Huseyin Oylupinar (PhD)
Academic Advisor for Central and East European Affairs
Foreign Policy Institute
Keywords: Private Military Security Contractors, Moran Security Group, Slavonic Corps Limited, Dmitry Utkin, Andrey Troshev, Ukraine, Syria
Recently, it is reported on several sources that the Russian government is dispatching Wagner soldiers from Syria and Africa to take part in Russia’s occupation of Ukraine. The group claimed not to have relations with the Russian government and any war crimes they committed may not be accounted for by the Russian regular army.
Around twenty private military security contractors are known to be related to Russia. One of them is the “Wagner” group and I will narrow down on this frequently coined group in my piece. I consider studying Wagner and other Russian Private Military Security Contractors (PMSC) of critical significance as this phenomenon has become an important aspect of Russian foreign policy in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and lately Africa. Any country engaging Russia in all of these theaters has to understand the Russian PMSC’s role to secure its interests. Here, I will explore the roots of the “Wagner” group and show that it is not a stand-alone PMSC. The reason I am taking this particular dimension is that publications on “Wagner” in Turkey, using superficial secondary source data and lacking Russian language sources, fail to observe Wagner’s connection to other PMSCs and the Russian state security establishment.
The name “Wagner” circles around for a good while. “Wagner” (as it is called in Russian “Wagner’s Private Military Company” – частная военная компания Вагнера) is so far observed to operate in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Central Africa, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagaskar and more recently Mali (it also has a branch registered in Georgia). The group has been associated with the Russian government and sanctioned by the US government in 2017 for its activities in Donbas (a part of Ukraine partially occupied by the Russians). More recently, in November 2021, EU foreign ministers agreed to put sanctions on “Wagner” for its human rights violations and on December 13, 2021, EU Parliament placed sanctions on “Wagner” and people related to this group. UN experts also reported more than once on violations of Wagner in the Central African Republic. The recent information on the “Wagner” Group negotiating with the transition government of Mali infuriated the French which maintains 5,100 troops in the country since 2014 (Operation Barkhane).
The origins of “Wagner” remain an enigma to many. Yet, to see where “Wagner” comes from one has to start with the Moran Security Group.[i] This private security company, having its main branch in Moscow, takes contracts more on the seas’ protecting cargo ships mostly carrying oil against piracy. Even though such a private security service is legitimate in international law within the letters of the marque regime, to decrease traceability of its finances and accountability Moran is registered primarily in Belize City in 2011. It is also registered in Russia very same year.
Exploring the leading figures of this PMSC is not an easy task as these people avoid public contact and appearance. However, according to available registry documents, Moran’s director is Aleksey Badikov about whom almost nothing is known other than he is being the chief executive of Moran since 2009 (even though Moran was registered in 2011). Boris Chikin is credited among the founders. Hailing from Saint Petersburg, he served as an instructor in the 1980s in Dushanbe (Tajikistan) where he functioned as an instructor to train mountain riflemen special units that is to be deployed in Afghanistan. Later in 1993, he graduated from Israel Security Academy (supposedly ISA Israel). Evgeniy Sidorov acted as the director of the Moscow-based branch with an apparent but not established military background (again, there is limited data to track his background). Searching the background of these three figures, two peculiarities strike the eye. First, while non of the three leading names of Moran known or documented to be entrepreneurs or achieved wealth before Moran, they succeed in founding and running a well-operating international military security provider which now has a number of its own ships sailing in international waters and used in jobs contracted. Second, Moran, for its long years in business, avoided successfully appearing in any sanctions lists and holds seemingly a clean international record. The company also takes good care to fit well with the anti-mercenary laws of the Russian Federation.
Nevertheless, with the deepening crisis in Syria, Russian private investments were under threat from domestic fighting in the country. These new conditions and undoubtedly an attractive market forced the contractors, to design new formations to take jobs on the territory. Despite Moran wanting to keep a clean record, it rather secretly was involved in the establishment of such a new PMSCs.
Rather behind the scenes, one of the lead figures of Moran is Viacheslav Kalashnikov, a lieutenant colonel in reserve of counterintelligence at KGB and later FSB, a graduate of Military Institute of KGB named after F. E. Derzhinskiy under the Soviet of Ministers of the Soviet Union. Starting from the mid-1990s, he took on private security-related jobs. At the beginning of the 2000s, he acted as an assistant to Aleksandr Torshin (Mariya Butina, who was convicted in the US as an unregistered foreign agent working in favor of Russian interests, functioned also his assistant from 2011 to 2016), a member of the Federation Council and later briefly the chair of the Federation Council, put together a new group of armed men. No doubt, the Moran administration did not recognize and still does not, this new formation as one of their own for the sake of secure disconnection from a formation that may be perceived as mercenaries and fall into future sanctions lists.
As such, the new formation, Slavonic Corpus Limited (SCL) first registered in Saint Petersburg in 2012 and was directed by Sergey Kramskoy, who earlier served in fleet operations of Moran. The company was also registered in Hong Kong the very same year by two Russian citizens Vadim Gusev (the deputy director of Moran, once employee of Ruscorps, yet another Russian PMSC) and Yevgeniy Sidorov (earlier appeared as the Director of Moran in the Moscow branch). Another deputy director is documented to be again Moran’s Boris Chikin.
SCL’s recruits were composed mostly of retired military men and, to a lesser degree, retired internal security forces[ii] (it is documented that some Moran recruits were contracted for SCL) and Kuban Cossacks. The one and only operation, in which they have taken part were in Syria in late 2013 and they were destined to protect objects in oil production areas. In fact, SCL proved to be a poorly designed operation. They were quickly got beaten up and lost cover, and found themselves a place on the front pages. Fingers pointing the Russian government, some SCL operatives, and leaders were captured at their entry to Russia. This was the quick end of the SCL. Its soldiers were taken to courts but left free without persecution, while Sidorov and Gusev were sentenced, in a secretly held court case, to three years of jail time, the least of possible punishment for participation in the conflict as a mercenary (Russian Criminal Code, Article 359). Sidorov, completing his jail time, started a new company taking ammunition and special equipment acquisition contracts from special operation units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia.
Soon later, two-thirds of former SCL soldiers were re-assembled by one of the former SLC commanders, Dmitri Utkin, nom de guerre “Wagner”. Earlier, Utkin was working as a Special Operation Force (Spetsnaz) commander under the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU). He retired in 2013 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Immediately after, he got affiliated with the Moran and SCL and ended up appearing as the leader of what came to be known as the “Wagner” group.
Not long after, the new formation was deployed in Ukraine and Syria. It conducted armed operations, worked in cooperation and coordination with the regular army formations of Syria and Russia, and protected and defended critical objects (their numbers are formally not known but estimated around 2,500-3,000). According to accounts of the detained Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, Wagnerites existed in the Donbas starting from Summer 2014. During their deployment, Wagnerites proved themselves worthy to power institutions in Russia and therefore, have been dispatched to Syria.
“Wagner” group is not a registered entity or it is not yet known where it is registered. It does not exist with a formal name given by its curators. “Wagner’s” very existence and its managers remain hidden. Functions and operations attributed to this group are fully illegal according to the Russian Criminal Code mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, since mid-2015, the group is known to be trained in the Krasnodar region, southern Russia, in the vicinity of the Russian military intelligence training base of the 10th Spetsnaz Brigade of GRU in the village of Molkino. Utkin is documented with other Wagner operatives at a Kremlin reception in 2016 where he was decorated with the Order of Courage and photographed posing with Vladimir Putin. Some other corroborating data such as Utkin’s travels with GRU officers and telephone conversations are also referred for his direct connections to the Russian state apparatus. After such exposure, Utkin is replaced by Colonel Konstantin (second name unknown) by nome de guerre Mazay who actively leads operations in Africa. In addition to Utkin, the second and possibly more important name that surfaced from the hidden ranks of “Wagner” is Andrey Troshchev, a former member of Russian Airborne Forces, commander of Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) at National Guards of Russia, retired as a colonel at Police forces, decorated two times with the Order of Red Star for his services in Afghanistan, and known to be the manager of “Wagner” to whom Utkin reports. He was exposed in the same event he attended with Utkin at Kremlin and decorated by Vladimir Putin.
The data examined so far shows that Wagner is not a stand-alone formation. It is a project that is perfected by Moran’s extensive international experience and the practical exploits of the SCL on land. The shared leadership cadres of Moran, SCL, and Wagner show that such experience is transferred down to Wagner. The majority of the figures affiliated with these three formations have a long professional background in the security/intelligence establishment of Russia and have had no business or international experience. This raises a question: how the processes of finding domestic and international operational schemes, budget, recruitment, training, deployment, acquisition of arms, contracting procedures, financial transactions have been organized in the first place when Moran only started to work. There are unverified and indirect resources that speak to the fact that all that know-how and operational ability has been curated by the security and intelligence offices of the Russian government.
The available data also shows that there is heavy secrecy in these formations which is thickening down to Wagner. Clearest picture I have is for Moran which appears to have a clean record according to the international law and Russian criminal code. This forces Moran to reject any sort of connection to SCL and the Wagner, both of which could have been charged with mercenary activity and violation of human rights according to the international and Russian criminal law and cause Moran to be liable. This is exactly why once SCL was exposed it was called back immediately and transformed into Wagner. The fact that its leadership was persecuted had to do with showcasing Russia as an international law-abiding country. Yet, measures are taken for future unexpected expositions.
The failure with SCL taught one big lesson to the curators: leave no juridical and financial imprint and do not expose leadership cadres. This indeed has been achieved to a great extent that there is no documentation as to Wagner’s formal existence and that we know almost nothing of the top people running it other than Utkin and Troshchev. Such information leaks out from former or current recruits of Wagner, however, the confidentiality of the witnesses and lack of information cross-checking does not allow a hard fact-based analysis of Wagner’s internal operation. Nevertheless, the exposition of Wagner’s training grounds in Russia and Utkin’s photograph with Putin dressed with medals challenged the mystery.
[i] Neova Holdings Ltd., which is registered in British Virgin Islands, owns 50% of the company.
[ii] For example, the Special Rapid Response Unit or SOBR and Special Purpose Mobile Unit or OMON.