steampunk heart
Op-Ed

The Wagner Group method was born in the Middle East

  • One of the most consequential and bewildering battles of the Syrian Civil War began at an oil field in February 2018. U.S. Marines and Green Berets supporting Kurdish forces in northern Syria were on a mission to protect the facility, orginally owned by the U.S. company Conoco, near Deir el-Zur.

They received intelligence warning of Syrian government forces’ intention to attack and take over the facility. Within a short time, 25-30 vans and trucks carrying hundreds of men armed with machine guns and other weapons had been spotted racing toward the U.S. installation.

The 2018 battle in Syria was the first time Russian forces had directly engaged with U.S. forces since before the Cold War.

  • A group of U.S. aircraft, including helicopters, drones, and F-22 stealth fighters, coordinated with experienced ground forces, repelled the attack. It was over within about four hours, leaving 200-300 dead. The vast majority were fighters from the Wagner Group, the Russian private army active in Syria since 2015. It took time before Russia finally admitted that the dead were “Russian citizens.”

It later emerged that Russia had strongly pressured the families of the dead not to talk about the incident or their relatives’ death in Syria. For a time, Russia denied that it was employing the Wagner Group units in Syria, or even that such a force existed.

According to the Russian version of events, the battle took place between American and Syrian forces without involvement by the Kremlin. The Wagner Group would continue to fight for Russian interests, right up until its leader, Prigozhin, declared a rebellion against the Kremlin on Friday. Prigozhin began a march on Moscow but retreated, striking a deal that will see him exiled to Belarus and avoid prosecution.

The 2018 battle in Syria was the first time Russian forces had directly engaged with U.S. forces since before the Cold War. But it wasn’t Russian troops’ first failure in Syria.

The Wagner Group’s parent company is a Russian military contractor called the Slavonic Corps, registered in Hong Kong. The history of the organization traces back to the Slavonic Corps’ 2013 mobilization of 270 “volunteers” for security operations in the oilfields near Palmyra.

  • These forces, commanded by Dmitry Utkin, were defeated in a confrontation with the ISIS forces that controlled the city. Utkin, whose military nickname was “Wagner,” was a decorated retired general with extensive combat experience who joined the security company for a hefty salary.
  • After the defeat in Palmyra, he returned to Moscow and began to form the Wagner Group, with financing from Prigozhin.

Two years later, after successfully mobilizing several thousand fighters, Utkin returned to Syria. That March, he found himself at the front in Palmyra, leading a combined force of hundreds of his fighters and Syrian soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Palmyra was wrested from ISIS control, but the Wagner forces lost hundreds of fighters in the month-long fighting.

Syria was the subject of disputes between Utkin and the Wagner Group on one side and the Russian military establishment on the other. A few weeks before the failed offensive in Deir el-Zur, an agreement was signed between the Evro Polis group, which is linked to the Wagner Group and also owned by Prigozhin, with Syria’s state-owned energy company.

  • It gave the company 25 percent of all revenue from oil and gas produced in oilfields that it seized and gave to the regime.

A disagreement developed among the Russian top brass about using the Wagner Group in Syria.

Military officials primarily saw the group as a competitor, despite its participation in the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

In a book and interviews, Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner Group commander who quit, portrays internal disappointment and frustration with the quality of Russian military assistance.

He said Russia had promised tanks, weapons, and equipment. What arrived was of inferior quality and only obtained after fierce arguments with military leaders. He also described the deep corruption that had spread among the ranks of the fighters.

  • “There was nothing ideological about the war in Syria,” he said. “It was all about money. … Commanders pocketed money that was meant for the soldiers, and the soldiers raided and looted and even stole antiques that were found in the area.”

According to Gabidullin, in the case of the Wagner Group, “fighters” is a glorified term for the gangs of men who were taken from prisons, put through a week-long accelerated training course, and sent off to fight.

  • These draftees were promised a starting salary of almost $4,000 a month and easy conditions without having to fight in dangerous battles.

In Syria, the Wagner Group became involved in killing deserters from Assad’s military.

The methods included beheadings, as evidenced by videos they spread on social media.

During the next stage, Syrian “volunteers” trained by Wagner Group commanders were sent to the front in the Libyan Civil War.

They were also promised good salaries and an easy life. Many returned in coffins, and there was a decline in mobilization.

  • Meanwhile, combat groups were also sent to Sudan, where they cooperated with Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is fighting against Abdel Fattah Burhan, the head of the military and the country’s de facto leader.

According to reports in Sudan, the Wagner Group supplied Dagalo with surface-to-air missiles and gave other military assistance in exchange for being allowed to run the gold mines Dagalo controls.

On all those fronts, the activities of the Wagner Group provided good cover for the Kremlin, which could claim that Russia wasn’t involved in the fighting in the Middle East.

A food chain was thus created in those countries. It began in the Kremlin, passed through the Wagner Group, and then on to local militias. This allowed the establishment of alternative, unofficial military forces. These forces created a mutual dependence between themselves and local regimes, providing Russia with an important lever for influencing these countries’ policies.

Source: Zvi Bar’el – HAARETZ