RBC Publishes Report Sourced in FSB and Military on Wagner Private Military Contractor with 2,500 Fighters in Syria

August 26, 2016
Sergei Chupov (center), in Chechnya in 1997. He served in the Interior Ministry's Internal Troops and was discharged in the early 2000s. He went on to be come a private military contractor in the Wagner company, and was killed in Syria. Photo via Conflict Intelligence Team

LIVE UPDATES: The Russian news service RBC has published an extensive report on Wagner, a private military contractor with 2,500 fighters deployed in Syria. They have also served in Ukraine.

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RBC Publishes Report Sourced in FSB and Military on Wagner Private Military Contractor with 2,500 Fighters in Syria

Today, August 26, RBC has published a lengthy article, briefly summarized by Currenttime.TV, on the private military contractor known as “Wagner” for the nom de guerre of its founder.

The Interpreter has published a number of stories on the Slavonic Corps, as Wagner was previously known, going back to 2013, long before Russia’s current bombing campaign which began September 30, 2015. Wagner fighters have been deployed in both Syria and Ukraine and some of them have been killed in action. 

While such private military firms are barred by Russian law, there are some lobbyists now attempting to get the State Duma to change the law and legalize what is already a huge business with reportedly many hundreds of fighters in Russia’s wars abroad. 
Gennady Nosovok and Oleg Mikheyev, two deputies from the Just Russia party, have introduced a draft law on private military and security organizations to the State Duma, but it did not get sufficient support from other deputies nor, more importantly, from the Kremlin, which has pointed out that it contradicts existing law banning the creation of armed formations outside the state. Even so, the authors of the legislation plan to revise it and try again this fall; the existing law stipulates that such entities are banned if they undermine the state’s security, but the private military contractors (PMCs) in question could be defined as those cooperating with the state.
The Russian military denies it has combat troops in Syria, and this has been one of President Vladimir Putin’s chief propaganda points in speaking of Russian operations there. Yet in March 2016, the commander of the Russian group in Syria, Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov himself admitted that there were “certain tasks fulfilled by soldiers even on the ground.” 

“I will not hide the fact that divisions of our special operations forces are active on the territory of Syria,” he said in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, referencing the highly-mobile Defense Ministry forces. The “special operations” include reconnaissance of targets and spotting for air strikes, he said, as well as other “special assignments”.

Sergei Chupov, who formerly served in the Interior Ministry’s Interior Troops in the second Chechen war and who was honorably discharged in the early 2000s, in fact was an employee of Wagner, according to two of his friends. Both the Defense Ministry and his widow denied he was killed in Syria, but the Russian conflict blogger’s group Conflict Intelligence Team reported evidence that he was killed in Syria.

The Defense Ministry had no comment and said Chupov was not on the lists of Russian troops serving in Syria.

The article is important because until now, there has essentially only been one source on the story of Wagner and private military contractors in general: Dmitry Utkin, who is “Wagner” himself: 46 years old, a former spetsnaz and GRU (military intelligence) lieutenant who first worked for the Moran Security Group (another PMC company). He survived the disastrous Slavonic Corps mission to Syria in the fall of 2013, then later turned up in Lugansk Region in 2014 fighting on the side of the Russian-backed separatists.
Utkin gave interviews to Fontanka journalist Denis Kotorkov, who has produced a series of exposes of the mercenaries in Syria.

Possible links between Russian PMCs and the ‘Troll Factory’

Recently the St. Petersburg newspaper Fontanka found links between Wagner and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the “Kremlin’s chef” and owner of International Research, better known as the “Troll Farm,” linked to a web site that exposed the personal data of opposition and journalists, after which they were beaten near their homes or their cars torched.

RBC extends this research, drawing on interviews with Chupov’s friends; sources within the Federal Security Service (FSB); officers in the Defense Ministry and others familiar with Russia’s operations in Syria as well as military bases at home. These sources say Wagner has nearly 2,500 employees deployed near Latakia and Aleppo, and are commanded by officers not only of the GRU but also the FSB.
Yet RBC was not able to prove the link between Prigozhin and the financing of Wagner which has been indicated by Fontanka and other media. To be sure, Prigozhin’s companies have monopolized lucrative contracts to the military to provide food deliveries and cleaning services, and the association between Prigozhin and the military is well documented. But Wagner has been careful to leave no traces to combat.

One way this is done is by having Wagner not pay for rent of buildings or their training facility at all, a source told RBC. There is not even a record in Rosreyestr, the Russian agency that registers deeds, of the ownership of the large tract of land in Krasnodar Territory, some 250 square kilometers where an official army base is located, and also where Wagner is reportedly located.

Wagner camp located next to GRU training base 

Sources told RBC that Wagner trains its fighters next to an official GRU (military intelligence) training camp in the village of Molkino in Krasnodar Territory. The base is a closed facility, Gazetareported earlier this year.

This is the training camp for the 10th Separate Spetsnaz Brigade of the Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence directorate (GRU). The Defense Ministry has spent more than 50 million rubles ($773,587) modernizing what is believed to be the training ground for special forces in Syria and Ukraine; the facility has received one billion rubles ($15.4 million) from the state budget for the last three years.

A guard on duty at the closed facility told RBC that several dozen meters off the federal Don Highway the road forks — to the left is the official training camp, and to the right, its firing range.

While closed, the location of the base isn’t a secret and is mentioned openly on web sites for recruits;  The Interpreterfound that in the comments on this page, there are even questions about where prospective fighters can sign up for Wagner.

But, as the first guard said, there is another checkpoint beyond these locations guarded by another soldier with an AK-74. This is the location of Wagner’s camp, a fact RBC confirmed with another employee at the base.

RBC says Google Earth shows that the camp didn’t exist in August 2014, but by mid-2015 began to function, which workers in the camp familiar with its set-up have confirmed to RBC. One of the sources says the camp consists of two dozen tents waving the USSR flag, surrounded by a small barbed-wire fence. There are also several barracks, a guard tower, a weather station, a training center and a parking lot.

We confirmed that the camp, located here, is visible currently on Google Maps in 2016, near an army base with barracks and military vehicles parked throughout.

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2016-08-26 18:33:40

We also checked Google Earth, which provides the ability to view satellite photos going back in time, and in 2013, there was no construction at that location:

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2016-08-26 18:34:58

The camp has no official name and none of the sources would give the name of its leader or source of revenue.
RBC tracked all the bids for services associated with the base and found Megalain, a company where Concord, Prigozhin’s firm, was once among the co-owners, had won a contract for garbage disposal. The co-owners of Megalain, each of which controls 50% of the shares, were Concord Management and Consulting and another company called Lakhta. Prigozhin owned 14% of the shares in Concord Management and Consulting until 2011, and until September 2013 he controlled 80% of the shares in Lakhta.
The bids regarding food purchase and delivery are classified, since the numbers of forces could be determined if the figures were public.
But RBC found want ads on the job site Avito.ru for cafeteria workers at the base in Molkino. The company with the vacancies was called Restoranservis Plus. The man who answered the phone number in the ad confirmed that his company was looking for food service workers at the base. That number was the same as the phone number listed for Megalain and Concord Management and Consulting, RBC discovered.
RBC said it wasn’t clear whether the state purchasing orders for the official base in Molkino were also supplying the Wagner camp. But a source familiar with the base said the camps were similar in number and side and the purchase orders would be similar. Two companies associated with Prigozhin, Megalain and Teplosintez, won state contracts for 1.9 billion rubles in 2015-2016 at the official camp.

Asked if Prigozhin’s catering and service companies were connected to the funding of Wagner, a high-ranking federal official interviewed by RBC smiled and said, “you must understand, Prigozhin cooks very tasty meals.”

But none of the companies associated with Prigozhin would reply to RBC’s inquiries.

Recruitment and payment of Wagner fighters 

The fighters are recruited unofficially through social media networks and paid mainly in cash. They are also given prepaid debit cards with no owner indicated and issued to other people, according to one fighter and a defense ministry officer. Such cards without names are issued by several Russian banks, including Sberbank and Rayffayzenbank. The fighters’ weapons are also issued off the books in secret.

RBC heard different figures for the pay. According to a driver at the base, civilian workers get 60,000 rubles ($928) a month; a source familiar with the details of the military operation in Syria said a Wagner fighter could get 80,000 a month ($1,287) while at the base in Russia and 500,000 ($7,740) a month plus a bonus while in combat in Syria.

But a Defense Ministry source said the PMC’s pay rarely exceeds 250,000 ($3,867) to 300,000 ($4,644). A minimum threshold for pay would be 80,000, but the average pay for a soldier was 150,000 ($2,322) plus combat pay and compensations. With the maximum number of the Wagner group at 2,500, their pay could cost Russia 2.4 billion rubles (at 80,000 rubles per month per soldier, or $37.1 million) to 7.5 billion rubles (with a pay rate of 250,000 per soldier per month, or $116 million).

In addition, at least $2.5 million a month would be required to supply them, RBC estimates.

PMC Wagner suffers heavy casualties in Syria

The Wagner group has suffered the most casualties of Russian forces in Syria, sources familiar with operations in Syria told RBC. A Defense Ministry source said 27 “privateers” have been killed; a former PMC officer said there were at least 100 killed. A source at the base in Molkino put it this way: “Every third one is a 200, every second one is a 300,” using the military terms for “wounded in action” and “killed in action,” respectively.

RBC attempted to contact the family of one of the Wagner fighters killed, but they didn’t want to talk. Later posts appeared in social media claiming that RBC was involved in a “provocation” and trying to tarnish the memory of their loved one who was killed. A Wagner officer explained that families are given compensation under the condition that they do not divulge anything about the company or the circumstances of death.

Wagner contractors did most of the fighting in Palmyra, a former Wagner officer told RBC. “First the guys from Wagner go in, then the Russian ground unit, then the Arabs and the cameras,” is how he phrased it. He said Wagner was used so as to reduce the number of casualties that the Russian regular army would have to show.

A source in another PMC said Wagner was really not a PMC because they weren’t a business and not aiming at making a profit. Rather, it was about the military’s need for an outside group to perform delicate missions, and for former soldiers to earn some cash and help their country.

Prigozhin’s links to “Syrian Express” ship 

Wagner fighters must make their way to Syria on their own; there is no centralized dispatch. But their supplies are put on ships known since 2012 as the “Syrian Express” which supply the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as well as the Russian military bases. RBC says these ships are divided into three categories: the Russian Navy’s ships; ships which used to run civilian routes but then were pressed into the military’s service; and freight ships belonging to various companies all around the world. The shipping costs the Defense Ministry just for the private ships is estimated at $18.3 million since Russia began bombing Syria on September 30, 2015, through July 31, said RBC.

RBC found another likely connection to Prigozhin through the ships supplying Russian troops in Syria.

Included in the “Syrian Express” fleet since 2015 is a freighter called Kazan-60, Reuters reported. It has changed hands many times. Reuters tracked its ownership, starting from late 2014, when the Georgy Agafonov, an old Soviet refrigerator ship rusting in the Ukrainian port of Izmail was sold by the Ukrainian Dunai Shipping to the Turkish firm 2E Denizcilik SNA VE TIC.A.S. The Ukrainians sold it for $300,000 and watched the Turks tow it away, presumably for scrap.

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The Georgy Agafonov in 2006. Photo by Ilham Keren, shipspotting.com
2016-08-26 20:01:40

Later, the same ship turned up in the Russian fleet, and it was presumed that the Russians bought the ship from the Turks. 

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The Kazan-60. Photo by Vitaly Kostrichenko, forums, airbase.ru via Dumskaya.net
2016-08-26 20:03:21

RBC took Reuters’ investigation further and found that in fact the Turkish company sold the ship to the British firm Cubber Business, L.P., then it was sold to another company called ASP “located in Russia,” according to a letter from 2E Denizcilik to the Ministry of Infrastructure of Ukraine, a copy of which was obtained by RBC.

Among the firms connected to Prigozhin is a company also called ASP which has won several tenders to serve the base in Molkino. In October 2015, the ship was incorporated into the Black Sea Fleet under the name Kazan-60. The Russian Navy did not answer inquiries from RBC about how the Fleet obtained the ship.

Press freedom challenged for those reporting on Syria

A source in the FSB said that because of all the publicity around Wagner, and the news that it was associated with the Molkino base (which has been in Ukrainian media and alternative Russian media at least for a year), the base is likely to be transferred. He said possible locations could include Tajikistan, Nagorny Karabakh or Abkhazia. Another source in the Defense Ministry confirmed that a move was being discussed, but there were no plans to disband Wagner.

RBC has been under tremendous pressure in recent months with the firing of its top editors and its take-over by editors from TASS who have made it clear where the permissible boundaries are.

The question then is why this topic — the kind that Fontanka, a feisty independent paper in St. Petersburg, would take on — is now so extensively researched by RBC, and with so many sources in the FSB and Defense Ministry, not to mention on the Molkino base itself. Poking around closed facilities like this without the blessings of the siloviki is what can get Russian journalists beaten up.

The answer may be that those lobbying for the legalization of PMCs may find it in their interest to have them revealed and thus legitimized for many in Russia, as they are shown to have an important role in Russia’s wars. Putin’s own “personal caterer” is implied to be behind them, which signals Putin’s tacit blessing.

Throughout the whole article, RBC compares Wagner to private military contractors in the US, such as Academi (formerly known as Blackwater), citing the contrasting pay structures and the cost to the US military. That’s another indication that Russia wants to justify the legalization of PMCs.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick