It’s unclear who killed the three men, but they died while trying to shed some light on the mysterious Russia-based security firm known as the Wagner Group.
The so-called “private security force” has been involved in a number of Russia-related operations in recent years, although the Kremlin has repeatedly dismissed them as “volunteers.” Their casualties do not count toward Russia’s official military death tolls, and the Kremlin denies all involvement when they screw up.
“They present a very powerful tool in the so-called ‘grey zone’ between war and peace,” said information warfare expert Kiril Avramov, of the University of Texas at Austin.
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Wagner soldiers also offer the Russian government “plausible deniability” if something goes wrong, according to Kimberly Marten, chair of the political science department at Barnard College and a member of Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.
Here’s what we know about the mercenary men who fight and die for Russian interests on foreign soil, but who are ignored and disowned by the nation pulling their strings.
Who’s in charge?
The Wagner Group, also known as Wagner PMC (Private Military Company), consists of a few thousand soldiers led by founder and former intelligence officer Dmitriy Utkin, according to the U.S. government. Avramov estimates their force has been no larger than 2,000 troops at its height.
Wagner is said to have close links to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg-based entrepreneur and friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is commonly known as “Putin’s Chef” in Russia, and he holds a number of highly lucrative catering contracts with the Russian government, Avramov says.
He was among the 13 Russian nationals sanctioned in May for online meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, and is said to be linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency.
Marten says Prigozhin appears to be backing Wagner right now, but “he certainly does not run it.” She adds that Wagner has had contracts with other oligarchs and governments in the past, often to secure oil or mining resources in conflict zones once allied with the Soviet Union.
Russian law officially forbids mercenary work, but the Russian government has not openly acknowledged Wagner’s activities in any of the areas where it operates.
Avramov says Wagner is a convenient tool for Russian billionaires who want to cosy up to Putin because the oligarchs can hire Wagner to execute missions that the Kremlin wants to keep under the radar. In exchange, these oligarchs often receive favourable government contracts and access to seized natural resources.
Where do they fight?
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The U.S. says Wagner recruited and sent soldiers to fight alongside Ukrainian separatists during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Avramov says these troops were the ones who became known as “green men” during the conflict because they used military gear without declaring themselves soldiers of any one country.
Avramov says Wagner and its backers appear to have struck a deal with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, whereby they get a piece of the profits from every oil field they recapture.
Wagner is said to have played a major role in recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State in 2016, as shock troops fighting alongside Russian and Syrian forces.
Wagner’s major defeat
Wagner reportedly suffered heavy casualties in a battle with U.S. and Kurdish forces on Feb. 7, 2017, in Syria. Russia and the U.S. have downplayed the significance of the clash, but Reuters and The New York Times reported earlier this year that Wagner suffered some 300 injuries and deaths in the conflict.
The New York Times reported in May that the four-hour battle broke out during an extended campaign against the Islamic State. Pro-Russian and pro-U.S. forces were reportedly fighting on separate fronts at the time, but the pro-Russian forces abruptly changed course and attacked a U.S.-held gas plant near the city of Deir ez-Zor. The pro-Russian forces are believed to have been members of the Wagner Group.
U.S. forces ultimately repelled the rival soldiers using drone strikes and artillery attacks, according to the New York Times.
“These guys were trying to capture a gas field … without consulting with regular forces,” said Avramov. He characterized the battle as “one of the most significant developments in the post-Cold War era.”
Nevertheless, the White House and the Kremlin refused to point fingers over the conflict.
The Russian Defence Ministry said in May that a total of 92 Russian soldiers have died in Syria since September of 2015.
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Who are Wagner’s soldiers?
Wagner’s fighting force consists largely of former Russian military veterans, although some of them come from other countries sympathetic to Russia’s cause, according to Marten.
She adds that Wagner trains its troops right next to a Russian military facility and that they appear to have access to a wide range of Russian-made military equipment, including tanks.
“They tend to be people who are doing it for the money, so they’re pretty economically desperate,” Marten said. “That really allows the state, and also the people who are funding them, to take advantage of them.”
A handful of family members of fallen Wagner troops have come forward to share their stories. Many describe their missing or fallen loved ones as good men who were looking for solid jobs.
Farkhanur Gavrilova told the Associated Press that her son, 37-year-old Ruslan Gavrilov, was killed fighting for Wagner in the Feb. 7, 2017, battle in Syria.
“He was torn to pieces,” she said. She says she was informed of his death by an unidentified caller the day after the battle.
Ivan Slyshkin, 23, was also killed in Syria last year, according to friend Andrei Zotov.
“He was in Wagner’s group,” Zotov, told the Associated Press in December. Zotov says Slyshkin was slain while attacking an oil field north of Palmyra, in Syria.
“There are many good guys there. He volunteered to join the company,” Zotov said. “Like many Russian fighters, he wanted to solve his money issues.”
Avramov says Wagner’s troops can be dangerous because they’re not under the command of any government, yet they’re fighting on the world stage where their actions can have major consequences. He adds that they’re also unpredictable because so many are driven by profit, not patriotism.
Avramov says the incident with the U.S. in Syria is a classic example of how these “buccaneering” mercenaries could potentially touch off a greater conflict by starting a battle that the U.S. and Russia don’t want.
“You can have dangerous escalations,” Avramov said.
— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press