business activities in Ukraine and recently he was indicted by the FBI for alleged involvement in election interference in 2016.
Mark Galeotti, a researcher with the Institute of International Relations in Prague, has written extensively on the topic of Wagner and Russia’s use of mercenaries as a potentially deniable asset. According to him, Wagner cannot be considered a legitimate private military company.
“I tend to call Wagner a pseudo-mercenary outfit because it is somewhere in between,” Galeotti told Polygraph.info. “Given that it seems largely bankrolled through Evro Polis [a company owned by Prigozhin], and it has a contract with the Syrian government worth 25% of the output of any gas and oil fields it recovers, there is clearly some truly mercenary aspect, even if much of the time it is working for the Russian command cell in Damascus.”
But while he acknowledges a possible change in Wagner’s ownership, Galeotti agreed that the organization was undoubtedly tied to the Russian state, at least in the beginning: “I don't think there is any question they were originally a state-sponsored op, is there?”
And given the fact that wounded fighters still appear to be receiving treatment at Russian military hospitals, possibly arriving on Russian military transport aircraft, it appears that Russian authorities know far more about Wagner and its activities than they have so far admitted in public.