Wagner Group

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Wagner Group
Группа Вагнера
Active2014–present[1]
LeaderLt. Col. Dmitry Utkin
Size1,000 (March 2016)[2]
6,000 (December 2017)[3]
Allies Russian Armed Forces
United Armed Forces of Novorossiya
Syrian Armed Forces
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps
Libyan National Army
Mozambique Defence Armed Forces
Opponent(s) Armed Forces of Ukraine
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
Al-Nusra Front (2014-2017)
Tahrir al-Sham
Syria Free Syrian Army
Libyan Army
Ansar al-Sunna
Battles and war(s)Crimean Crisis[4][5]

War in Donbass

Syrian Civil War

Sudanese Civil War (military training and security only)[20]
CAR Civil War (military training and security only)[21][22]
Second Libyan Civil War[23][24][25]

Sudanese Revolution[27]
2019 Venezuelan presidential crisis (security only)[28]

Insurgency in Cabo Delgado[29]

The Wagner Group (Russian: Группа Вагнера, tr. Grupa Vagnera), also known as PMC Wagner, ChVK Wagner, or CHVK Vagner (Russian: ЧВК Вагнера, tr. ChVK Vagnera, Russian: Частная Военная Компания Вагнера), is a Russian paramilitary organization. Some have described it as a private military company (or a private military contracting agency), whose contractors have reportedly taken part in various conflicts, including operations in the Syrian Civil War on the side of the Syrian government as well as, from 2014 until 2015, in the War in Donbass in Ukraine aiding the separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.

Others, including reports in The New York Times, are of the opinion that ChVK Wagner is really an arms-length unit of the Russian Ministry of Defence and or the GRU[30] in disguise, which is used by the Russian government in conflicts where deniability is called for, as its forces are trained on MoD installations. It is believed to be owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

History, organization and status[edit]

The founder of the company is reported to be Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin, who was born in Kirovohrad Oblast (then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR) in 1970.[31][32][33] According to the Security Service of Ukraine's statement in September 2017, Dmitriy Utkin used to be a Ukrainian citizen.[32]

Until 2013, he was a lieutenant colonel and brigade commander of a special forces (Spetsnaz GRU) unit (the 700th Independent Spetsnaz Detachment of the 2nd Independent Brigade) of Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).[34][1][35] He retired in 2013 and began working for the private company Moran Security Group founded by Russian military veterans; the company performed security and training missions around the world, specializing in security against piracy. The same year, senior Moran Security Group managers were involved in setting up a Hong Kong-based[36] organization Slavonic Corps that headhunted contractors to "protect oil fields and pipelines" in Syria.[1] Utkin was in Syria as part of the Slavonic Corps and survived its disastrous mission.[34] Subsequently, Russia’s Federal Security Service had arrested some members of Slavonic Corps for illegal mercenary activity.[37]

The Wagner Group itself first showed up in 2014,[1] along with Utkin in the Luhansk region of Ukraine.[34] The company's name comes from Utkin's own call sign ("Wagner"), which he allegedly chose due to a passion for the Third Reich.[38] Radio Liberty cited insiders as saying that the Slavic Native Faith (a modern Pagan new religious movement) is a faith favored by the leadership of the Wagner Group.[39] In August 2017, the Turkish newspaper Yeni Şafak speculated that Utkin was possibly just a figurehead for the company, while the real head of Wagner was someone else.[40]

In December 2016, Dmitriy Utkin was photographed with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Kremlin reception given to highly decorated servicepeople to mark the Day of Heroes of the Fatherland [ru] — along with three persons, Alexander Kuznetsov, Andrey Bogatov and Andrey Troshev.[41] Kuznetsov (call sign "Ratibor") was said to be the commander of Wagner's first reconnaissance and assault company, Bogatov was the commander of the fourth reconnaissance and assault company, and Troshev served as the company's "executive director".[42]

A few days after, the Kremlin spokesman confirmed the presence of Dmitry Utkin at the reception, which was organised for those who had been awarded the Order of Courage and the title Hero of the Russian Federation. Besides confirming his presence, the spokesman could only say Utkin was from the Novgorod Region and that he indeed received the award, but could not say for what except that it was presumably for courage. Peskov stated he was not aware how famous Utkin was.[43][44]

In early 2016, Wagner had a membership of 1,000,[2] which later rose to 5,000 by August 2017,[45] and 6,000 by December 2017.[3] The organization was said to be registered in Argentina[2][45] and also has offices in Saint Petersburg[46] and Hong Kong.[47]

The company trains its members at a Russian MoD facility Molkino (Russian: Молькино)[35][48] near the village of Molkin, Krasnodar Krai.[49][50][51] The PMCs' barracks at the base are not linked to the Russian MoD in court documents and instead they are designated as a children's vacation camp.[52] According to a report published by Russian monthly Sovershenno Sekretno, the organisation that hired personnel for Wagner did not have a permanent name and had a legal address near the military settlement Pavshino in Krasnogorsk, near Moscow.[53]

The pay of Wagner private military contractors (PMCs), who are usually retired regular Russian servicemen aged between 35 and 55,[40] is estimated to be between 80,000 and 250,000 Russian rubles a month.[54] One source also stated the pay was as high as 300,000.[41]

When new PMC recruits arrive at the training camp, they are no longer allowed to use social network services and other Internet resources. Company employees are not allowed to post photos, texts, audio and video recordings or any other information on the Internet that was obtained during their training. They are also not allowed to tell anyone their location, whether they are in Russia or another country. Mobile phones, tablets and other means of communication are left with the company and issued at a certain time with the permission of their commander. Passports and other documents are surrendered and in return company employees receive a nameless dog tag with a personal number.

The company only accepts new recruits if a 10-year confidentiality agreement is established and in case of a breach of the confidentiality the company reserves the right to terminate the employee's contract without paying a fee.[55] According to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Russian military officers are assigned the role of drill instructors for the recruits.[56] During their training, the PMCs receive $1,100 dollars per month.[40]

Wagner is also believed to have a Serbian unit, which was, until at least April 2016, under the command of Davor Savičić, a Bosnian Serb[8] who was a member of the Serb Volunteer Guard (also known as Arkan's Tigers) during the Bosnian War and Serbia's Special Operations Unit (JSO) during the Kosovo War.[57][58] His call sign in Bosnia was "Elvis".[58] Savičić was reportedly only three days in the Luhansk region when a BTR armored personnel carrier fired at his checkpoint, leaving him shell-shocked. After this, he left to be treated.[8]

He was also reported to had been involved in the first offensive to capture Palmyra from the Islamic State (ISIL) in early 2016.[57] One member of the Serbian unit was killed in Syria in June 2017,[59] while the SBU issued arrest warrants in December 2017, for six Serbian PMCs that belonged to Wagner and fought in Ukraine, including Savičić.[60] In early February 2018, the SBU reported that one Serb member of Wagner, who was a veteran of the conflict in Syria, had been killed while fighting in eastern Ukraine.[61][62]

In early October 2017, the SBU said that Wagner's funding in 2017 had been increased by 185 million roubles ($3.1 million) and that around forty Ukrainian nationals were working for Wagner, with the remaining 95 percent of the personnel being Russian citizens.[63] One Ukrainian was killed in Syria while fighting in the ranks of Wagner in March 2016,[64] and three were reported overall to had died that spring.[65] Armenians, Kazakhs and Moldovans have also worked for Wagner.[66]

It has been reported that Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, sometimes called “Putin’s chef”, because of his catering businesses that hosted dinners which Vladimir Putin attended with foreign dignitaries,[67][68][69] has links with Wagner[70][71] and Dmitry Utkin personally.[72][73] The businessman has been said to be the funder[74] and actual owner of the Wagner Group,[75] who is leading the company.[76]

Prigozhin, who was sanctioned by the United States Department of the Treasury in December 2016 for Russia's involvement in the Ukraine conflict,[77][78] denied any communication with Wagner.[79] The US Department of the Treasury also imposed sanctions on PMC Wagner and Utkin personally in June 2017.[80] The designation of the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control listed the company and Dmitriy Utkin under the "Designations of Ukrainian Separatists (E.O. 13660)" heading and referred to him as "the founder and leader of PMC Wagner".[81] Further sanctions were implemented against PMC Wagner in September 2018,[82][83][84] and July 2020.[85]

Russian and some Western observers, as well as a few people who have been personally involved with the Wagner Group, believe that the organization does not actually exist as a private military company and is but a myth created by Russian propaganda. They believe it is in reality a disguised branch of the Russian MoD that ultimately reports to the Russian government.[86][87][88][89][90][91][92][93]

Private military companies are not legally allowed in Russia; nevertheless a number of them appear to have been operating in Russia, and in April 2012 Vladimir Putin, then Russian prime minister, speaking in the State Duma endorsed an idea of setting up PMCs in Russia.[94] Several military analysts described Wagner as a "pseudo-private" military company that offers the Russian military establishment certain advantages such as ensuring plausible deniability, public secrecy about Russia's military operations abroad, as well as about the number of losses.[95][94][96] Thus, Wagner contractors have been described as "ghost soldiers", due to the Russian government not officially acknowledging them.[97]

In March 2017, Radio Liberty characterized the ChVK Wagner as a ″semi-legal militant formation that exists under the wing and on the funds of the Ministry of Defence″.[98] In September 2017, the chief of Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) Vasyl Hrytsak said that in their opinion Wagner was in essence ″a private army of Putin″ and that the SBU were "working on identifying these people, members of Wagner PMC, to make this information public so that our partners in Europe knew them personally".[32][99] The Wagner Group has also been compared with Academi, the American security firm formerly known as Blackwater.[100]

The SBU alleged that Wagner employees were issued international passports in bulk by the GRU via Central Migration Office Unit 770–001 in the second half of 2018, allegations partially verified by Bellingcat.[101][102]

In an interview in December 2018, Russian President Putin said, in regard to Wagner PMCs operating in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, that "everyone should remain within the legal framework" and that if the Wagner group was violating the law, the Russian Prosecutor General's Office "should provide a legal assessment". But, according to Putin, if they did not violate Russian law, they had the right to work and promote their business interests abroad. The president also denied allegations that Yevgeny Prigozhin had been directing Wagner's activities.[103]

In late 2019, a so-called Wagner code of honor was revealed that lists ten commandments for Wagner's PMCs to follow. These include, among others, to protect the interests of Russia always and everywhere, to value the honor of a Russian soldier, to fight not for money, but from the principle of winning always and everywhere.[104][105]

Following the deployment of its contractors between 2017 and 2019, to Sudan,[20] the Central African Republic,[21] Madagascar,[106] Libya[26] and Mozambique,[29] the Wagner Group had offices in 20 African countries, including Eswatini, Lesotho and Botswana, by the end of 2019.[107] Early in 2020, Erik Prince, founder of the Blackwater private military company, sought to provide military services to the Wagner Group in its operations in Libya and Mozambique, according to The Intercept.[108]

Operations[edit]

Crimea and Eastern Ukraine[edit]

Wagner PMCs first showed up in February 2014 in Crimea[4][5] during Russia's 2014 annexation of the peninsula where they operated in line with regular Russian army units, disarmed the Ukrainian Army and took control over facilities. The takeover of Crimea was almost bloodless.[109] The PMCs, along with the regular soldiers, were called "polite people" at the time[110] due to their well-mannered behavior. They kept to themselves, carried weapons that were not loaded, and mostly made no effort to interfere with civilian life.[111] Another name for them was "little green men" since they were masked, wearing unmarked green army uniforms and their origin was initially unknown.[112]

After the takeover of Crimea,[109] some 300 PMCs[113] went to the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine where a conflict started between Ukrainian government and pro-Russian forces. Thanks to their help, the pro-Russian forces were able to destabilize government security forces in the region, immobilize operations of local government institutions, seize ammunition storages and take control of towns.[109] The PMCs conducted sneak attacks, reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering and accompanied VIPs.[114] In October 2017, the Ukrainian SBU claimed it had established the involvement of the Wagner Group in the June 2014 Il-76 airplane shoot-down at Luhansk International Airport that killed 40 Ukrainian paratroopers, as well as a crew of nine.[6] Russian and Serbian "mercenaries" were already reported being involved in the summer 2014 battle for the airport, although it was not stated if they were linked to Wagner back then.[115][116]

According to the SBU, Wagner PMCs were initially deployed to eastern Ukraine on 21 May 2014, and the service was planning to file charges on Dmitry Utkin to the office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine.[63] The PMCs also participated in the early 2015 Battle of Debaltseve, which involved one of the heaviest artillery bombardments in recent history, as well as reportedly hundreds of regular Russian soldiers.[2] The PMCs were supported by several KAMAZ-43269 "Vystrel" MRAPs.[117] During fighting near the town, their logistics platoon was reported to had extracted several destroyed KAMAZ-43269 "Dozor" MRAPs belonging to the Russian military, during which the platoon's commander was wounded.[118] Several PMCs were killed during the clashes.[8][119] The battle for Debaltseve ended in a decisive victory over Ukrainian forces.[2] According to a Wagner PMC, Dmitry Utkin himself was wounded during the deployment to Ukraine, getting a splinter in his liver.[120]

Following the end of major combat operations, the PMCs were reportedly given the assignment to kill dissident pro-Russian commanders that were acting in a rebellious manner, according to the Russian nationalist Sputnik and Pogrom [ru] internet media outlet and the SBU.[96][109] According to Sputnik and Pogrom, in one raid, they killed more than 10 militia fighters.[109] In another operation in early January 2015, the PMCs disarmed without any loss of life the Odessa brigade of the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR), after surrounding their base in Krasnodon with the support of tanks and artillery, and demanding the separatists disarm and return to their homes.[121]

According to the SBU and the Russian news site Fontanka [ru], Wagner also forced the reorganization and disarmament of Russian Cossack and other formations.[114][122] The PMCs acted mostly in the LPR,[109] for whose authorities they allegedly conducted four political killings of separatist commanders.[5][109] The killed commanders were in a conflict with the LPR's president, Igor Plotnitsky.[114][123] The LPR accused Ukraine of committing the assassinations,[123][124] while unit members of the commanders believed it was the LPR authorities who were behind the killings.[124][125][126]

In late November 2017, the SBU published what they said were intercepted audio recordings that proved a direct link between Dmitry Utkin and Igor Cornet, the Interior Minister of the LPR, who was stated to had personally led the initiative of eliminating the dissident commanders.[127] In early June 2018, the SBU also published telephone conversations between Utkin and Igor Plotnitsky from January 2015, as well as conversations between Utkin and Russian GRU officer Oleg Ivannikov who was using the pseudonym Andrei Ivanovich. Ivannikov, according to a Wagner PMC, supervised both their forces, as well as that of the LPR separatists, during the fighting in 2014 and 2015.[117] Wagner left Ukraine and returned to Russia in autumn of 2015, with the start of the Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War.[5]

Syria[edit]

Arrival and capture of Palmyra and al-Shaer[edit]

The presence of the PMCs in Syria was first reported in late October 2015, almost a month after the start of the Russian military intervention in the country's civil war, when between three and nine PMCs were killed in a rebel mortar attack on their position in Latakia province.[9][128][129] It was reported that the Wagner Group was employed by the Russian Defense Ministry, even though private military companies are illegal in Russia.[54] The Russian Defense Ministry dismissed the early reports by The Wall Street Journal about the Wagner Group's operations in Syria as an "information attack". However, sources within the Russian FSB and the Defense Ministry unofficially stated for RBTH that Wagner was supervised by the GRU.[50]

Furthermore, according to a few Wagner fighters, they were flown to Syria aboard Russian military transport planes.[4] Others were transported to Syria by the Syrian Cham Wings airline from the Rostov-on-Don Airport, with 51 round trips being made between January 2017 and March 2018.[130] Their equipment was delivered to Syria via the so-called Syrian Express [ru],[131] a fleet of Russian military and civilian merchant ships that had been delivering supplies to Syria since 2012.[132] Later, a Defense Ministry source told RBK TV that the FSB was also directing the PMCs.[131] The usage of Wagner had reportedly cost Russia 170 million dollars by August 2016.[133]

By July 2017, according to The New York Times, the Kremlin established a policy in Syria where companies that seize oil and gas wells, as well as mines, from ISIL forces would get oil and mining rights for those same sites. Two Russian companies received contracts under this policy by this time, with one employing the Wagner Group to secure those sites from the militants.[80] Later, it was revealed that the company would receive 25 percent of the proceeds from oil and gas production at fields its PMCs captured and secured from ISIL.[67] Some reports stated that the contracts with Damascus were established after Wagner lost the trust and financing of the Russian Defense Ministry in early 2016.[134] As of early August 2017, the number of Wagner employees in Syria was reported to had reached 5,000, after the arrival of an additional 2,000 PMCs, including Chechens and Ingush.[40]

Wagner PMCs were involved in both Palmyra offensives in 2016 and 2017, as well as the Syrian Army's campaign in central Syria in the summer of 2017 and the Battle of Deir ez-Zor in late 2017.[8][11][135][13] They were in the role of frontline advisors, fire and movement coordinators[96] and forward air controllers who provided guidance to close air support.[136] When they arrived in Syria the PMCs received T-72 tanks, BM-21 Grad MLRs and 122 mm D-30 howitzers.[137] During the first Palmyra offensive, according to one of the contractors, the PMCs were used as "cannon fodder" and most of the work was conducted by them, with the regular Syrian Army, who he described as "chickens", only finishing the job.[4] An expert on Russian security at the IIR, Mark Galeotti, said they served as "shock troops" alongside the Syrian Army.[95]

Following the successful conclusion of the offensive, during which 32 of the contractors were reportedly killed and about 80 wounded, the PMCs were withdrawn between April and May 2016, and they surrendered all of their heavy weapons and military equipment. When they returned for the second Palmyra offensive and to capture ISIL-held oil fields at the beginning of 2017, the PMCs reportedly faced a shortage of weapons and equipment as they were issued only older assault rifles, machine guns, T-62 tanks and M-30 howitzers. Several sniper rifles and grenade launchers were delivered a few weeks later, which did not solve the issue.

According to Fontanka, the equipment problems in combination with a reported reduction in the quality of its personnel led to Wagner suffering a significantly higher number of casualties in the second battle for Palmyra than the first one. Between 40 and 60 were reported killed and between 80 and 180 were wounded.[137] The Russian investigative blogger group[138] the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) attributed the higher losses mainly to ISIL's heavy use of suicide-bombers and the militant group's unwillingness to negotiate.[11] Still, the second offensive also ended in a victory for pro-government forces.[139][140]

Besides fighting ISIL militants, according to RBK TV, the PMCs trained a Syrian Army unit called the ISIS Hunters [fr], which was also fully funded and trained by Russian special forces.[141] The ISIS Hunters were one of the leading units[142] during the capture of the al-Shaer gas fields from ISIL in late April 2017.[143] However, as of the beginning of July, the PMCs were still fighting to secure the al-Shaer gas fields and the areas of the phosphate mines.[144] Still, in mid-September, the al-Shaer gas fields started getting back into production.[145] Subsequently, the PMCs were in charge of guarding the refineries, with ISIL occasionally making attempts to retake the fields, each time being beaten back. During one attack, a PMC was tortured to death by ISIL.[146]

Killing of Muhammad Abdullah al-Ismail[edit]

In early July 2017, a video emerged that showed Wagner PMCs bludgeoning who was initially believed to be a captured ISIL militant in the Palmyra area, with the person being beheaded after.[144]

More than two years later, full footage was uploaded to a closed VKontakte group for members of Wagner with new information asserting that the killed person was a Syrian Army soldier who had deserted.[147][148] The contractors also accused the man, named as Muhammad “Hamadi” Abdullah al-Ismail (or Mohammed Taha Ismail Al-Abdullah) from Deir ez-Zor, of being a jihadist for wanting to desert. Ismail had fled Syria earlier in the war for Lebanon, before returning in 2017, after which he was arrested and forcibly conscripted into the Syrian military.[149] After he was killed, his body was mutilated and burned.[150] In the video of the killing, a second severed head of an unidentified person could be seen lying on the ground.[151]

A Russian independent media report identified one of the perpetrators as Stanislav Yevgenyevich Dychko,[152] a confirmed operative of the Wagner Group[147][148] who previously worked for the Russian Interior Ministry.[152] A second one was identified as a former soldier named Ruslan from Bryansk, currently employed as a "patriotic educator" in local schools.[153] Arab media also established the place of the murder to be the al-Shaer oilfield near Homs.[154] Further investigation by Russian media in December 2019 identified the remaining perpetrators as Vladimir B., Dzhakhongyr M. ("Pamir"), Ruslan ("Chichi") and Vladislav Apostol, who was killed in Syria in February 2018.[155] The Novaya Gazeta newspaper sent the material from its investigation into the killing to the office of the Prosecutor General of Russia, as well as the Investigative Committee of Russia, however no criminal cases were opened as a result.[156]

Push into Deir ez-Zor and clearing of Hama[edit]

In mid-September 2017, the PMCs helped Syrian troops[157] to capture the town of Uqayribat from ISIL in the central Hama province.[158][159] Several PMCs were killed during the fighting for the town and their bodies were seized by the militants.[135] One week later, the PMCs, along with regular Russian troops, supported Syrian government forces in repelling a HTS-led rebel offensive north of Hama.[12] At the end of that month, during an ISIL counter-offensive in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate, two Wagner PMCs were captured by the militants.[160][41] Initially, the Kremlin attempted to distance itself from the two,[161] while a brother of one of them accused the Russian government of rejecting them.[162]

Subsequently, the Syrian ISIS Hunters unit pledged to pay one million dollars for the release of each of the captive Russians. However, the ISIS Hunters also said they would execute 100 captive militants for each of the Russians if they were killed by the jihadists.[163] At the same time, a Russian parliamentary official stated that the two had almost certainly been executed, presumably for refusing to reject their Christian Orthodox religion, reject Russia, become Muslims and join the militant group.[164][165] This claim was questioned by the CIT, who pointed out that there had been no reports to this effect from the militants′ sources.[49]

In late October 2017, a video emerged on YouTube glorifying the PMCs actions in Syria.[166] Between the end of October and the start of November, Wagner took part in the Battle of Deir ez-Zor[13] where they cleared the remaining ISIL militants from the districts of Al-Rashidiyah and Al-Ardi, as well as the Al-Bazh and Abu-Adad neighborhoods, along with the Syrian Army.[14] Three or four companies of Wagner PMCs were involved in the fighting.[157] Syrian government forces took complete control of the city by 3 November.[167][168] A besieged pocket of ISIL militants remained on an island in the city's outskirts, which soon came under attack.[169] As government forces advanced, the pro-opposition SOHR reported that Russia demanded the release of the two captive PMCs during negotiations with the trapped militants.[170]

On 17 November, the last ISIL fighters on the island had surrendered, leaving the Syrian Army in control of all territory surrounding Deir ez-Zor city.[171][172] However, the two PMCs were still prisoners. At the end of November, it was reported that the Russian military was negotiating for the release of the two PMCs who were reportedly being held on the border of Syria and Iraq.[173] However, on 4 December, the ISIS Hunters reported they had killed the commander of the ISIL militants that had captured and executed the two PMCs.[174] The same day, a Wagner representative notified the parents of one of the two that both had died in captivity.[175]

At the end of November, Russia announced plans to withdraw some of its troops from Syria by the end of the year. It was reported that to avoid potential security losses, Russia would fill the void with private military companies, including Wagner.[176] On 11 December, Putin declared victory against "terrorists" during a visit to Russia's Khmeimim air base in Syria.[177]

Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies think tank, stated the usage of PMCs was one of the factors that contributed to Russia's victory in Syria. He pointed out that Russia managed to remove the need for deploying large numbers of ground forces by bringing in the Russian PMCs who, unlike American PMCs who were usually only in support roles, were used as highly capable assault troops and that they were often embedded with Syrian units to augment their fighting ability. He also pointed out that the Russian public proved completely indifferent to the losses suffered by the PMCs, rightly believing that "these people are highly paid, and knew what they were getting into".[178]

In December 2017, the PMCs took part in the Syrian Army's offensive into Idlib province against mostly HTS rebel forces.[15] As part of the same campaign in the northwest of Syria, in early February 2018, the PMCs helped in the capture of several villages in the northeastern countryside of Hama from IS.[179] Between 3 and 7 February, pro-government forces seized at least 25 villages,[180] shrinking the IS pocket in that part of the country by a reported 80 percent.[181] The pocket was cleared on 9 February.[182]

Battle of Khasham[edit]

At about 10 p.m., local time, on 7 February 2018, a battle began near the Syrian town of Khasham in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate, between pro-Syrian government forces and the Kurdish-led SDF, supported by the U.S. military. During the clashes, U.S. aircraft conducted air-strikes against Syrian troops, leaving between 45 and 100 government fighters dead.[183][184]

A Russian newspaper, citing Russian military and contractor sources, reported pro-government forces were attempting to capture the Conoco (locally called Al Tabiyeh) gas field from the SDF.[185][186] According to two U.S. defense officials, the U.S. military assessed that Russian PMCs also participated in the assault, with one saying some of the contractors had been killed in the air-strikes.[187] A Kurdish militia commander and an ex-Russian officer also claimed Russian contractors suffered casualties during the fighting.[187][188]

On 19 February 2018, a publication by the Ukraine-based Inform Napalm alleged the battle was planned and cleared with the Russian military command by Sergey Kim, the chief of Wagner's operations department and a former Russian Marine officer.[189][190] An official statement by the ISIS Hunters unit stated they had received intelligence that ISIL forces were moving towards Khasham and government forces decided to move from the Euphrates so to cut off ISIL's line of attack. At this point, armed groups were spotted east of Khasham, in SDF-held territory, which then attacked the government's troops. The groups were quickly pushed back. The military claimed that, according to intercepted radio traffic, the groups were partly ISIL and partly Kurds, and retreated towards the Conoco factory. At this point, pro-government units were hit by air-strikes.[191]

According to Germany's Der Spiegel, the ferocious American response was primarily triggered by a unit of Syrian tribal militia and Shiite fighters moving from the town of Al Tabiyeh towards Khasham, concurrently with another group of pro-government forces that had crossed the Euphrates River near the Deir ez-Zor Airport advancing towards Khasham from the village of Marrat. Der Spiegel reported no Russians were in either formation; yet there was a small contingent of Russian PMCs stationed in Al Tabiyeh, who were not participating in the fighting.[192] Similarly, the SOHR activist organization reported that the Russians PMCs, who were accompanying government forces as they advanced towards the SDF-held oil and gas fields, were killed at Al Tabiyeh. Furthermore, the SOHR stated they were not killed in the air-strikes, but instead in a booby-trapped explosion at an arms depot.[193]

Several days after the battle, various Russian groups started confirming a number of Wagner PMCs had been killed in the air-strikes.[16][17] Some posts on Russian social media made claims of over 200 Russian PMCs being killed, although the veracity of this information was questioned[194] and could not be confirmed.[195] A Russian paramilitary chief, critical of the killed contractors, also claimed 218 PMCs were killed and that the families were still waiting for their remains.[196] A Russian military doctor, a leader of a PMC-linked paramilitary Cossack organization, a source with ties to Wagner and the Ukrainian SBU claimed 80–100 PMCs were killed and 100–200 wounded.[197][198] The SBU further named 64 of the PMCs.[199] A Russian journalist believed between 20 and 25 PMCs died in the strikes,[194] while similarly CIT estimated a total of between 20 and 30 had died.[200]

The Novaya Gazeta reported a Russian death toll of 13, while the ataman of the Baltic separate Cossack District, Maxim Buga, stated no more than 15–20 died and that the other estimates were exaggerations.[201] On 19 February, one of Wagner's leaders, Andrey Troshev, was quoted as saying 14 ″volunteers″ died in the battle.[202][203] Three other Wagner commanders also stated the claim of 200 dead was an exaggeration and that 15 PMCs were killed at the most.[39] Russia officially confirmed five presumably Russian citizens had been killed in the air-strikes.[204] Der Spiegel and the SOHR reported mostly Syrians were killed in the strikes.[192][205]

As of late March, the PMCs remained in the same area and were using local pro-government troops to scout coalition positions.[206] According to former Wagner members, the battle at Khasham had an impact that lead to changes to the organization, with the PMCs subsequently being given only guard duties at the local plants.[207]

Securing of Damascus[edit]

On 18 February 2018, the Syrian military launched an offensive against the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, east of Damascus,[208][209] and split the region into three separate pockets by 12 March.[210][211]

As of 17 March 82 percent of Eastern Ghouta was captured by the Syrian Army.[212] One of the towns captured by government troops during this time was Mesraba.[213] On 18 March, the rebels launched a counter-attack in an attempt to recapture Mesraba and quickly seized most of the town from government forces. Wagner PMCs then reportedly launched an operation and during the night between 18 and 19 March, fully recaptured Mesraba.

Another mission they were charged with during the offensive was to secure the humanitarian corridor established by the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria that allowed civilians to leave rebel-held areas for government territory. According to the Center, 79,702 people had left rebel-held parts of Eastern Ghouta as of 19 March.[18] By 23 March, the SOHR put the number of those who left rebel areas or remained in two towns seized by government forces at 120,000, while the UN stated 50,000 had left the besieged areas.[214] The whole Eastern Ghouta region was captured by government forces on 14 April,[215][216][217] effectively ending the near 7-year rebellion near Damascus.[218]

In March, an anonymous senior commander of the Wagner Group was quoted as saying that there were five Wagner companies operating in Syria, as well as The Carpathians (Russian: Карпаты, romanizedKarpaty) company attached to Wagner, manned mainly by Ukrainian citizens.[39] The Carpathians consisted of about 100 fighters.[65] In May, the SBU announced it identified Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Demyanenko of the Russian Armed Forces as the Carpathians' trainer. According to the announcement, the unit was formed to conduct reconnaissance and attacks in Ukraine.[219] Belarusians were also said to be among Wagner's contractors.[220]

Post-major combat[edit]

As of the end of November 2018, the PMCs were not conducting almost any combat missions. Instead, they were stationed at facilities and it was stated that during the past summer a company trained for three months at a base, 70 kilometers from Deir ez-Zor, for riot control.[221]

At the start of May 2019, it was reported Wagner snipers were being deployed along the Idlib frontline in northwest Syria in anticipation of a Syrian Army offensive.[19] The ground offensive was launched on 6 May, after a week-long aerial campaign against rebel territory,[222] with pro-government troops managing to capture two major towns within three days. Photos and videos appeared to show at least one Russian PMC accompanying Syrian troops into one of the towns.[223] Members of the Russian special forces were also present during the offensive.[224]

In early September, the PMC's were preparing for an offensive to assault the rebel-held city of Idlib. They were grouped into 50-man tank-equipped units supported by Russian air forces. While working with regular Syrian government forces, they were first to establish civilian evacuation corridors and then engage in the attack on the city.[225]

On 15 October 2019, Syrian government forces entered the city of Manbij and its surrounding countryside, as US military forces started a withdrawal from the area,[226] which was completed by the end of the day.[227] Subsequently, the Russian military started patrols between rebel and government-held areas in the Manbij district.[228] It was thought that Wagner PMCs were involved in the taking over of an abandoned US military base in the area, due to the confirmed presence of a Russian journalist who was known to regularly follow the contractors.[229]

In mid-January 2020, tense standoffs started with US troops blocking Russian military vehicles from using the M4 highway in northeastern Syria. Almost half a dozen incidents took place towards the end of the month.[230][231] In early February, vehicles carrying Russian contractors were also blocked by US troops on the highways. According to the US, the incidents took place deep inside territory patrolled by their military and the Kurdish-led SDF.[232]

As of early February, PMCs were posted at the frontline in the Al-Ghab Plain of Hama province.[233] In April, the Wagner-linked Russian security contractor "Evro Polis" delivered 50 ventilators, 10,000 coronavirus test kits, and 2,000 items of protective clothing to Syria amid the coronavirus pandemic.[234]

Return to Ukraine[edit]

In late November 2017, a power struggle erupted in the separatist Luhansk People's Republic in Eastern Ukraine between LPR president Igor Plotnitsky and the LPR's Interior Minister, Igor Kornet [Wikidata], who Plotnitsky ordered to be dismissed. During the turmoil, armed men in unmarked uniforms took up positions in the center of Luhansk.[235][236] Some of the men allegedly belonged to Wagner.[237] In the end, Plotnitsky resigned and LPR Security Minister Leonid Pasechnik was named acting leader "until the next elections."[238] Plotnitsky reportedly fled to Russia[239] and the LPR's People's Council unanimously approved Plotnitsky's resignation.[240]

In an interview with the Russian news site The Insider in early December 2017, veteran Russian officer Igor Strelkov confirmed that Wagner PMCs had returned to Luhansk from Syria. Strelkov had a key role in the annexation of Crimea by Russia, as well as in the early stages of the war in the east of Ukraine where he was one of the most senior commanders.[241] He was pulled out of eastern Ukraine in August 2014, reportedly because the Russian authorities felt he was too much of a liability,[242] after which he started opposing the Kremlin.[243]

In mid-May 2018, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) reported that about 100 Wagner PMCs could possibly arrive in Donetsk in the coming days so to support the pro-Russian separatist DPR.[244] As of October, a few dozen PMCs remained in the Luhansk region, according to the SBU, to kill any people considered "undesirable by Russia".[245]

Sudan and CAR[edit]

In the interview with The Insider, Strelkov additionally said that, besides returning to Luhansk, Wagner PMCs were also present in South Sudan and possibly Libya.[241] Several days before the interview was published, Strelkov stated Wagner PMCs were being prepared to be sent from Syria to Sudan or South Sudan after Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, told Russia's president Putin that his country needed protection "from aggressive actions of the USA".

Two internal-conflicts have been raging in Sudan for years (in the region of Darfur and the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile), while a civil war has been taking place in South Sudan since 2013. The head of the private Russian firm RSB-group said that he heard PMCs had already traveled to Sudan and had returned with a severe form of malaria.[246] Several dozen PMCs from RSB-group were sent to Libya in early 2017, to an industrial facility near the city of Benghazi, in an area held by forces loyal to Field marshal Khalifa Haftar, to support demining operations. They left in February after completing their mission.[247] The RSB-group was in Libya at the request of the Libyan Cement Company (LCC).[248]

In mid-December, a video surfaced showing Wagner PMCs training members of the Sudanese military,[20] thus confirming Wagner's presence in Sudan and not South Sudan.[249] The PMCs were sent to Sudan to support it militarily against South Sudan and protect gold, uranium and diamond mines, according to Sergey Sukhankin, an associate expert at the ICPS and Jamestown Foundation fellow. Sukhankin stated that the protection of the mines was the "most essential commodity" and that the PMCs were sent to "hammer out beneficial conditions for the Russian companies".[250]

The PMCs in Sudan reportedly numbered 300 and were working under the cover of "M Invest", a company linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin.[251] "M Invest" signed a contract with the Russian Defense Ministry for the use of transport aircraft of the 223rd Flight Unit of the Russian Air Force and between April 2018 and February 2019, two aircraft of the 223rd made at least nine flights to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.[252] The Wagner contractors in Sudan included former Ukrainian citizens who were recruited in Crimea, according to the SBU.[253]

In mid-January 2018, it was reported that Wagner may deploy a contingent of its PMCs to the Central African Republic (CAR), as Russia successfully lobbied the UN Security Council to allow it to ship weapons and ammunition to the country,[254] despite an active arms embargo in place since 2013 under Security Council Resolution 2127.[255] In late March, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated five Russian soldiers and 170 "civilian instructors" had been sent to the CAR to train its servicemen.[256][257] According to CAR's president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the training provided would strengthen the effectiveness of the CAR's armed forces in combating "plunderers". Later, the instructors were indeed confirmed to be Wagner PMCs who were sent to the CAR to protect lucrative mines, support the CAR government[250] and provide close protection for Touadéra.[258]

The role of the PMCs was also to fill a security vacuum left by France after it withdrew its military forces from the country in October 2016.[259] The country had been in the midst of a civil war since 2012, which left three quarters of it under rebel control.[260] The PMCs' camp was set up on 24 March,[258] about 60 kilometers from the capital Bangui at the Berengo estate that was used by CAR's former ruler Jean-Bédel Bokassa.[261] This deployment brought the number of PMCs in Sudan and the CAR to about 370.[250] In April, locals blocked a Russian-registered Cessna from taking off in rebel-held Kaga-Bandoro, which is located near diamond deposits.

According to the CAR government, the plane was carrying Russian military advisers who had been there for peace negotiations with the rebels[262] and witnesses stated three or four Russian soldiers from the aircraft visited the compounds of Muslim rebel leaders.[263] This raised suspicions by CIT and the Transparency International INGO that Wagner PMCs were also guarding diamond mines in rebel territory.[262]

In late May, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper reported the number of Russian PMCs in the CAR was 1,400.[259] Jamestown Foundation fellow Sukhankin told Polygraph.info that the Wagner Group was in charge of military operations in the country, while another Russian private military company called Patriot was in charge of protecting VIPs.[264] 10 Russian military instructors were stationed in the lawless town of Bangassou, on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while another unit was in the key town of Sibut, near rebel-held territory.[260] In August 2018, Russia signed a military cooperation agreement with the CAR,[265] while it also helped broker, along with Sudan, a tentative agreement among armed groups in the country.[266] Three months later, Al Jazeera was given unprecedented access to Russian military instructors in the CAR.[267]

In December 2018, the Ukrainian SBU reported that the umbrella structure of Wagner in the CAR is a commercial firm affiliated with Yevgeny Prigozhin – M-Finance LLC Security Service from St. Petersburg, whose main areas of activity are mining of precious stones and private security services. According to the SBU, some of the PMCs were transported to Africa directly on Prigozhin's private aircraft. The SBU reported that they identified 37 Russian citizens who were engaged in the CAR by Russian military intelligence on a rotational basis as members of M-Finance LLC Security Service, whose head was reported to be Valery Zakharov from St. Petersburg. Zakharov was said to be a Wagner PMC himself, whose personal Wagner number was M-5658.[268]

Overall, according to information obtained by the Ukrainian SBU, 1,012 Wagner PMCs were airlifted on two Tupolev Tu-154 airliners between August and December 2018, to Sudan, the CAR and other African countries.[269]

In late January 2019, after protests erupted in Sudan mid-December 2018, the British press made allegations that the PMCs were helping the Sudanese authorities crackdown on the protesters. During the first days of the protests, demonstrators and journalists reported groups of foreigners had gathered near major rallying points. This was denied by the Russian Foreign Ministry.[270][271] The SBU named 149 PMCs it said participated in the suppression of the protests,[27] as well as two that were reportedly killed in the clashes.[272] Between 30 and 40 people were killed during the protests,[273] including two security personnel. More than 800 protesters were detained.[274] Meanwhile, France accused the PMCs of having a "strong, active presence" on social media and that they were pushing a strong "anti-French rhetoric" in the CAR.[275]

Following Omar al-Bashir's eventual overthrow in a coup d'état on 11 April 2019, Russia continued to support the Transitional Military Council (TMC) that was subsequently established to govern Sudan, as the TMC agreed to uphold Russia's contracts in Sudan's defense, mining and energy sectors. This included the PMCs' training of Sudanese military officers.[276] In May, Russia signed a military agreement with Sudan[277] which, among other things, would facilitate the entry of Russian warships to Sudanese ports.[278]

In April 2020, the Wagner-connected company "Meroe Gold" was reported to be planning to ship personal protective equipment, medicine, and other equipment to Sudan amid the coronavirus pandemic.[234] Three months later, the United States sanctioned the "M Invest" company, as well as its Sudan subsidiary "Meroe Gold" and two individuals key to Wagner operations in Sudan, for the suppression and discrediting of protesters.[85]

Madagascar[edit]

The independent media group the Project reported that Wagner PMCs arrived in Madagascar in April 2018, to guard political consultants that were hired by Yevgeny Prigozhin to accompany the presidential campaign of then-president Hery Rajaonarimampianina for the upcoming elections. Rajaonarimampianina lost the attempt at re-election, finishing third during the first round of voting,[106] although Prigozhin's consultants were said to had also worked with several of the other candidates in the months before the elections. Close to the end of the campaign, the strategists also helped the eventual winner of the elections, Andry Rajoelina, who was also supported by the United States and China.[279] One of the last acts of Rajaonarimampianina's administration was said to be to facilitate a Russian firm's takeover of Madagascar's national chromite producer "Kraoma"[280] and Wagner PMCs were reported to be guarding the chrome mines as of October 2018.[106]

Libya[edit]

In October 2018, the British tabloid The Sun cited British intelligence officials that two Russian military bases had been set up in Benghazi and Tobruk, in eastern Libya, in support of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar who leads the Libyan National Army (LNA) in that country's civil war. It was said the bases were set up under the cover of the Wagner Group and that 'dozens' of GRU agents and special forces members were acting as trainers and liaisons in the area. Russian Kalibr missiles and S-300 SAM systems were also thought to be set up in Libya.[23][281]

The Head of the Russian contact group on intra-Libyan settlement, Lev Dengov, stated that The Sun report did not "correspond to reality", although RBK TV also confirmed the Russian military deployment to Libya.[24][25] By early March 2019, according to a British government source, around 300 Wagner PMCs were in Benghazi supporting Haftar.[282] At this time, the LNA was making large advances in the country's lawless south, capturing a number of towns in quick succession,[283] including the city of Sabha[284] and Libya's largest oil field.[285] By 3 March, most of the south, including the border areas, was under LNA control.[286][287][288]

Following the southern campaign, the LNA launched an offensive against the GNA-held capital of Tripoli, but the offensive stalled within two weeks on the outskirts of the city due to stiff resistance.[289] At the end of September, following reports of GNA airstrikes killing Russian mercenaries during the month south of Tripoli,[290][291][292] including one that reportedly left dozens dead[293] and Wagner commander Alexander Kuznetsov injured,[294][295] Western and Libyan officials stated that during the first week of September more than 100 Wagner PMCs arrived on the frontline to provide artillery support for Haftar's forces.[26] Following the GNA's recapture of a village south of Tripoli from the LNA, the GNA found the abandoned belongings of one of the PMCs.[296][297]

Subsequently, at the sites of various clashes along the frontline, GNA militiamen were recovering Russian material being left behind. By early November, the number of PMCs had grown to 200 or 300 and Wagner snipers were causing a number of casualties among GNA frontline fighters, with 30 percent of the deaths in one unit being due to the Russian snipers. On one day, nine GNA fighters were killed by sniper fire. In another incident at the frontline town of ‘Aziziya, three GNA fighters were killed by snipers while assaulting a Russian-occupied school. The PMCs eventually blew a hole in the wall of a classroom and escaped as the GNA attacked the school with Turkish armored vehicles. The PMCs' snipers killed a number of competent GNA mid-level commanders along the frontline. The presence of the PMCs also lead to more precise mortar fire being directed at the GNA. The PMCs were also equipped with laser-guided howitzer shells and thus artillery fire had become more precise through laser designation from ground spotters. They were also reportedly using hollow point ammunition in contravention of rules of war. With the ground fighting in the war among the local factions being considered amateurish, it was thought that the arrival of the PMCs could have an outsized impact.[298][299][300][301][302] Additionally, the PMCs introduced land mines and improvised explosive devices into the conflict, planting a number of booby traps and minefields on the outskirts of Tripoli, as well as at least in one residential neighborhood of the capital.[303] According to Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at The Netherlands Institute of International Relations, the PMCs' toughness, lethal techniques and coordination discipline instilled fear in the GNAs' forces[304][301] as their morale suffered.[305]

At the end of October 2019, Facebook suspended accounts it said were part of a Russian disinformation campaign linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin. The campaign targeted eight African countries. At least some of the Facebook accounts came from the Wagner Group[306] and the one operation that was attribute to Wagner was supporting two potential future political competitors in Libya. It had Egyptian page managers and the pages included Muammar Gaddafi nostalgia content. They also bolstered Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.[307] The next month, the GNA stated that two Russians who were arrested by their forces in early July were employed by the Wagner Group.[308] The two were arrested on suspicion of seeking to influence elections and were said to be involved in “securing a meeting” with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.[309]

Later, it was reported that the two Russians had three meetings with Gaddafi by April 2019.[310] In mid-November, the United States Congress was preparing bipartisan sanctions against the PMCs in Libya,[311] whose number had risen to 1,400, according to several Western officials.[312] The GNA, for its part, stated it documented between 600 and 800 PMCs in the country.[313] These included 25 pilots, trainers and support crew, with the pilots flying missions in refurbished LNA Su-22 fighter-bombers.[312]

On 20 November, an Italian military drone crashed near Tripoli,[314] with the LNA claiming it had shot it down.[315] The next day, a US military drone was also shot down over Tripoli,[316] although the LNA stated it had been brought down by mistake.[317] According to the US, the drone was shot down by Russian air defenses which were operated either by Russian PMCs or the LNA. A GNA official also stated that Russian PMCs appeared to be responsible.[318] An estimated 25 Wagner military technicians were thought to had established transmission towers and platforms atop buildings south of Tripoli, which lead to the bringing down of the drones by jamming of control signals for the aircraft.[301]

On 12 December, a new assault by the LNA was launched towards Tripoli,[319][320] with the LNA making several advances.[321][322] It was said the Russian PMCs were leading the LNA assault.[304][305] Over a two-day period, the PMCs, who were equipped with sophisticated drone-jamming technology and artillery, launched 2,500 mortar or artillery projectiles[305] and brought down a Turkish drone which was deployed by the GNA in an attempt deter the LNA push. The drone was the sixth of seventh deployed by Turkey in June that had been brought down by this point.[301] In early January 2020, The Libya Observer reported the Russian Air Force had transported fighters belonging to two other Russian private military companies, Moran and Shield, from Syria to Libya to further support the LNA.[323] Meanwhile, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the number of Wagner PMCs in Libya had reached 2,500.[324] Later, he also accused the United Arab Emirates of funding the PMCs.[325]

Following Turkey's and Russia's call for a ceasefire in Libya on 8 January 2020,[326] the GNA claimed a significant number of Wagner fighters had withdrawn from the frontline via helicopters to the Al Jufra Airbase.[327] Towards the end of February, a Wagner PMC stated for the Russian information agency InterRight that all of the PMCs had been withdrawn from Libya due to the ceasefire.[328]

However, at the end of March, the GNA claimed to had targeted a building in the Qasr Bin Ghashir area south of Tripoli which had been occupied by Russian PMCs that had been responsible for several recent attacks on Tripoli neighborhoods.[329] On 2 April, GNA airstrikes in two areas south of Bani Walid targeted an ammunition convoy, as well as a fuel convoy, reportedly destroying six trucks. Wagner PMCs were claimed to be in the vehicles, with one of them being killed and another wounded.[330] On 22 April, the GNA's Interior Minister accused the Wagner Group of carrying out a chemical attack against its forces in the Salah al-Din area of southern Tripoli.[331] According to the Minister, Wagner snipers shot dead GNA fighters who had succumbed to nerve agents.[332]

In early May, according to a UN report, between 800 and 1,200 Wagner PMCs were deployed in Libya in support of the LNA.[333] They were operating in specialized military tasks, including sniper teams.[334] The UN also confirmed the presence of Syrian fighters[335] who were transported to Libya since the start of the year via at least 33 flights operated by the Cham Wings airline. The Syrians numbered less than 2,000[335] and were made up of former rebels recruited by the Wagner Group, under Russian military supervision, to fight alongside them.[336][337] Mid-May, GNA artillery reportedly shelled a Wagner base[338] that was used for observation, intelligence and organizing operations.[339]

In late May, the GNA captured the strategic Al-Watiya Air Base[340] and advanced into several districts of southern Tripoli,[341] during which they captured three military camps.[342] During the fighting, the GNA reported three Wagner PMCs were killed, with the body of one of them being seized.[343] The first Syrian fighter from the force recruited to support the Wagner Group also died.[344] Following these advances, Wagner's PMCs started to evacuate via Bani Walid's airport to Jufra,[345] with hundreds being evacuated on 25 May. According to the GNA, between 1,500 and 1,600 "mercenaries" withdrew from Tripoli's frontlines in the previous days.[346] The PMCs also pulled back their artillery and other heavy weapons during the withdrawal from southern Tripoli.[347] On 26 May, according to the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), Russia deployed fighter jets to the Al Jufra Airbase[348] to support Wagner's PMCs. The jets arrived from an airbase in Russia via Syria, where they were repainted to conceal their Russian markings.[349][350] The LNA denied it received new fighter jets.[351]

Following the collapse of the LNA's offensive on Tripoli,[352] the GNA launched an assault on the LNA-held city of Sirte in early June,[353] managing initially to capture parts of the city,[354] before a LNA counter-attack pushed the GNA's forces back.[355] Subsequently, while the GNA was preparing a second assault,[356] Russian PMCs were planting landmines in and around Sirte to “obstruct the advance” of the GNA.[303][357][358] Mid-June, AFRICOM reported one of the newly-arrived Russian aircraft was spotted taking of from the Al Jufra Airbase, while a MiG-29 fighter jet was seen operating near Sirte. There was concern the aircraft were being operated by the PMCs.[359] At the end of the month, the GNA claimed a Wagner rocket attack west of Sirte left one civilian dead.[360]

Towards the end of June, the Al Jufra airbase was reportedly turned into a Wagner Group command center for operations to take control of the country's southern oil fields[361] and the PMCs at the base were said to include Ukrainians and Serbians, besides the Russian contractors.[362] Subsequently, Wagner PMCs and pro-LNA Sudanese mercenaries, in coordination with a pro-LNA militia known as the Petroleum Facilities Guard, entered and secured Libya’s largest oil field, the El Sharara oil field.[363][364][365] The PMCs also secured the oil port of Sidra on the Mediterranean coast.[366][367] Towards the end of July, "foreign mercenaries" were also reported to be at the Ras Lanuf petrochemical complex, Zuwetina oil port and Zallah field.[368]

In July, the United States imposed sanctions on Wagner individuals and entities for the planting of landmines in and around Tripoli.[85] Meanwhile, according to AFRICOM, Russia continued to supply the LNA through the Wagner Group with SA-22 missile launch vehicles, GAZ Tigr IMVs, Typhoon MRAPs and land mines. A total of 14 Mig-29 and Su-24 fighter jets had also been delievered.[369][370] According to a UN report, 338 Russian military flights from Syria to Libya were conducted between November 2019, and July 2020, in support of the Wagner Group.[371] In early August, a 21-vehicle Wagner convoy moved from Jufra to Sirte. Concurrently, the LNA, supported by the PMCs, were reinforcing the Jarif valley south of Sirte with ditches and barriers.[372]

Mid-September, it was confirmed the Wagner Group was conducting air-strikes in support of the LNA, with two Mig-29s piloted by the PMCs crashing,[373] one at the end of June, and the other in early September. A video of the second jets' pilot circulated online, showing him being rescued by an LNA combat helicopter after he parachuted and landed in the desert.[374][375] Towards the end of September, a helicopter transporting ammunition crashed in Sokna, near Al Jufra, while en route to an oil field. Four PMCs were killed in the crash.[376]

Venezuela[edit]

In late January 2019, Wagner PMCs arrived in Venezuela during the presidential crisis that was unfolding. They were sent to provide security for President Nicolás Maduro who was facing U.S.-backed opposition protests as part of the socioeconomic and political crisis that had been gripping the country since 2010. The leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary group of Cossacks with ties to the PMCs reported that about 400 contractors may be in Venezuela at that point. It was said that the PMCs flew in two chartered aircraft to Havana, Cuba, from where they transferred onto regular commercial flights to Venezuela. An anonymous Russian source close to the Wagner Group stated that another group of PMCs had already arrived in advance of the May 2018 presidential election.[28][377] Before the 2019 flare-up of protests, the PMCs were in Venezuela to mostly provide security for Russian business interests like the Russian energy company Rosneft. They also assisted in the training of the Venezuelan National Militia and the pro-Maduro Colectivos paramilitaries in 2018.[378]

Mozambique[edit]

In early August 2019, the Wagner Group received a contract with the government of Mozambique over two other private military companies, OAM and Black Hawk, by offering their services for lower costs.[379] At the end of that month,[380] the government of Mozambique approved a resolution ratifying the agreement from April 2018 on the entry of Russian military ships into national ports.[381] On 13 September, 160 PMCs from the Wagner Group arrived on a Russian An-124 cargo plane in the country[382] to provide technical and tactical assistance to the Mozambique Defence Armed Forces (FADM) and were stationed in three military barracks in the northern provinces of Nampula, Macomia and Mueda.[381]

On 25 September, a second Russian cargo plane[382] landed in Nampula province and unloaded large-calibre weapons and ammunition belonging to the Wagner Group, which were then transported to the Cabo Delgado province where, since 5 October 2017, an Islamist insurgency had been taking place.[381] At least one of the two cargo planes belonged to the 224th Flight Unit of the Russian Air Force.[382] Overall, 200 PMCs, including elite troops, three attack helicopters and crew arrived in Mozambique to provide the training and combat support in Cabo Delgado, where the Islamist militants had burned villages, carried out beheadings and displaced hundreds of people.[383]

Starting on 5 October, the Mozambique military conducted several successful operations, in collaboration with the PMCs, against the insurgents[29] along the border with Tanzania.[382] During these operations, the military and the PMCs bombed insurgent bases in two areas, pushing them into the woods. At this time, the insurgents launched attacks on two bases, during which more than 35 insurgents and three PMCs were killed. Meanwhile, on 8 October, a Russian ship entered the port of Nacala carrying just over 17 containers of different types of weapons, especially explosives, which were transported to the battlefield.[29] Russia, on its part, denied it had any troops in Mozambique.[384]

Following the arrival of the PMCs, ISIL reinforced jihadist forces in Mozambique, leading to an increase in the number of militant attacks.[385] On 10 and 27 October, two ambushes took place during which seven PMCs were killed. During the ambush at the end of October, in addition to five PMCs, 20 Mozambique soldiers also died when Islamic militants set up a barricade on the road as a FADM military convoy arrived. Four of the five PMCs were shot dead and then beheaded.[386] Three vehicles were burned in the attack.[387] Some of the deaths during the fighting in Mozambique were reportedly the result of a "friendly fire" incident.[388]

By mid-November, two Mozambique military sources described growing tensions between Wagner and the FADM after a number of failed military operations, with one saying joint patrols had almost stopped. Analysts, mercenaries and security experts, including the heads of OAM and Black Hawk, which operate in Sub-Saharan Africa, were of the opinion that Wagner was struggling in Mozambique since they were operating in a theater where they did not have much expertise. According to John Gartner, the head of OAM and a former Rhodesian soldier, the Wagner Group was "out of their depth" in Mozambique. At the same time, Dolf Dorfling, the founder of Black Hawk and a former South African colonel, said sources told them that the Wagner Group had started to search for local military expertise.[379]

Towards the end of that month, it was reported that 200 PMCs had withdrawn from Mozambique, following the deaths among its fighters.[388] Still, as of the end of November, Russian fighters and equipment were still present in the port city of Pemba and they were also based in the coastal town of Mocímboa da Praia.[382] The PMCs had also withdrawn to Nacala to re-organize.[385]

By early 2020, the number of attacks in Cabo Delgado surged, with 28 taking place throughout January and early February. The violence spread to nine of the province's 16 districts. The attacks included beheadings, mass kidnappings and villages burned to the ground. Most of the attacks were conducted by militants, but some were also made by bandits.[389] On 23 March, the militants captured the key town of Mocimboa de Praia in Cabo Delgado.[390] Two weeks later, the insurgents launched attacks against half a dozen villages in the province.[391]

On 8 April, the military launched helicopter strikes against militant bases in two districts. Journalist Joseph Hanlon published a photograph showing one of the helicopter gunships that took part in the attack and said it was manned by Wagner PMCs. However, two other sources cited by the Daily Maverick stated the contractors belonged to the South African private military company Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) and that the Wagner Group had pulled out of Mozambique in March.[392]

Casualties and awards[edit]

Conflict Period Wagner casualties Notes
War in Donbass June 2014–October 2015 30–80 killed[114] The Ukrainian SBU claimed 36 PMCs were killed[393] during the fighting at Luhansk International Airport (15) and the Battle of Debaltseve (21).[6]
Four of those who died in the battle for the airport were killed at the nearby village of Khryashchevatoe.[394]
Syrian Civil War September 2015–December 2017 151–201 killed[395][396][15]
900+ wounded[395]
CIT reported a conservative estimate of at least 101 being killed between October 2015 and mid-December 2017.[67]
The founder of CIT stated the death toll was at least 100–200,[396] while another CIT blogger said at least 150 were killed and more than 900 were wounded.[395]
Fontanka reported a conservative estimate of at least 73 dead by mid-December 2017,[67] 40–60 of which died during the first several months of 2017.[137]
A former PMC officer stated no fewer than 100 died by the end of August 2016.[50]
One more PMC was killed in late December 2017.[15]
Syrian Civil War - Battle of Khasham 7 February 2018 14–64 killed (confirmed)[202][199]
80–100 killed (estimated)[197][198]
100–200 wounded[197][198]
The Ukrainian SBU claimed 80 were killed and 100 wounded,[198] naming 64 of the dead.[199]
A source with ties to Wagner and a Russian military doctor claimed 80–100 were killed and 200 wounded.[197]
A Russian journalist believed between 20 and 25 died,[194] while similarly CIT estimated a total of between 20 and 30 had died.[200]
The Novaya Gazeta newspaper reported 13 dead, while the Baltic separate Cossack District ataman stated no more than 15–20 died.[201]
Wagner commanders put the death toll at 14 or 15 at the most.[202][203][39]
Syrian Civil War May 2018–June 2019 15 killed[397] In addition, three PMCs belonging to the Russian private military company Shield also died mid-June 2019. Two of the three were former Wagner members.[398]
Sudanese Revolution December 2018–January 2019 2 killed[272]
Insurgency in Cabo Delgado September 2019–March 2020 10 killed[399]
2019–20 Western Libya campaign September 2019–present 21–48[400] Russian blogger Mikhail Polynkov claimed no less than 100 PMCs had been killed by early April 2020. However, this was not independently confirmed.[401]

Families of killed PMCs are prohibited from talking to the media under a non-disclosure that is a prerequisite for them to get compensation from the company. The standard compensation for the family of a killed Wagner employee is up to 5 million rubles (about 80,000 dollars), according to a Wagner official.[50] In contrast, the girlfriend of a killed fighter stated the families are paid between 22,500 and 52,000 dollars depending on the killed PMC's rank and mission.[402] In mid-2018, Russian military veterans urged the Russian government to acknowledge sending private military contractors to fight in Syria, in an attempt to secure financial and medical benefits for the PMCs and their families.[403]

The Sogaz International Medical Centre in Saint Petersburg, a clinic owned by the large insurance company AO Sogaz, has treated PMCs who had been injured in combat overseas since 2016. The company's senior officials and owners are either relatives of Russian President Putin or others linked to him. The clinic's general director, Vladislav Baranov, also has a business relationship with Maria Vorontsova, Putin's eldest daughter.[295]

Wagner PMCs have received state awards[8] in the form of military decorations[46] and certificates signed by Russian President Putin.[404] Wagner commanders Andrey Bogatov and Andrey Troshev were awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation honor for assisting in the first capture of Palmyra in March 2016. Bogatov was seriously injured during the battle. Meanwhile, Alexander Kuznetsov and Dmitry Utkin had reportedly won the Order of Courage four times.[42] Family members of killed PMCs also received medals from Wagner itself, with the mother of one killed fighter being given two medals, one for "heroism and valour" and the other for "blood and bravery".[405] A medal for conducting operations in Syria was also issued by Wagner to its PMCs.[406]

In mid-December 2017, a powerlifting tournament was held in Ulan-Ude, capital city of the Russian Republic of Buryatia, which was dedicated to the memory of Vyacheslav Leonov, a Wagner PMC who was killed during the campaign in Syria's Deir ez-Zor province.[407][408] The same month, Russia's president signed a decree establishing International Volunteer Day in Russia, as per the UN resolution from 1985, which will be celebrated annually every 5 December. The Russian Poliksal news site associated the Russian celebration of Volunteer Day with honoring Wagner PMCs.[409]

In late January 2018, an image emerged of a monument in Syria, dedicated to ″Russian volunteers″.[410] The inscription on the monument in Arabic read: To Russian volunteers, who died heroically in the liberation of Syrian oil fields from ISIL.[411][412] The monument was located at the Haiyan plant, about 50 kilometers from Palmyra,[413] where Wagner PMCs were deployed.[414] An identical monument was also erected in Luhansk in February 2018.[415] In late August 2018, a chapel was built near Goryachy Klyuch, Krasnodar Krai, in Russia in memory of Wagner PMCs killed in fighting against ISIL in Syria. For each of those killed a candle is lit in the chapel.[416] Towards the end of November 2018, it was revealed that a third monument, also identical to the two in Syria and Luhansk, was erected in front of the chapel, which is a few dozen kilometers from the PMC's training facility at Molkin.[417]

The leadership of the Wagner Group and its military instructors were reportedly invited to attend the military parade on 9 May 2018, dedicated to Victory Day.[56]

Deaths of journalists[edit]

Death of Maksim Borodin[edit]

On 12 April 2018, investigative Russian journalist Maksim Borodin was found badly injured at the foot of his building, after falling from his fifth-floor balcony in Yekaterinburg.[418] He was subsequently hospitalized in a coma and died of his injuries three days later on 15 April.[68] In the weeks before his death, Borodin gained national attention[419] when he wrote about the deaths of Wagner PMCs in the battle with US-backed forces in eastern Syria in early February, that also involved U.S. air-strikes.[418] Throughout February and March, Borodin interviewed relatives and commanders of Wagner Group PMCs, and attended their funerals in the town of Asbest.[68]

Local officials said no suicide note was found but that his death was unlikely to be of a criminal nature. They also stated that at the time of his fall his apartment door had been locked from the inside, indicating that nobody had either entered or left.[418] Although the police continued their investigation, they were not treating his death as suspicious.[68] However, Polina Rumyantseva, chief editor of Novy Den, where Borodin worked, said before he died that she could not rule out a crime and that there was no reason for him to commit suicide. Harlem Désir of the OSCE said the death was "of serious concern" and called for a thorough investigation. Borodin's friend stated that one day before his fall, Borodin had contacted him at five o'clock in the morning saying there was "someone with a weapon on his balcony and people in camouflage and masks on the staircase landing". He had been attempting to find a lawyer, but later Borodin called his friend once again and said he made a mistake and that he thought the men had been taking part in some kind of training exercise.[418][68] After Borodin's death, Rumyantseva stated that Novy Den had been in his apartment and that there were no signs of a struggle, while the investigators thought that Borodin had gone on the balcony to smoke and had fallen. Still, Rumyantseva stated "If there's even a hint of something criminal, we will make it public". Borodin also had a local repute for conducting investigation of prisons and corrupt officials in his native Sverdlovsk Oblast.[419]

CAR deaths[edit]

On 30 July 2018, three Russian journalists (Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev [ru] and Orkhan Dzhemal [ru]) belonging to the Russian online news organisation Investigation Control Centre (TsUR), which is linked to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were ambushed and killed by unknown assailants in the Central African Republic, three days after they had arrived in the country to investigate local Wagner activities. The ambush took place 23 kilometers from Sibut when armed men emerged from the bush and opened fire on their vehicle. The journalists' driver survived the attack,[420] but was afterward kept incommunicado by the authorities. In its response to the killings, Russia's foreign ministry noted that the dead journalists had been traveling without official accreditation.[30]

BBC News and AFP said the circumstances of their deaths were unclear.[421][422] According to the Interfax news agency, robbery could have been a motive. An expensive camera kit and more than 8,000 dollars disappeared from the scene,[421] although three canisters of gasoline, which is considered a valuable commodity in the CAR, were left in the vehicle.[423] A local official and their driver stated that the attackers were wearing turbans and speaking Arabic.[421][424] Russian and CAR state media initially reported that the authorities suspected Seleka rebels to be behind the killings.[262] According to local residents, interviewed by Khodorkovsky's investigators, around 10 people had camped out nearby before the ambush, waiting there for several hours. Shortly before the attack, they saw another car with “three armed white men … and two Central Africans” pass by.[423] Per an initial report in The New York Times, there was no indication that the killings were connected with the journalists' investigation of the Wagner Group's activities in the Central African Republic,[425] but a follow-up article cited a Human Rights Watch researcher who commented that "Many things don't add up" in regards to the mysterious killings. It reaffirmed there was nothing to contradict the official version that the killings were a random act by thieves, but noted speculation within Russia that blamed the Wagner Group, while also adding a theory by a little known African news media outlet that France, which previously ruled the CAR when it was a colony, was behind the killings as a warning to Moscow to stay clear of its area of influence.[30] Moscow-based defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer thought it was unlikely they were killed by Wagner's PMCs,[426] while the Ukrainian security service claimed that it had evidence about the PMCs involvement.[427]

During their investigation, the journalists tried to enter the PMCs' camp, but they were told that they needed accreditation from the country's Defense Ministry.[425] The accreditation was previously only given to an AFP journalist who was still not allowed to take any photographs or interview anyone. The killings took place one day after the journalists visited the Wagner Group encampment at Berengo.[424]

In January 2019, it was revealed that, according to evidence gathered by Khodorkovsky's Dossier Center, a major in the Central African Gendarmerie was involved in the ambush. The major was in regular communication with the journalists' driver on the day of their murders and he had frequent communications with a Wagner PMC who was a specialist trainer in counter surveillance and recruitment in Central Africa. The police officer was also said to had attended a camp run by Russian military trainers on the border with Sudan, and maintained regular contact with Russian PMCs after his training.[428] The investigation into the murders by the Dossier Center was suspended two months later due to the lack of participation by government agencies and organizations.[429]

Other possible activities[edit]

Germany[edit]

On 23 August 2019, former Chechen commander Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, who was a veteran of the Second Chechen War and sought refuge in Germany in 2016, was shot and killed in Berlin. A Russian man was arrested after being spotted throwing a bicycle and a gun into the Spree river[430] and investigators were looking into whether the killing was a political assassination.[431] German Parliament member Patrick Sensburg theorized that the killer could be associated with Wagner's PMCs.[432]

Belarus[edit]

In July 2020, ahead of the country's presidential election, Belarusian law enforcement agencies arrested 33 Wagner contractors. The arrests took place after the security agencies received information about over 200 PMCs arriving in the country "to destabilize the situation during the election campaign", according to the state-owned Belarusian Telegraph Agency (BelTA).[433] The Belarusian Security Council accused those arrested of preparing “a terrorist attack”.[434] The U.S.-funded Radio Liberty reported the contractors were possibly on their way to Sudan, citing video footage that showed Sudanese currency and a telephone card depicting Kassala's Khatmiya Mosque among the belongings of those who had been arrested.[433] Others also believed the contractors were simply using Belarus as a staging post on their way to or from their latest assignment,[434] possibly in Africa, with BBC News pointing out the footage of the Sudanese currency and a Sudanese phone card as well.[435] Russia confirmed the men were employed by a private security firm, but stated they had stayed in Belarus after missing their connecting flight to Turkey[436] and called for their swift release.[437] The head of the Belarusian investigative group asserted the contractors had no plans to fly further to Turkey and that they were giving “contradictory accounts”. The PMCs stated they were on their way to Venezuela, Turkey, Cuba and Syria. Belarusian authorities also said they believed the husband of opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya may have ties to the detained men and launched a criminal case against him.[436] The detained contractors were returned to Russia two weeks later.[438]

During the contractors' detention, Russian media reported that the Ukrainian Security Service had lured the PMCs to Belarus under the pretext of a contract for the protection of Rosneft facilities in Venezuela. The operation's plan was to force an emergency landing of the contractor's plane from Minsk as it flew through Ukrainian airspace and, once grounded, the PMCs would have been arrested.[439] Later, Russian president Putin also stated the detention was part of a joint Ukrainian-United States intelligence operation.[440] Although the Ukrainian president's chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, denied involvement in the detentions,[441] subsequently, a number of Ukrainian journalists, members of parliament, and politicians confirmed the operation. The operation was supposedly planned for a year as Ukraine identified PMCs who fought in eastern Ukraine and were involved in the July 2014 shoot down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The operation failed after being postponed by the Office of the President of Ukraine, which was reportedly informed of it only in its final stage. Ukrainian reporter Yuri Butusov accused Andriy Yermak of “betrayal” after he reportedly deliberately released information on the operation to Russia.[439]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Kimberly Marten (2019) "Russia’s use of semi-state security forces: the case of the Wagner Group." Post-Soviet Affairs, 35:3, 181–204.
  • Parker, John W. (2017). Putin's Syrian Gambit: Sharper Elbows, Bigger Footprint, Stickier Wicket. National Defense University Press. ISBN 9780160939983.

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  353. ^ Turkish-backed forces begin battle for Sirte, launch ‘Operation Path of Victory’
  354. ^ Turkish-backed forces reach city-center of Sirte after fierce battle: video
  355. ^ Turkish-backed offensive in Sirte turns disastrous despite initial success
  356. ^ Libyan Army about to take control of Sirte, start talks soon, officials say
  357. ^ Libyan Army: Russia mercenaries booby-trapping houses in Sirte
  358. ^ Three citizens killed in Sirte due to mine explosion
  359. ^ Russian aircraft active in Libya, AFRICOM says
  360. ^ Two casualties in Russian attack on Sirte region
  361. ^ Libyan government has had enough with Russian mercenaries, "determined" to liberate country
  362. ^ Road to Libya's liberation passes through Al-Jufra base
  363. ^ Libya oil company: Russian mercenaries enter major oilfield
  364. ^ Russian Fighters Help Tighten Rebel Control of Libya’s Largest Oil Field
  365. ^ Libya calls for sanctions on foreign mercenaries
  366. ^ Russian mercenaries enter Libyan oil field, as more mercenaries arrive from Syria
  367. ^ Russian Oil Grab in Libya Fuels U.S.-Kremlin Tensions in Mideast
  368. ^ Libyan NOC concerned over heavy mercenaries' presence inside oil facilities
  369. ^ US says photos show Russian arms supplies to Libya rebels
  370. ^ Wagner Trucks
  371. ^ Russia steps up support for private military contractor in Libya: U.N. report
  372. ^ Russian Wagner mercenaries moving from Jufra to Sirte: Libyan Army
  373. ^ Russian Attack Jets Back Mercenaries Fighting in Libya
  374. ^ Wagner has already crashed two Russian fighter jets in Libya, AFRICOM says
  375. ^ AFRICOM: Russian fighter jets flown by mercenaries are conducting combat activities in Libya
  376. ^ Libya: 4 Russian mercenaries killed in helicopter crash
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  378. ^ Geopolitical debts Why Russia is really sending military advisers and other specialists to Venezuela
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  384. ^ Russia Denies It Has Any Troops Stationed in Mozambique
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  392. ^ Fabricius, Peter (9 April 2020). "MOZAMBIQUE: 'SA private military contractors' and Mozambican airforce conduct major air attacks on Islamist extremists". Daily Maverick.
  393. ^ "СБУ заявила о гибели 36 бойцов ЧВК "Вагнера" на Украине". www.znak.com.
  394. ^ Слідчі СБУ виписали повідомлення про підозру керівнику російської ПВК "Вагнера" Дмитру Уткіну (відео) [Investigators of the SBU issued a statement on suspicion of Dmitry Utkin, head of the Russian "Wagner" PJC (video)]. Security Service of Ukraine official website (in Ukrainian). Retrieved 8 October 2017.
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  396. ^ a b "Россия скрывает убитых". www.inopressa.ru. Retrieved 20 January 2018.
  397. ^ 5 killed (27 May 2018),[1] 6 killed (4 Nov 2018),[2][3] 1 killed (19 Dec 2018),[4] 1 killed (23 Feb 2019),[5] 2 killed (March-April 2019),[6] total of 15 reported killed.
  398. ^ Без «Щита»
    Three Russian mercenaries are killed in Syria, and they're not from the PMC you've heard of
    Three Russian servicemen allegedly killed in Syria: report
  399. ^