Jefferson Morley | August 23, 2019
Putin’s Mercenaries Use Syria as a Training Ground and Revenue Stream
The consistently excellent Lobelog describes how Vladimir Putin is using the the Russian private military company, Wagner, for deniable and lucrative military operations in the Middle East and Africa.
The story, by Nicolai Due-Gundersen does not mention the CEO of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, but does demonstrate that Wagner is a tool of Putin’s statecraft. Prigozhin is best known in the United States as one of the 13 employees of the now-rebranded Internal Research Agency who was indicted by special prosecutor Robert Mueller. As the financier of the IRA, he was charged with fraudulent actions in attempting to influence the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.
Prigozhin is an important character in the murky Trump-Russia story. His exploits knit together Putin’s efforts to support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign to install himself as the kingmaker of the Middle East. Prigozhin assists in both endeavors.
While financing the IRA in 2016, Prigozhin was also setting up Wagner, a Russian equivalent of Blackwater, the private military company (PMC) set up by Erik Prince. Like Blackwater, Wagner is manned by former special forces soldiers. Like Blackwater, Wagner operates in war zones.
Putin’s use of Wagner forces in Syria should especially interest those who doubt Mueller’s claim that Putin effectively controlled the IRA. The Wagner story shows that Yevgeny Prigozhin executes Putin’s plans.
From the Lobelog story
Wagner Group is only the latest advance in Russia’s flirtation with private warfare. While not the first state to engage in foreign adventures with mercenaries, Russia is setting a dangerous new trend—namely, using mercenaries solely for combat rather than for logistical and peripheral support of their armed forces.
Dr. Kiril Avramov and journalist Ruslan Trad argue that Syria is being used as “an experimental playground” for Russia to perfect “hybrid proxy warfare, blurring the lines between official foreign policy and private groups, Russian action and that of independent parties” to create an ambiguous grey zone of privatised and state-driven combat. “Publicly, [Wagner’s] designation was solely security provision, however, as it became evident in 2018, for the past two years, the company has been very actively involved in training, intelligence collection and forward operations on behalf of Assad’s army. On paper, no official links between the Russian forces in Syria and Wagner exist. [Yet], Wagner personnel are actively augmenting the Russian troops on the ground”.
The story asserts that the Russian PMC is reaping the spoils of war in Syria. If true, the arrangement shows that the Syrian civil war is also a war for oil. In return for protecting or recapturing Assad’s oil field, Prigozhin’s company gets a cut of the profit. While American PMCs operate throughout the Middle East, I have never heard of case where they received a cut of oil filed income.
In addition to being contracted by Assad in exchange for 25% of the profits from assigned oil fields, Wagner Group has recently expanded into Africa. By the start of 2018, Wagner Group had been hired by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to bolster his regime’s security. Wagner staff were expected to ingratiate themselves with a leader wanted for war crimes (he’s since been deposed) so as to gain Russian trade deals for the gold, diamonds and uranium they were being paid to guard.
Due-Gundersen’s conclusion is apt.
A new Cold War has begun, rooted in a warfare of subversion, guerrilla tactics, corruption and strategic alliances in conflict zones. The US and its allies are watching closely.