A secretive Russian mercenary force known as “Wagner” has been playing a key role in Russian operations in Syria, despite Russian law banning the work of private military companies.
According to the Huffington Post website on Monday, former soldiers are being recruited to serve in the Wagner group by Dmitri Utkin, a former special forces officer.
Numbering about 2,500 men, the group is thought to have played a prominent role in operations around Palmyra, fighting alongside Syrian forces, according to Mark Galeotti, a Russian security expert at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
Despite the Russian army not acknowledging the existence of Wagner, Utkin appeared last year in a photo with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a reception held by the Kremlin to honor military officers on Heroes of the Fatherland Day. This year, the United States included his name on a list of sanctions imposed on officials due to his involvement in the Ukraine conflict in 2014, where it is said the group cut its teeth.
On the ground, Russian forces have acknowledged the deaths of about 41 people in their ranks, including a general killed in September in shelling near Deir-ez-Zor while commanding the Syrian government’s Fifth Corps volunteers brigade. However, journalists and investigative bloggers have counted more deaths connected with mercenary groups, such as Wagner.
Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis, says that the forces are working as a “semi-private” military company and receiving orders from the Russian military.
At the current time, Wagner is still operating in a gray zone. An independent news website in St. Petersburg, Fontanka, reported that the role of the group has expanded to include taking control of oil wells under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS) for the benefit of a Russian company, Evro Polis.
The Sky News website said in a report that the Wagner company was working as a proxy for the Russian Defense Ministry, and that fighters were fighting alongside Assad forces.
The report showed the direct involvement of the Russian Defense Ministry in recruiting mercenaries in Syria, as the ministry had given Wagner access to special forces bases located in south Russia with the aim of training recruits for battle.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.