The Fallen Mercenaries in Russia’s Dark Army
Evgeny Antipov, was a mercenary in the Wagner Group, Russia’s notorious private military company. Evgeny was killed somewhere near Homs, in central Syria, four years ago last June. A little over a month before he left, Evgeny had told his mother that he was going on an unspecified work trip for the next three months. “I won’t have a phone with me,” he told her. “When I come back, I will call you.” His call never came.
Evgeny’s friends, rather, contacted Svetlana on the Russian-language social media platform VKontakte, telling her that her son was dead.
Svetlana received the news of her son’s death more than a month after it happened. She was working at the time in Poland. She says she doesn’t have any recollection of what happened next or how she traveled back to Odessa and from there to Rostov to visit the grave. In Rostov she was allowed just 24 hours to pay her respects.
“If you want to remain on good terms with us, don’t ask us any questions,” she says she was told. If she kept asking questions, she was told, she wouldn’t ever be able to cross the Russian border again to visit her son’s grave.
Evgeny is one of 4,184 Wagner mercenaries that the SBU, Ukraine’s security service, and a think tank started by a number of former top SBU generals have identified. The Ukrainian Center of Analytics and Security, or UCAS, as the think tank is known, shared its data with New Lines, Estonia’s Delfi.ee and the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter.
The trove of information offers arguably the most comprehensive anatomy of Russia’s dark army, built and paid for by the Kremlin-backed oligarch and catering magnate Yevgeny Prigozhin. Coyly referred to in the press as “Putin’s chef,” Prigozhin has been serially sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his role in Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine, multiple instances of U.S. election interference, and, most recently, malign political and economic influence peddling in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Wagner’s mercenaries have been fighting on the side of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, propping up Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria and backing the warlord Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Libya, as well as fighting anti-government rebels in the CAR. They have also been deployed to Sudan, initially in support of since-ousted dictator Omar al-Bashir, and Mozambique, where they mounted a disastrous and swiftly abandoned offensive against Islamist insurgents.
On Dec. 13, the European Union sanctioned the organization along with three companies and eight people connected to it. “The Wagner Group is responsible for serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan and Mozambique, which include torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings,” the European Council stated in its sanctions decision.
Wagner is closely intertwined with and subordinate to the Russian Ministry of Defense. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, a sanctions enforcement agency, has designated Wagner a “proxy force” of that ministry. Reporting has also shown it is very close to Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU. One of the group’s training facilities is located in the Russian region of Krasnodar, right next to a heavily guarded GRU Spetsnaz (special forces) military base.
The EU has also confirmed that Utkin is “a former Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer” who is “personally responsible” for atrocities committed by his men, including “the torturing to death of a Syrian deserter by four members of the Wagner Group in June 2017 in the governorate of Homs, Syria. According to a former member of the Wagner Group, Utkin personally ordered the torturing to death of the deserter as well as the filming of the act.”
Among the 4,184 individuals in the database, fighters have come from 15 different countries, and some have multiple citizenships. The majority, 2,708, unsurprisingly hail from Russia, 222 from Ukraine, 17 from Belarus, 11 from Kazakhstan, nine from Moldova, eight from Serbia, et.
“Wagner is like a layered pie,” says Vasyl Hrytsak, a former chief of Ukraine’s SBU. “It consists of both former and current military personnel but also of civilians eager to earn money and criminals who have been given an option to choose between prison or becoming a mercenary.”
Russians with dim prospects aren’t the only ones who’ve joined Wagner. The data set also includes more than 220 Ukrainians and many Belarussians, Serbians, Moldovans as well as those with other nationalities.