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Ep. 62: Wagner and Russian private military contractors

Ep. 62: Wagner and Russian private military contractors

How much do we understand about what these groups are up to? And how much should the U.S. and its allies be concerned?

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This episode, we’re going to take a closer look at Russian private military contractors. It’s a phenomenon with a history; and it’s something that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

The episode is broken into four parts:

  • Behind the Battle of Khasham (at the 1:53 mark)
  • Prigozhin’s Path (8:24)
  • An Ignominious Invasion (23:31)
  • Into Africa (28:03)

Guests include Kimberly Marten of Columbia University’s Barnard College; Candace Rondeaux of Arizona State University and a Senior Fellow with the New America think tank’s Center on the Future of War; and Aric Toler, who leads research and training activities on eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union for the investigative journalism collective Bellingcat.

A transcript of this week’s episode is below.

Subscribe either on Google Play, iTunes, or Overcast, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening! 


BEHIND THE BATTLE OF KHASHAM

What happened in that crazy overnight assault on February 7, 2018? “Unprovoked” is how Pentagon officials described it shortly after it happened. Here’s former Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White briefing reporters. 

White: “Yesterday, Syrian Democratic Forces acted in self-defense with support from the coalition to defeat an unprovoked attack by Syrian pro-regime forces in eastern Syria. Pro-regime forces initiated what appeared to be a coordinated attack… in a battalion-sized unit formation, supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.”

Harrigian: “For a quick recap, on the evening of February 7th… The hostile force initiated the attack by firing artillery and tank rounds at the SDF position, followed by a battalion-sized dismounted formation attempting to advance on partner forces under cover of supporting fires from artillery, tanks, and multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars…”

That’s Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, who at the time was chief of U.S. Air Forces Central Command. He’s speaking here to reporters exactly a week after the attack.

Harrigian: “We immediately contacted the Russian officials on the deconfliction telephone line to alert them to the unprovoked attack… After these calls, coalition officials approved strikes to destroy hostile forces… Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers embedded with the SDF called in precision strikes for more than three hours from aircraft and ground artillery, directing F-15Es, MQ-9s, B-52s, AC-130s and AH-64 Apaches to release multiple precision fire munitions and conduct strafing runs against the advancing aggressor force, stopping their advance and destroying multiple artillery pieces and tanks. As the hostile forces turned west and retreated, we ceased fire… I know you’re going to ask, so I’m going to be clear that I will not speculate on the composition of this force or whose control they were under.” 

Here’s U.S. Defense Secretary at the time, James Mattis, describing what he understood of the situation on the same day Harrigian spoke to reporters.

Mattis, Feb. 13: “Again, its perplexing. It makes no sense, it does not appear to be anything coordinated by the Russians — Russians, and so that’s — again — I know I’m not giving you much here, but we don’t have much on it right now outside of what we’ve seen reported coming out of — out of Moscow, I think, on open press.”

A month after the strike, Richard Engel of NBC News flew out to that Conoco gas plant with the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Here’s Engel describing some of what he learned during that trip.

Engel:U.S. military officials tell NBC News the Russian mercenaries were from the Wagner group, a shadowy security firm linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a powerful oligarch known as ‘Putin’s chef.’ The U.S. captured intercepts of the mercenaries’ communications, complaining about their heavy losses. ‘They tore us to pieces; put us through hell,’ said one. ‘The Yankees made their point.’ And it seems the mercenaries haven’t given up.” 

Still two years removed from this whole scene, the question remains: What were they thinking? 

Kimberly Marten of Columbia University’s Barnard College has been looking closely at this attack. She’s written a number of academic articles on the Wagner group and other Russian private military security contractors. I called her up in late November.

Watson: “I just find it intriguing as a soldier because why it’s so suicidal, especially in retrospect, that mission. I’m wondering, you laid out, of course, a lot of suggestions as to what’s going on. Are you kind of comfortable today with, you know, why that episode happened?”

Marten: “I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened. I think that it’s probably reasonable to suggest that from the perspective of the Russian defense ministry, this is a way of testing U.S. forces and trying to figure out if they’d fight back, and you know how serious the United States was about staying in eastern Syria. I think that that has to be part of the explanation. But I also think that there has to have been a part of the explanation that says that the Russian defense ministry hung these poor guys out to dry, and that they could not possibly have understood what it was they were going to be coming up against. I find it hard to believe that if they understood that the U.S. was going to call in airstrikes against them, that they would have done what they did. And so I think somehow they must have been tricked.”

Watson: “Right. It’s the world’s most advanced military out there. It’s just I mean, it was a slaughter.”

Marten: “Yeah, it was slaughter. And you know that the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency must have been following their movements. And, you know, we know that the U.S. and Russia were on that deconfliction hotline the entire time. And the thing that is most striking is that we know that that battle took four hours. And so at any time, they could have been called back and they weren’t. And you know the battle became more and more ferocious as the four hours went on because the Wagner group kept on going forward. And somebody you know, if they had been if the Russian defense ministry had respected them, they should have after the beginning said, OK, enough, guys, you’ve made your point. Let’s call it off. And they didn’t.” 

One possible reason why they didn’t? 

Marten: “Something happened in 2017, and this is something that has been discussed at some length. The person who really brought it to light is the Russian investigative journalist named Denis Korotkov. And he wrote about it before all of the controversy started more recently with Prigozhin. But somehow in 2017, there was a big contract fight on several contracts between Prigozhin and the defense ministry. And it’s not clear that those contract fights were over Wagner, because Prigozhin does so much else or did at least so much else with the defense ministry in terms of food contracting and cleaning contracting. And so we think it was probably those contracts that were the ones that were in dispute. And what was really interesting is that Prigozhin seems to have one when these disputes were taken to the Russian courts, which is an indication that he had more political support than the defense ministry did.”

So who is this guy? And why, in the days prior, was he on the phone with senior Syrian officials talking about a quote “good surprise… that would come between 6 and 9 February”? To understand that, it’s useful to trace the known past of oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin — or, “Putin’s chef,” as you’ve probably heard him referred. 


PRIGOZHIN’S PATH

Marten: “He’s not that old, and we know he spent nine years is prison as a young man in Soviet times. The fact that he was in prison in Soviet times means that he really was an organized criminal because during that time people didn’t get put in prison for commercial activity because there wasn’t any. And so there was no dispute that put him in prison. He is in prison because he did something bad. And the fact that then he obviously was was closely tied to Putin, I think is probably not an accident, given Putin’s background in the KGB and in the follow on FSB service. And so I would guess that he is somebody who is sort of a link between organized criminal figures and the intelligence agencies in Russia in the 1990s.” 

Watson: “We don’t have much clarity on what he was put in prison for during that time, do we?” 

Marten: “We know that it was organized crime activity that involve prostitution and I believe theft. But I don’t know beyond that, we don’t know exactly what it was.” 

What would you do once you got out of a Soviet prison? If you’re Prigozhin and the year is 1990, you talk to your stepfather, the two of you open a few hot dog stands, you lay low, and you make a little money. You’re probably doing quite a bit of other stuff in the 1990s, too — none of which is terribly well documented. 

What we do know is that after his hot dog stands, he helped finance Saint Petersburg’s first post-Soviet grocery chain; then he broadened to catering — before opening a floating restaurant called “New Island.” 

By 2002, three years after Vladimir Putin was named Russia’s president, and Prigozhin is in Moscow serving caviar to visiting U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura. 

From warming hot dogs on the streets to serving caviar to the world’s most powerful statesmen in the space of about 10 years. It’s an ascent that you have to admit is quite impressive. But Prigozhin wasn’t done diversifying his interests and investments.

Those interests would grow to include the Internet Research Agency, and Prigozhin’s investments in it led him to be one of 13 Russians indicted by U.S. special counsel, Robert Mueller, for interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. 

He’s been hit at least three times with U.S. sanctions over his roles in the Ukraine invasion, and disrupting U.S. general election in 2016 and then again in the 2018 midterms. 

But it was just a few years before all that — in 2013, to be exact — when some of the mercenaries we now refer to as working for Wagner began to pop up in Syria. 

Their employer was a short-lived and under-funded private military contractor called the Slavonic Corps.

Martin: “So what was really important about the Slavonic Corps is that the recruitment for the job that took place in Syria — and this was before Syria was involved in the Syrian civil war, but the Syrian civil war had already started — the recruitment was done by somebody who identified himself as an FSB officer, an intelligence officer in the reserves. It targeted veterans. They appeared to fly into the Khmeimim air force base in Syria, which is a Russian air force base, so that would imply that they had Russian military support for what they were doing — the guy who did the group recruiting for the Slavonic Corps, the FSB officer in the Reserves, was apparently named Kalashnikov.” 

Watson: “Of course. I’m working my way up to Wagner here; we’re still with the Slavonic Corps. How do you link those two things?”

Marten: “Oh it’s just completely linked by the personnel. So we know that Dmitry Utkin was somehow involved with the Slavonic Corps adventure as well.” 

Dmitry Utkin. Like Prigozhin, he turns out to be a pretty busy guy for Russia in the 21st century. Also like Prigozhin, he would be hit with U.S. sanctions for helping Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But back to the Slavonic Corps’ entry into the Syrian war in 2013.

Marten: “But when they got on the ground, there was something wrong with the contract. There was a dispute. They were given really old Soviet weapons that were not useful for what they required. Then they got into a fire firefight with the Islamic State and lost and were sent back home on apparently Russian military airplanes. But then they were met at the airport in Moscow by FSB officers, because that’s the FSB that controls immigration and passport control in Russia. And the leaders of the group were put into prison for mercenary behavior. And so we’ve got this really weird situation where on the one hand, it appears that there are Russian state officials that have put this group together and encouraged it to go. And yet when they come back home, they’re arrested as mercenaries. And I think the important thing for the current day is that it sends a message that the Russian state can give a give away and it can take. And so basically, it’s a warning to Prigozhin, and to anybody who chooses to cooperate with Prigozhin, that if for whatever reason they get on the wrong side of the authorities, they can always be put in prison for mercenary behavior. And I think that that’s crucial for today, because it helps explain why the groups are illegal in Russia, even though they’re obviously supported by the Russian state.”

That is a very key point. Because as recently as three days ago, Vladimir Putin insisted (Reuters) that Russian private military contractors working abroad have nothing to do with the Russian state, despite years of evidence to the contrary. 

But shortly after the Slavonic Corps leaders were arrested by passport officials in Moscow, Dmitry Utkin was back on the right side of Russian state authorities — this time working a bit closer to home. Here’s Marten again.

Marten: “And then he is the person who appears first in Crimea when the “little green men” go in, apparently doing some support work alongside them. But then we know the most about his activities in eastern Ukraine, and that was in late 2014 and 2015.”

Watson: “I guess he’s not quite like an Erik Prince because Erik Prince is, of course, got all kinds of things going on around the world—” 

Marten: “Dmitry Utkin is a GRU, a Russian military intelligence officer in the reserves and so or in retirement? I guess it’s not exactly clear what his relationship with the GRU was at the time, but he certainly was acting right alongside Russian uniformed forces, even though they wanted to pretend that they weren’t there in the activities that they were carrying out in eastern Ukraine. And so he was involved in everything from active combat to trying to gain political control over some of the indigenous leaders in eastern Ukraine who saw the war in 2014 and 2015 as a way to escape the control of both Ukraine and Russia to make sure that eastern Ukraine remained under Russian influence.”

Watson: “I find that kind of fascinating, too, in terms of another kind of black hole of a common U.S. thought — how these folks, you know, want to break free. There may be a significant population of people who want to break free from both Ukraine and from Russia, but they are stuck within one of those borders. That’s interesting to me how these guys come into that space.” 

Marten: “I’m not sure that the population as a whole wanted to break away. It’s just that there were individual Cossack leaders who had this very strong Catholic identity. And the Catholic identity has always been associated with, you know, sort of independence from state control, a willingness to cooperate with the state in some sense, but also this sense of almost being like cowboys on a frontier. And so it was from what we know and again, this is not something that’s very well documented, but from press reports, we know that there were Catholic leaders in eastern Ukraine who really saw this as their opportunity to break free. And we know that Utkin was somehow involved in efforts to bring those areas back into line under Russian influence.”

So how do we know this Utkin character switched from the Slavonic Corps to the Wagner group? The truth is he didn’t really hide it. In fact, he began going by the name “Vagner” during his time in eastern Ukraine shortly after Russia’s invasion in 2014. 

The name was chosen supposedly for Utkin’s love of German composer Richard Wagner, the source of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of a “Superman” and his book, “Will to Power.” Both of which were, of course, concepts later idolized by Adolf Hitler.

Alleged former mercenaries under Utkin’s command claim the man has a swastika tattooed on his shoulder and that he practices paganism and wears a helmet with horns. Or at least so goes the public myth-making around Utkin and Wagner. 

It’s hard to know what’s precisely true with a group as shadowy as this. But we think we do know a couple of interesting and notable things about how Wagner’s soldiers went from Ukraine and back to Syria. 

Aric Toler, who leads research and training activities on eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union for the investigative journalism collective Bellingcat, has done extensive work tracing the travel habits of Wagner operatives over the past couple years. 

I called him up in early January to review some of Bellingcat’s findings.

Watson: “What did you learn about a year ago about Wagner operations and how at least some of them seem to have obtained their passports?”

Toler: “Yeah. So we’ve been working for a while on researching different nasty people in general around Russia and Russian military intelligence and security services. One of the ways we’ve been doing this is we have a handful of well, not more than a handful. We actually have lots and lots of leaked databases from Russia, because there’s this whole kind of gray market-slash-black-market economy in Russia selling — and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, it used to happen in Kazakhstan and Ukraine and elsewhere, too — where these databases are leaked, mostly from government and police sources. And some of these are really, really, really — you’re just like… you know, you could have five or six lifetimes in an investigative reporter could even get through all the leaks that are contained within. But a few of them are especially interesting because they have like travel databases, they have flights that people have taken — especially between the year 2014 and 2016, which is kind of a hot area for international activity, I guess you could say. And so the report we did early last year was following up on some allegations from the Ukrainian security services, the SBU. And with the SBU, I mean, you can’t take them at face value because they are a, you know, a state security service. Right? And in this report the SBU put out, they list this big list of a dozen or so supposedly Wagner mercenaries, including their passport numbers. Well, this is interesting to us because we have access to some databases that show travel records. When you travel you it includes passport number, date of birth name, things like that. So what we’re doing is we were kind of cross referencing some of these passport numbers and individuals in the SBU release; and in there you see that these numbers are not quite sequential, but they’re like in the same batch of profiles. I can go on for three, four hours about how Russia issues passports, especially for people tied to security services. But it was clear from the sequential passport numbers that they were all issued from the same passport desk in Moscow, which is kind of like the VIP desk. You have some normal people in there. But this is also where some of the requests are expedited. And a lot of people who weren’t from Moscow, who were from Petersburg, from the villages out in Siberia in the middle nowhere we’re all getting their passports the exact same time from the same passport desk in Moscow. Not all, but many of these people were Wagner mercenaries because they were, you know, from some podunk village out in the middle of Siberia and they didn’t have an international passport yet. And they were being issued by all at once kinda when this bulk request was put in by Wagner via the security services. So this is interesting on its own, right? Because you have this big, long list of victim mercenaries that the Ukrainian security services were releasing. But within these links and files, you can find out a whole bunch more information because these people were almost all traveling on the same flights together to Pashkovsky Airport, which is in Krasnodar, in southern Russia. And so you have all these Wagner mercenaries who are in this Ukrainian SBU publication, and if you look for the flight manifest, because again, these are travel databases, you can find plane tickets, you can look for every passenger on this flight, and we’re kind of looking at some of the suspicious people who are going on there and we’re finding some GRU officers who were flying — that we’d already known about, that we’d already written about and researched who are on this exact same flight with some of these volunteer mercenaries who were from the Ukrainian security service publication. So this is a goldmine for us because you have this lead that was from the Ukrainian service and then you kind of cross-reference the information that was in there with these other leaks that came out, you know, three, four years ago, and from that, you can find fresh information like new GRU officers — both the real identities and the cover identities of GRU officers, because they were flying alongside with them to Moscow to the Krasnodar Airport, which I should note is where the Wagner base is. So the headquarters of Wagner is outside of Krasnodar in southern Russia. And that’s why they were all flying together to the same place.” 

Watson: “Are there any particularly kind of interesting destinations that we were able to locate with some of these folks?” 

Toler: “Well, I mean, the idea that Krasnador was quite interesting enough because that’s the, you know, the base. But a lot of them, a lot of trips like Rostov, and Rostov is the large Russian city that’s near the Ukrainian border. So they kind of, they were going there on their way to Ukraine because Wagner people mostly know Wagner now, as the you know, the people who are in Libya now and who were helping the Syrian government free oilfields from ISIS in Syria. But they got their start working in Ukraine. So they were under the direct leadership of a GRU commander. He’s a senior GRU commander in Moscow. And he was a guy who was in charge of Wagner mercenaries in the fall and late winter of 2014. And he has all sorts of interesting flight history. And also, there’s another guy whose name is he’s a major general who was also involved with Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine. He was based between Russia and Ukraine. And he was actually a senior military advisor in Damascus in 2013. So when you look at the Russian military intelligence and Russian department of defense and you see Wagner, the ties are — you can’t even separate them, right? But yeah, the interesting stuff to me is, I mean, you know, Utkin is, you know, a shady guy and all that. But, you know, the fact that GRU officers are on the same flights as Wagner mercs heading to their base and they’re being commanded by senior gear, you and Russian armed forces officers, as you know, that’s pretty—”

Watson: “Total coincidence, Mr. journalist.”

Toler: “Right?” 

Watson: “Yeah, that’s that’s all it is. Let me take you over to this room over here for some special questions.”


AN IGNOMINIOUS INVASION

One thing that seemed kind of intuitive to me about all this talk about Wagner and Russian private military companies was why. Why use these guys and not the military?

One of my suspicions hinged on a country I was in exactly 10 years ago. It’s the same country Soviet soldiers occupied up until almost exactly 31 years ago: Afghanistan.  

Dan Rather: “This is the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather reporting. The retreat of Soviet military power in Afghanistan is complete. The last of Russia’s regular army invasion force is out…”

Marten: “Most people refer to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan as being their version of Vietnam—” 

Here’s Marten again.

Marten: “—where you had, you know, kids who were drafted, who didn’t know what they were doing there, who when they did come home, came back drug addicted with a lot of PTSD. And it took the Soviets many years before they were willing to recognize them as actually even being combat veterans until relatively late in the Gorbachev era. The sense was that they were just doing, you know, brotherly support for Soviet friends and that they weren’t really combat veterans. And so I think that that had just a searing impact on how civilians coming out of the Soviet period looked at the way that the military was supposed to be used. And so I think you’re absolutely right that that had to have an impact on things.”

Rondeaux: “And in fact the steady drip drip drip of investigative reporting—”

That’s Candace Rondeaux, who is a Professor at Arizona State University and a Senior Fellow with the New America think tank’s Center on the Future of War. She’s written a series of reports on Wagner, and spent five years living and working in South Asia for the International Crisis Group and as South Asia bureau chief for the Washington Post in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Rondeaux: “—and expose aides and campaigns by mothers of those killed in Afghanistan who secretly came home, notoriously in the zinc boxes, really became an important social phenomenon that I think, you know, everybody with any sort of sense of history — and certainly Putin and others in the Kremlin certainly understand — controlling that would be key for lots of different reasons. Given that so many who now rule the Kremlin came of age during precisely that time in their professional career, suddenly Putin, he would have been a young KGB agent at the time, must have taken some lessons, I think, from the Afghanistan experience of the Soviet Union. And how much that factored into public perceptions of political legitimacy. So I think that’s very real. I also think what’s very real, that is I think, again, not fully understood or not really fully explored and difficult to do. I think in a short news story is that this is really, though, what we now call Wagner or private military mercenaries in Russia is not just, you know, an industrial phenomenon. It’s a social phenomenon. And you can see online social media, if you look at VKontakte, which is the Russian version of Facebook, these groups have grown in popularity. The sort of mysticism around, not as the special forces and mysticism or mercenary-ism, it has grown exponentially since the start of the Ukraine war, certainly. But as more and more has come to light about Prigozhin’s networks, about the Wagner Group, you see these fascinating interests on the part of young men that want to join up. ‘Where can I sign up?’ There are dozens and dozens of Soldier of Fortune blogs and micro communities online that you can find now. That factor is something I don’t think the Kremlin could have predicted. And maybe on some level, there is, I think, a sense of anxiety that has always been there, which is why, of course, private militaries are not legalized under Russian national law, that these young men, mostly young men who can come and go through revolving door fashion from one war to the next could present as a real danger as their own social movement inside Russia themselves itself. And I think that’s a factor that we, I think, fail to fully understand. And you certainly see some disaffection amongst this class of mercenaries who’s gone to Ukraine, gone to Syria, gone to Libya, and they come back wounded and unable to get compensation and sort of cast aside. I think that’s real. And I think it could be a phenomenon that could grow over time.”


INTO AFRICA

Another thing that has been growing in recent months: Yevgeny Prigozhin’s profile and customer list across Africa. 

Three months before that disastrous charge at American forces in Syria, alleged Wagner operatives were spotted training the Sudanese military. The following January, Russia sent 170 civilian trainers to help out in the Central African Republic. The same month his other company Evro Polis signed a deal with a Syrian state-owned oil firm giving Prigozhin 25% of the petroleum output from lands retaken for the Syrian state. Which of course makes that risky charge in February a tiny bit more understandable — if still no less suicidal. According to the Washington Post, Prigozhin himself was even caught by U.S. intelligence in an intercepted phone conversation with Syrian officials talking about a “fast and strong” mission that would happen in early February. 

That he was caught discussing these things could mean any number of things, including what would appear to be his direct involvement. 

With perhaps even less discretion, Prigozhin himself was photographed apparently negotiating deals in Moscow alongside Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu in November 2018. Their customer was Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, whose personal army has for the last nine months been trying to invade Libya’s capital city of Tripoli against the wishes of the United Nations.

According to Bloomberg reporting the same month as that meeting with Haftar, Prigozhin’s contract soldiers have also been quote “active in or moving into” unquote at least 10 African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Angola, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

So… why Africa? 

You may remember from last episode — all about influence operations in 2020 — we were given a little bit of a clue.

Here’s Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.  

Watts: “I think the big topic for discussion [is] where Russia is putting probably more energy right now to achieve objectives, are the frontiers — Africa being a huge one; Latin America being another one — where they’ve gone very aggressively using similar approaches. RT in the Spanish speaking areas of the Americas is blowing it out. They’re getting far more production. And you’ll see how they also play to the populist left, you know, in certain countries and the populist right in other countries. And they’re having great success with this approach in places where the US used to be the trusted ally, the main player in a global hegemony, you’re seeing the Russians really push back to their old frontiers during the Soviet days.”

Polyakova: “So one place where I’ve seen them trying to get around that—”

That’s Alina Polyakova, formerly of the Brookings Institution.

Polyakova: “—to obfuscate the our ability to attribute specific campaigns to them is this kind of franchising which we saw in the most recent disinformation network in Africa, where they actually went as far as to basically contract with local media outlets, quote unquote, I put that in quotation marks — in specific African countries that then carried out the disinformation campaigns for them. But of course, from the perspective of the social media platforms, this looks organic. Yeah. It’s a cut out process. So this whole proxy warfare model, I think permeates everything the Russians do, whether they be you know, kinetic military operations or whether that be these information influence ops.” 

And that’s a good reminder as we think about alleged work of Russian contractors like Wagner across Africa: they can be hired to do many, many different tasks, Kimberly Marten reminded me. It’s kind of the great patina of plausible deniability that Prigozhin employees benefit from.

Marten: “People who have observed them on the ground have said that there are. It’s not clear that Wagner means the same thing that it used to. And so we probably should not be thinking about it as if it is, you know, a commercial organization, the way a private military company is a commercial organization. It is a name that is put on as a whole series of activities that are carried out by people who all have some kind of personal relationship to each other. But it may not really be the same group over time. And so people who have observed them in Libya have said that it may even be two separate groups that are in Wagner, that one part is sort of, you know, sort of the people who are just willing to go and fight for anything, who are not necessarily all that professional. And then some of them seem more much more like, you know, the Alpha group from the FSB, who are extraordinarily well-trained and extraordinarily well disciplined. And there may be fewer of those, but they still may be and not be being called ‘Wagner’ because they are veterans as opposed to being people who are currently employed by the FSB for whatever reason, maybe for plausible deniability reasons. But I think you know, we just have to be careful that everything we’re seeing, we’re really seeing through a glass darkly and we don’t really have very good information that allows us to track this group as an actual group over the years.”

Rondeaux: “Russia has something like 30-plus military and technical agreements, most of them are in Africa—”

Candace Rondeaux once more.

Rondeaux: “Most of them are in places where democracy, if it exists at home, certainly is under threat. But basically, what’s missed here is that it’s of central importance for Russia today to be able to export export its military expertise as well as its energy production expertise, because that is those two are important exports for hard currency. And Russia otherwise would not really have much access to hard currency and would be completely ruble dependent. And so in some ways, it’s not unexpected. We see tremors in places like Ukraine, which is the main access point to the Black Sea or in places like Syria or Libya, for that matter, that Russia rushes to fill the void either by propping up folks like Assad or moving to get behind General Haftar in Libya. None of this should surprise us because in fact, this has been a pillar of Soviet and Russian geopolitical strategy for many, many generations. And, you know, there’s I think, a lot of concern that what’s on offer from Russia today is kind of a package deal. How those packages are put together is one question. But you can rent a private military like the Wagner Group and maybe you get in addition to that, some help with the electoral process vis a vis Facebook or whatever other social media platforms the Internet Research Agency is willing to support and exploit. And that’s concerning. But the question is what is the U.S. interest in some of these places? I would argue that in a place like Sudan, that has an emerging democracy now, there might be a greater interest in trying to understand a little more of Russia in a place like Sudan and in particular, the role of the Wagner group. I think it might be safe to say that if the U.S. military and the Pentagon is thinking that Great Power Competition is going to take place on some sort of European landmass and this great clash or World War II style, I think they’re sadly mistaken. Competitions can take place in places like East Africa and North Africa. And so pulling back is challenging. Certainly it would be difficult to rebuild there and it would become even more difficult to monitor what’s happening in terms of Russia’s growing influence in Africa. If you don’t have the presence there, but there may be other ways to deal with that. I just don’t see that the US national security community really has a handle on it yet, though.”

Watson: “As I look at one of these other regions that they move over to, which is Central African Republic and what you’ve written about it, it seems to a kind of a poor investment; I’m wondering — I guess lazy cynicism on my part: I wonder are these just kind of just bored rich men trying to relive the glory days of the USSR?”

Marten: “No, I don’t think so. I think what’s going on in the Central African Republic — and I think it’s become clearer over the space of the last year and a half as more has been adding up in terms of what Russia is doing there — that what is being tried in Central African Republic is a model of political influence in foreign countries. And it’s a model that’s inexpensive and that’s low-risk, because Russia can pull out at any time because it doesn’t really have that many direct interests that are involved there. But the model is supporting a particular individual leader, in this case President [Faustin-Archange] Touadéra, also supporting a set of what I in previous work have called ‘warlords,’ essentially — people who are local power brokers armed, power brokers who are quite willing to use force and patronage to get ahead in their own affairs; and being the one lynchpin between the two that brings cooperation and a sense of peace between the two, and therefore leaving that leader, in this case Touadéra, dependent on the Russians to have peace be maintained in the country. So if you look at it that way, Russia has sort of inserted itself as a very necessary component. And if it ends up working in the Central African Republic, if they can maintain peace by paying off the warlords, getting Touadéra to accept the warlords coming in in government positions in the country, and therefore saying, you know, ‘We’ve solved the problem in the Central African Republic. Everybody thought it was anarchy, and here Russia has come in and provided the solution.’ I’m wondering if that’s something they can also apply to Libya, where they have also been supporting a warlord — Khalifa Haftar. Then as we’re looking at Syria, in many ways it’s a similar situation where you’ve got all these local militias that somehow are gonna have to be brought in on the side of the Assad government to have Syria become a functioning state again. And if Russia can be the lynchpin that is the one that says, ‘We are the ones that got this deal and so you need us,’ it is sort of furthering this idea that now Russia is an important player in the world because Russia knows how to bring peace to unstable societies.” 

That’s it for us this week. 

Thanks for listening, and until next time… 


Source : Defense One Staff Link to Author

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