Putin’s private army
February 15, 2018 -- A shadowy mercenary group known as “ChVK Wagner” has come to play a crucial role in Russian operations in Syria. The actions of Wagner coincided with the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria in September 2015.
While Russia was expanding its military presence in Syria, security contractor Wagner was recruiting hundreds of ex-soldiers online, posting advertisements in military-themed chat rooms, according to Fontanka.ru, a St Petersburg-based independent news site.
Training and selection took place at Molkino in southern Russia, home to the Spetsnaz GRU — the special forces of the foreign military intelligence agency. The first units flew to Russia’s newly completed Khmeimim Air Base in Syria in October 2015.
Wagner personnel were paid 240,000 rubles/month (€3,300, $4,100) and figured heavily in operations against so-called Islamic State (IS) around Palmyra in 2016. They served as “shock troops” alongside the Syrian army, says Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
Although the Russian constitution bans private security contractors Wagner’s commanding officer, Dmitry Utkin, a former Spetsnaz lieutenant colonel and his deputy, Andrei Troshev, attended a Kremlin reception hosted by President Vladimir Putin in December 2016.
In 2017 Wagner’s role was expanded to include seizing IS-held gas and oil facilities for Evro Polis -- a Russian company linked to St. Petersburg entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close friend of Putin.
Wagner’s Syrian operations suffered their worst blow on February 7 during an attack to seize Al-Tabiyah-Conoco natural gas plant from U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). U.S. warplanes, including F-15Es, Apache helicopters and an AC-130 Spectre ground-attack gunship, responded with air strikes.
Russian MBH Media, quoting former Defence Minister Igor Strelkov, reported the destruction of Wagner’s 5th assault detachment -- an armoured group and an artillery unit.
Maria Zakharova, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, said five men, “apparently Russian citizens”, died in the attack on February 7 and an unspecified number of Russians were injured. She declined to provide further details.
While the official number of Russian military personnel killed in Syria stands at 46, more than 200 Russians, including hundreds of Wagnerians, are believed to have lost their lives since 2015.
(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include details published in Jane’s Defence Weekly, Vol 55, issue 8, February 21, 2018)