Putin’s Mercenaries

Putin’s Mercenaries

A change in Russian law now allows mercenaries in the country to fight abroad. Recruitment of the new private soldiers is already in progress – and not just for deployments in Syria.
Russia: Soldiers in a truck near the Molkino training camp in southwestern Russia
Soldiers in a truck near the Molkino training camp in southwestern Russia © ZEIT ONLINE

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A few weeks ago, an ad appeared on VK, the biggest Russian social networking site. “Men, you have the opportunity to work for our homeland,” the first sentence reads. The salary: “50,000 rubles a month if you remain at headquarters in Russia; 80,000 rubles if you are sent abroad, plus bonuses.” That’s the equivalent of between 700 and 1,150 euros. The ad ends with the words: “Fight the good fight, soldiers of fortune.”

The man who published the ad calls himself Ilya Ivanov. His job is the recruiting of mercenaries. And there is much to suggest that Ivanov is keeping himself quite busy these days building up a private army. He is currently on the search for men who, in exchange for a salary, are willing to head for new battlefields in 2017 to implement Russia’s interests.

Ivanov isn’t the only person currently recruiting mercenaries, but he has significant experience in the role. Back in 2014, he sought men willing to fight in Syria. It was a time when the public didn’t yet know of the presence of Russian soldiers in Syria and his activities were illegal. Had he been prosecuted, he could have been sentenced to up to eight years in prison. But today, the situation has changed.

A Little Known Change in the Law

Two days before the new year, Vladimir Putting signed a legal amendment. The state-aligned media reported very little about the development and the foreign press hasn’t covered it at all yet. But it could have far-reaching consequences. The change was made to Law No. 53, pertaining to military conscription in Russia. Following the change, the law now states that anyone who has completed basic military service or is a reservist is to be considered a member of the Russian military if that person “prevents international terrorist activities outside the territory of the Russian Federation.”

Given that almost every man in Russia completes military service after finishing school, the new law pertains to almost all Russian men. If they fight against terrorists, they are now considered to be members of the military, even if they don’t officially belong to a unit of the Russian military under the control of the Defense Ministry. In other words: Law No. 53 permits the deployment of Russian mercenaries around the world and allows for augmenting the Russian military with private military firms. The law went into force on Jan. 9, 2017.

Blackwater was the best-known American mercenary firm, one which took care of several tasks, some of them criminal, for the U.S. military in, for example, Iraq. When the public learned of Blackwater’s activities, it triggered a debate around the world, including in Russia. In articles and TV segments, Russian state broadcaster RT wondered: “Private military contractors: new way of waging war?” Now that the issue has hit home, however, the major media in Russia have gone silent.

How does this newly legal mercenary business work? How do recruiters like Ivanov work? ZEIT ONLINE replied to Ivanov’s ad using the assumed identity of Pavel Nikulin. Nikulin is 27 years old, works as an electrician in Volgograd and conducted his basic military service in 2010 and 2011. He also obtained training as a tank mechanic specializing in the T-72 tank.

Interview with a Recruiter

Nikulin only exists through his virtual profile in the VK social networking site. This profile, Nikulin’s fictitious resume and several weeks of reporting were enough to learn the details of Russia’s new mercenary training program. Nikulin and Ivanov the recruiter wrote each other several messages and spoke on the phone twice.

Nikulin: Hello. This is Pavel. I’m calling about the advertisement.

Ivanov: Ah, of course, because of the job. Pavel, tell me, what is your citizenship?

Nikulin: I’m Russian.

Ivanov: Finally! Do you have a military ID? Do you have military training?

Nikulin: Yes. I’ve completed basic military service. Tank mechanic.

Ivanov: Excellent! Pavel, let me tell you what the deal is.

Ivanov says that tank mechanics are “urgently” needed at the moment, adding that he is also looking for doctors, well-trained radio operators and mine experts. Another priority is the enlistment of helicopter pilots, Ivanov says, adding that they tend to receive immediate job offers without complicated hiring procedures. All other applicants have to first pass an aptitude test.

It is impossible to determine with certainty whether Ilya Ivanov is the real name of the mercenary recruiter. But two additional sources confirmed to ZEIT ONLINE independently of each other that Ivanov had recruited them. Furthermore, ZEIT ONLINE sources were able to confirm the details provided by Ivanov regarding the recruitment process and the location where the mercenaries are trained.

Base in Molkino © ZEIT ONLINE

 Both the aptitude test and the training of the new mercenaries take place at a military base near Molkino, according to Ivanov. Molkino is a small town in southwestern Russia not far from Krasnodar. The Ukrainian city of Donetsk lies about 500 kilometers to the north while the beachside town of Sochi is 250 kilometers to the south. In 2015, the military training grounds at Molkino were fixed up and expanded and military equipment worth the equivalent of 715,000 euros was sent to the site. A brigade belonging to the special unit of the military secret service GRU is stationed at Molkino.

The M4 highway: A vehicle convoy returns from drills to the Molkino base. © Bogdan Melnik

Russia’s best-known private security firms are Moran Security Group and RSB-Group. Similar to Academi, the successor to the American security firm Blackwater, these Russian companies offer a palette of services pertaining to security, military consulting, armed protection and site surveillance. Both Moran Security and the RSB-Group declined to confirm to ZEIT ONLINE that some of their employees take part in foreign conflicts as armed mercenaries. RSB-Group CEO Oleg Krinizyn did, however, tell the Russian newspaper Fontanka prior to the legal change that he would “be prepared to negotiate” were such tasks to be asked of his employees.

Dmitri Utkin and the Wagner Unit

A former employee of the security firm Moran Security Group later founded his own mercenary unit, which goes by the name of Wagner Unit. The man’s name is Dmitri Utkin. Early in his career, Utkin belonged to special units of the Russian military intelligence service before transferring to the Moran Security Group, as he told the German daily Die Welt, among other papers. Subsequent to being let go, he joined a unit of more than 250 men that operated in Syria in 2013. Afterward, he built up the Wagner Unit, which became active in eastern Ukraine and in Syria.

In December 2016, Utkin even made an appearance at a reception in the Kremlin held for generals who had received citations for their services. Utkin, the leader of a mercenary unit, was one of the few guests who did not hold an official rank in the Russian military. The fact that he was invited nonetheless likely has to do with his soldiers having served Russia in the Syrian war.

According to the recruiter Ivanov, the Wagner Unit is currently looking for new mercenaries in Molkino. Men who applied for a mercenary position told ZEIT ONLINE that the selection process was rather straightforward. In the first test, applicants had to prove their physical fitness: pullups, a distance run, situps, a 100-meter sprint, a Cooper test to prove their endurance, and various shooting drills were among the tasks asked of them. Those who passed these initial tests, the men said, were allowed to complete the mercenary training process, which normally lasted two months.

Everyone who passed this introductory trial was asked to sign a contract for at least six months, says Ivanov. Aside from standard formalities, one aspect of the contract is particularly important, says Ivanov: “Our contracts are two pages long,” he says. On the first page, the decisive point is that signatories never tell anybody about the site or nature of their mission. The second page, he continues, requires mercenaries to absolutely adhere to the conditions on Page 1.

Preparation for the Next Mission

A number of questions are raised by Ivanov’s recruitment and by the military base in Molkino. For what operations, for example, are Russian mercenaries being sought? What divisions of the Defense Ministry are stationed in Molkino? What is the nature of these divisions’ cooperation with the Wagner Unit founded by Dmitri Utkin? And: Why was Law No. 53 changed in the first place? When contacted by ZEIT ONLINE, the Russian Defense Ministry declined to answer any of these questions. One explanation for the legalization of mercenaries, however, could lie in the specific link between foreign and domestic policy embodied by the Russian president.

Since his first election in the year 2000, Vladimir Putin has solidified his power through the pursuit of armed conflicts. First came the Second Chechen War and then the 2008 conflict in Georgia. Thereafter came the war in Ukraine and, since 2015, Russia’s involvement in Syria.

Whether or not Russia started the conflicts, Putin has exploited them for domestic policy. By way of the positive presentation of the Russian army and military successes in the state-run media, patriotism among many Russians has grown, along with their pride in both their country and their president. At the same time, Putin has been able to support the country’s weak economy with armaments programs. And when the country is at war, other issues, such as corruption, suddenly seem unimportant by comparison. All of that could play an important role in the future should Russia become involved in additional foreign conflicts.

Ukraine, Syria — Afghanistan?

But there are two problems with this approach. Putin, says Stefan Meister, an expert on Russia with the German Council on Foreign Relations, is having difficulty finding enough troops for his military incursions. With Ukraine and Syria, Russia is currently involved in two conflicts that require a large volume of troops and materiel, he says. Even if the Russian military has been modernized since 2008, Meister continues, its capacities are not infinite.

Meister believes that 2017 could find Russia involved in additional military commitments, particularly given Donald Trump’s demands for a broad fight against international terrorism. New mercenary units, he adds, could prove helpful. The Russia expert says that mercenaries are hired by private security firms and receive different contracts than regular soldiers do. One advantage, Meister says, is that the mercenary model makes it more difficult for information to reach the public eye. In Ukraine, in particular, Moscow has run into problems when Russian soldiers lose their lives in the fight against their Slavic brothers. But when a mercenary dies on the battlefield, it is much easier for the Defense Ministry to deny any responsibility.

The second problem has to do with the likely theater where mercenaries will be fighting.

Nikulin: Where will I be deployed? In Syria?

Ivanov: No, that’s an old issue. I am not at liberty to tell you where you will be sent. But you can probably figure it out on your own. Our army fought there back in the 1980s. There is a lot of sand and plenty of mountains there. There will be a peacekeeping operation there too. When you go there after your training, you’ll even get a medal for courage. But there won’t be more honors than that. You won’t be on television. Any other questions?

Afghanistan. In addition to Syria, Ukraine and unstable countries like Libya, Russia could become more involved in Afghanistan in 2017. But the horror at the losses suffered in Afghanistan runs deep in Russian society, comparable to the Vietnam trauma suffered by the United States. These days, even the Russian propaganda machinery wouldn’t likely be enough to convince the Russian public of the necessity of sending ground troops into Afghanistan.

Money

“Currently, Russia is only supporting Afghanistan with helicopters and is active with technicians and trainers,” says Meister. Since 2016, there has been official cooperation between the two countries under which Russia provides Afghanistan with military-technical assistance. “If NATO withdraws from Afghanistan in 2017, Russia could begin to worry that terrorism in the country will spread. The Taliban could further destabilize Russia’s Central Asian neighbors.” That, Meister says, is a real danger, for Russia in particular.

Most applicants for jobs as mercenaries, says Ivanov, don’t really care where they are sent. The most important thing is their salary. According to Ivanov, mercenaries in 2017 receive the equivalent of around 700 euros per month during the training phase. Once they are sent out of the country, their salary rises automatically to 1,150 euros and goes up to 1,700 euros for deployments in conflict zones. That is quite a bit of money in Russia. And they can earn even more. Ivanov says: “If you destroy a tank, you get extra money for that.”

Translated by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey

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