This week, The Interpreter has translated the story of the ‘Slavonic Corps,’ a group of Russian mercenaries recruited in St. Petersburg to go and fight against Syrian rebels. The initial investigation by the St. Petersburg newspaper Fontanka concluded that a private military contractor, Moran Security Group, hired the Hong Kong ‘Slavonic Corps’ to assist the Assad regime in guarding key economic assets, thus allowing the regime to deploy its forces toward the front lines. The mercenaries believed that their mission was approved by the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB.
In the follow-up investigation, Fontanka interviewed some of the mercenaries and told the story of the Russian fighters who, like Keystone Cossacks, deployed to Syria on false premises and ultimately abandoned their dysfunctional mission at the first sign of combat. Leaving Syria in disgrace, and having lost a backpack full of incriminating documents, the mercenaries were not paid, and several high-ranking members of their company were arrested by the FSB upon return to Russia.
Several unanswered questions remain. Did the FSB really not know that one of their commanders was the head of a private military company that was sending fighters into Syria to fight for Assad? Did the Russian government know about this incident? Are there more Russians fighting for Assad? Would the mercenaries have been arrested if their mission was successful?
The Interpreter’s managing editor James Miller interviewed New York University professor Mark Galeotti about these developments:
The Interpreter: The head of Moran Security Group, the group that sent the fighters to Syria, is Vyacheslav Kalashnikov, lieutenant colonel in the FSB reserve. Can you tell us more about the responsibilities that a reserve commander might have? Would they regularly interact with the FSB, or is it an honorary post?
Mark Galeotti: The honest and unhelpful answer is that it can be much or little. When you are on the “active reserve” then the idea is that you go about your life normally, but if, as and when the FSB wants to know something or wants you to do something, then that’s your priority. It’s like that classic line from The Godfather: “Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.” Of course, it you are running a PMC (private military contractor) then your contacts with the FSB will almost invariable be rather more frequent and dense.
The Interpreter: The fighters who went to Syria were under the impression that the FSB was fully aware of their mission. What is the probability that such a mission would have escaped the notice of the Kremlin?
Mark Galeotti: If “the Kremlin” means Putin or someone of ministerial rank, then I’d be surprised if they knew. This was not a big deal. On the other hand, Russian PMCs operating anywhere are meant to get the OK to operate abroad, and so someone within the government apparatus must have put/kept Syria on the list of countries where they are clear to work and processed their request. I would put it more that the Kremlin has created the broad policy…. [that] people within the apparat have no problem seeing Russian mercenaries go to Syria.
The Interpreter: This mission started in October, after the U.S. threat of force was taken off the table. Is Russia increasing military assistance to the Assad regime as a result?
Mark Galeotti: Not really; I don’t think it’s really needed, but Russia is happy to provide paid supplies, etc but not to spend its own resources defending Assad.
The Interpreter: What do you think are the chances that other Russian mercenaries are fighting in Syria?
Mark Galeotti: Likely, although in some cases I anticipate that “mercenary” is merely a cover story for Russian soldier or spook, just as the “Russian engineers” working on Syrian air defense systems are going to be military.