A Russian Blackwater? Putin’s Secret Soldiers in Ukraine and Syria
While Ukraine’s military has many honored volunteers fighting to defend their border, Russia’s expeditionary forces often are contractors fighting for pay, and dying in silence.
KIEV—Fierce fighting between Kremlin-backed militias and Ukrainian forces has intensified and is now the worst it has been since last February. Soviet-era GRAD rockets started raining on the streets and houses of Novoluhanskote in eastern Ukraine right before the holiday season. Once again with every day that passes the war that has killed more than 10,000 people is sending victims to the hospitals and cemeteries on both sides of the front line.
But while public treatment for Ukraine’s soldiers is marked by respect and honor, Russia has kept deaths—and even the names of those soldiers recruited to fight in Ukraine—a secret, while those sent to Syria have been almost as anonymous.
Ukraine’s ex-soldiers take part in Invictus Games, in public discussions, training and rehabilitation programs much like their counterparts in the United States or Canada. On a recent afternoon, a few young men gathered to chat about life after war at Pizza Veterano, a cozy café near Independence Square in the heart of Kiev. The club was founded and operated by Donbas veterans.
The friends were from Pobratimy or the Brothers-in-Arms group, one of multiple Ukrainian NGOs organizing training and rehabilitation programs for war veterans. Regulars at the place, the activists ordered a delicious prosciutto and mushroom pizza made by war veterans for war veterans.
A handsome 23-year-old ex-soldier named Yurii Dmytrenko lost a part of his left leg in Donbas. “But I found unique experience and knowledge and huge support both from the state and from civil society,” Dmytrenko told The Daily Beast, looking down at the table’s glass top and the shell casings arrayed beneath.
Dmytrenko had volunteered to join a Ukrainian unit in Donbas (eastern Ukraine) in 2014, when he was 20 years old. His mother, who lived in Poltava, far from the fighting, had no clue that her son traveled right to the front lines. “People respect us for defending our country,” said Dmytrenko. “Some young guys who have not been to the war tell me: ‘Thank you for going there, so I could stay.’”
A young volunteer named Ivona Kostyna smiled at Dmytrenko from across the table. “None of these guys coming back from the war want people to feel sorry for them, but they need a program to recover from PTSD, to find jobs, to go back to normal life,” Kostyna said. “Ukraine will deal with war veterans for decades.” In the meantime, he said, “We build partnerships and cooperation with veteran communities in the U.S. and in Canada, which is very helpful.”
Not all Ukrainian veterans are happy about their government––dozens have been protesting in a camp set up outside the Ukrainian parliament for weeks, but most ex-soldiers feel they have public support and a chance to be heard. On a recent night at the protest site ex-soldiers warmed up by the fire, drank tea, and chatted quietly. The protesters living in tents outside the parliament were planning one more “veche,” a mass demonstration in support of President Petro Poroshenko’s impeachment. That situation would be unimaginable in Moscow.
RUSSIAN VETERANS of modern wars serving abroad do not see much public support, nor do they receive much help from independent civil groups, simply because their participation in the conflicts abroad often is a state secret.
At his annual press conference earlier this month President Vladimir Putin admitted for the first time since the first days of the war that there are members of the Russian military in Ukraine, but denied that they were the same as regular troops. “We never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere,” Putin said.
Ruslan Leviyev and his Conflict Intelligence Team are a unique non-commercial group based in Moscow and investigating real stories of Russian soldiers fighting in foreign countries. “If in Ukraine soldiers are treated as national heroes, Russian recruits often die anonymously,” Leviyev told The Daily Beast. “The society feels indifferent to the numbers of casualties in the Russian military, to how many soldiers are wounded.”
A few weeks ago Svetlana, a 24-year-old woman from the Krasnodar region contacted Conflict Intelligence Team, she wanted to know how her fiancé, 30-year-old Sergei, had died in Syria.
“Her husband-to be, an ex-soldier of the Main Intelligence Directorate, GRU, a veteran of the war in Chechnya, was recruited by a secret paramilitary unit of the Russian Defense Ministry called Wagner Group or ChVK Wagner,” Leviyev said.
According to this account, Sergei was killed in June this year; his body traveled in a closed coffin from Syria to the Wagner base in Molkino, in the Krasnodar region, Leviyev noted. “Wagner did not give Svetlana any details of his death, normally the Wagner Group does not guarantee to soldiers’ families that they will bring bodies back home. This is so wrong, these soldiers should be treated with respect, remembered––but they die and are put in some anonymous grave.”
BY UKRAINE'S OFFICIAL COUNT the three-year-long war in Donbas has left more than 2,700 Ukrainian soldiers dead and at least 8,377 injured. Every day and night shelling adds to the horrific numbers.
Andriy Karachevsky at the Ministry of Health of Ukraine is working on a mental health project for active military and veterans. “We involve NGOs, as well as other government agencies with an aim to develop one unified strategy to prepare the person for the service, develop resilience skills, support them during service, provide adequate psychosocial support after the service and psychotherapy services if needed," Karachevsky told The Daily Beast.
How many Russian contract fighters and recruits have been wounded or killed during the conflict in Ukraine?
Since 2010 the Russian Defense Ministry has not published any data on army losses but some information is still available on the public record. Earlier this year the newspaper Vedomosti reported that a Russian insurance company, Sogas, had won a tender for working with military forces in 2018 and 2019. In its description of the tender the Russian Ministry of Defense published a separate graph for casualties, marked as 6a, which meant death. It said: 596 Russian soldiers died in 2013, 790 soldiers died in 2014 and 626 in 2015.
Since the Crimea annexation in 2014 Russia has found out about its sons fighting abroad when their faces appear in video footage shot in Ukrainian or in the ISIS prisons of Syria.
“I want to know how many soldiers come back wounded from Ukraine and Syria, if they receive proper medical treatment, if their families have any state financial support,” Valentina Melnikova, head of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia told The Daily Beast. “But since in these modern wars contracts and recruitments are secret, the families are too scared to open their mouths––or they are paid to stay silent.” Russian soldiers could be in several countries in the Middle East and Africa, she said. “The situation is worse than back in Soviet times, when we [at the committee] started, when hundreds of our soldiers died in Afghanistan and everybody was quiet.”
ON DEC. 11, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to Khmeimim airbase in Syria and, speaking in front of Russian troops lined up right on the tarmac, declared a triumphant victory in the war against the so-called Islamic State.
Putin informed the soldiers and the world that a “significant part” of Russian military forces could now go home.
Several Russian bloggers immediately pointed out that the president had promised to withdraw Russian forces from Syria twice before.
“We monitor the increasing number of lost and killed Wagner soldiers, by our estimate at least 150 soldiers have been killed in Syria and more than 900 were wounded,” Leviyev told The Daily Beast.
Some relatives have been brave enough to talk to the press, to demand help from Russian authorities.
Earlier this year a reporter from Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, Pavel Kanygin, traveled to Ukraine together with a Russian soldier’s mother, Svetlana Ageyeva. Her son, an ex-Russian serviceman named Viktor Ageyev had been captured in Luhansk earlier this year. In July, Ukrainian authorities allowed Viktor Ageyev to meet with his mother.
In October, ISIS posted a video of two captured Russian soldiers, Roman Zabolotny and Grigory Tsurkanu. Zabolotny had fought in Donbas and in Syria as a member of Wagner, his friend told the Russian news website RBC. The soldiers’ families had been living in the dark about their whereabouts until the video appeared online. It is unclear if Zabolotny and Tsurkanu are still alive.
Why would any Russian citizen join a secret private army in Syria? The most common reason is money. Zabolotny, for example, was promised more than $10,000 a month.
In Russia a regular contract soldier who serves one to two years is paid about $333 to $403 a month; Russian officers with 15 years in service are paid about $964, according to prizyvnik-soldat.ru, a Russian website covering news of the Russian military. (A regular Ukrainian soldier’s monthly salary is about $380 to $460 this year. Officers are paid around $700. But many Ukrainian soldiers volunteered to fight in Donbas, to defend their country’s border.)
But when Wagner soldiers sign up they are “obliged to keep complete secrecy about their whereabouts,” Leviyev said.
According to Leviyev, Wagner pays soldiers from $4,000 to more than $10,000 a month, depending on the qualification. “Wagner is fighting most of the operations on the ground in Syria; before last year they were mostly fighting against anti-Assad forces, this year against ISIS.”
According to Valentina Tsurkanu, mother of one of the ISIS-captured soldiers, President Putin personally decorated the leader of Wagner, Dmitry Utkin, in the Kremlin last year.
“I see lies and betrayal in everything now,” the mother said in an interview for Rain TV. “Somewhere Putin said that ‘We do not abandon Russians.’ I believed; and now I understand that this is a lie. Damn this Wagner, that’s all!”