After two fighters of a Russian private military company (PMC) “Wagner” acquired global notoriety following their capture by the Islamists in Syria, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) officially served a belated notice of suspicion to the company’s leader Dmitry Utkin, who uses “Wagner” as his call sign in homage to Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer. He and his company are accused of conducting military operations against the ATO forces in the Donbas. The SBU has unearthed enough evidence of the criminal activities of the “Wagnerites” and their commander. It is Wagner’s fighters who are accused, in particular, of destroying an Il-76 with Ukrainian paratroopers onboard near Luhansk. According to the SBU, the Wagner PMC has had more than 5,000 fighters in its ranks, of which some personal data are available for 1,570 people, some of them already dead.
It has long been common knowledge that Russia uses its regular military units of special operations forces, masked as PMC fighters, against Ukrainian troops. The mask of a private company allows the Kremlin to deny participation of regular Russian troops in the Donbas War. Still, it is not known whether the Wagner fighters remain on the roll of Russian special forces or they are, as well as other Russian volunteers (known as “vacationers”), disowned by the Kremlin in case of death or capture, as if they were mere unaligned mercenaries and thus not entitled to any assistance, including payments to the family in the event of the death of the breadwinner.
Dmitry Utkin himself was a lieutenant colonel in the Russian army and commanded until 2013 the 700th Special Forces Detachment of the GRU 2nd Independent Brigade, stationed in Pechora, Pskov Region. As journalists of the online publication Censor.net found out, he was born in the village of Smoline, Kirovohrad oblast, in 1970, studied at a local school and, according to some Smoline residents, came to visit them as recently as the summer of 2016, after his PMC ended its campaign in the Donbas. Many Smolinites believe that their townmate enjoys a very high status in Russia: “Were you to see where Dimka lives now, your jaw would drop! He has it like Rinat Akhmetov! Jacuzzi-makuzi-shmakuzi, servants and everything you want.” And what is disappointing, his townmates are rather proud of this instead of condemning Wagner as the leader of a Russian private army fighting against Ukraine.
Shortly before the seizure of Crimea, Utkin retired and initially worked for the Moran Security Group (MSG), a private company specializing in the protection of sea-going vessels in pirate-infested areas. One can suspect that the MSG fighters escorted, in particular, merchant ships that supplied Russian weapons to the governments of Iran and Syria. However, Western states legally blocked the supply of weapons to the regime of Bashar Assad on civilian vessels rather soon, and this “noble mission” thus fell to Russian warships. Meanwhile, the Syrian dictator was becoming increasingly interested in infantry and special forces for his never-ending civil war. And there, Utkin really found his vocation.
The MSG managers organized the Slavic Corps in 2013, and its mercenaries went to Syria with the future Wagner in command. Upon his return, Utkin formed the Wagner PMC out of veterans of the Syrian campaign, the company’s first operation being participation in the Russian seizure of Crimea in February-March 2014. And then, Wagner’s men played approximately the same role in Luhansk as Igor Strelkov-Girkin’s team played in Sloviansk and Donetsk. Also, it is Wagner’s fighters who are credited with the liquidation of the capricious field commander Batman (Oleksandr Biednov), who entered into a protracted conflict with the leader of the “Luhansk People’s Republic” and Russian protege Ihor Plotnytsky. However, the honor of liquidating such a glorious figure as Batman is also claimed by other “knights of fortune,” including active-service officers of the GRU and the FSB.
According to stories in a number of media, the Wagner PMC is financed (or at least was financed in the past) by the Russian Orthodox billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin. If this is true, then, most likely, Prigozhin’s firms were just intermediary links between Wagner and secret items of the Russian budget. According to some reports, the Wagner PMC was allowed to use the Molkino training ground of the Southern Military District in Krasnodar Territory. The bulk of the PMC’s forces were redeployed to Syria at the end of 2015. There, according to various estimates, the Wagnerites have had several dozen dead and wounded. There is still no reliable data on the losses suffered by the Wagner PMC in the Donbas.
Boris Sokolov is a Moscow-based professor