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From Syria to Skripal's poisoning:

Russia's 'Mafia style' tactics

• By Alex Grinberg •  March 29, 2018 

A number of Russian mercenaries were killed in a battle in Syria in early February. The precise number of those killed, and the objective of the mission in which they were engaged remain  controversial. According to a report of Der Spiegel, there were only a small number of Russian fatalities, and the incident was not a "Russian attack”


The accurate death toll and all other crucial details will almost certainly never be known due to the fact of the secrecy of the mission of the mercenaries: officially Russia does not recognize the existence of private military firms (PMF, V-CH-K in Russian), they are registered nowhere, and even the fact of hospitalizations of injured fighters is a top secret and not reported.

Mihrac Ural

Video released by the US of a T-72 targeted in Syria (screenshot)

The private contractors in Syria

Three representatives of “Wagner” (the company whose employees were engaged in the recent incident in Syria) command agreed to talk to Radio Liberty on  condition of anonymity All three were veterans of the fighting in Donbass in Ukraine, prior to their engagement in Syria.  Private military firms have in fact existed in Russia since 2013 when their personnel fought on the side of Assad.  These fighters were used to protect oil fields or oil pipelines.


Most such firms, whose number of fighters amounts to 8 thousand, do not carry out real offensives, except for Wagner group. Recruits, who must have experience of regular military service arrive to Khmeimim air base via Rostov-on-Don or Mozdok. Others arrive to Syria by sea from Novorossiysk on landing ships. All the financial issues are regulated through the company “Euro Polis” that belongs to Putin’s close associate Yevgeni Prigozhin.


Eyewitnesses have confirmed that Russian private contractors in Syria do not manage “real” combat  - but rather are responsible for enlarging zones of influence, taking control of oil and gas fields and then protecting them.  According to rumors, the Russian authorities are keen to send fighters from Donbass to Syria in order to get rid of them,  deeming them dangerous to domestic stability.


One of the Wagner commanders interviewed had no sympathy for Syria, saying that  “It is a horrific country, homosexuality is widespread everywhere.’  He said that upon their arrival at Lathaqiya, one of the fighters said he was proposed a sexual contact in exchange for a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey.  Hygiene is practically inexistent, according to the Russian contractor, and and the local people have nothing to eat.

Neither the mercenaries nor regular Russian forces hold Assad’s militias in high esteem. “Syrians are not capable of fighting, they fear DAESH,’ the commander says. “Syrians run away once they encounter difficulties”.

By contrast, the “Wagner” employees respect ISIS or whom they call ISIS as fighters.  The interviews reveal some socking details, including regarding the torture of prisoners. The mercenaries are aware that becoming prisoners would mean agonizing death caused by torture. They  reveal that they don’t take prisoners either and employ tortures and mutilations such as taking out the prisoners’ eyes with teaspoons.


Regarding their motives for going to Syria, financial inducements was not the only element.   A second commander interviewed spoke of his mission in patriotic terms:  “you haven’t come there alone,” he said,  ‘you are there because Russia told you to go there”. The geopolitical interpretation was  no less telling: The first commander interviewed said “The real war in Syria is only starting now. At least three years is minimum. Only a small percent of the population supports Assad and only Putin supports him. The second  said “there is no Syrian or Ukrainian war but only the war between Russia and the US. The Wagner employees  are wary of a direct confrontation with the US, but ready to fight America if needed: “They [Americans} don’t know how to fight. As Putin said, one can invent various missiles, but they can’t invent people as ours-they can sacrifice themselves”


The collision between American and Russian forces was a confrontation between two methods of military command. The Russian military not only disdains Americans but it also completely  misunderstands the principles of integrated combat- the type of combat both American and Israeli military prefers. This approach affords the local commander on the ground large authority to interpret the mission and utilize artillery and air force assets.  By contrast, in the Russian approach, everything must pass through the command of the staff which very often ignores the real situation on the ground.

The context: Corruption and mafia style bullying


The events in Syria cannot be analyzed separately from the broader Russian context. This context is clear - corruption and mafia style bullying as general norms.


On 23 February, Argentinian media revealed that Russian diplomats in Argentina were implicated in a drug trafficking plan to smuggle 400 kilos of cocaine. A Russian diplomatic bag was reportedly used to get the drug from Buenos Aires to Moscow. Argentinian authorities assume it was not the first drug transport of this kind and probably diplomatic channels have already been previously used disguised as cargoes of cigars and beverages. The Argentinian police have also eavesdropped on a conversation between the Russian ambassador to Argentina Viktor Koronelli and the mastermind of the alleged drug gang Andrey Kovalchuk.  


The Argentinian media supplied plenty of details that leave little room for doubts concerning the implication of Russian diplomats in criminal activity. Russia's Foreign Ministry angrily denied what it called "fake news" reports in Argentina and Russia that highlighted the use of the Russian diplomatic bag, implicated "diplomats" and "attaches" at the Russian embassy in Buenos Aires, and suggested official Russian complicity in drug-smuggling. 


As in similar cases, some Russians resorted to the preferred tactic of accusing the US intelligence services for all Russia’s misadventures anywhere in the world: Kovalchuk maintained that the whole affair was a set-up orchestrated by US secret services. The lawyer Vladimir Zherebenikov accused also Argentine police together with the US secret services of discrediting Russian diplomates.


The self-styled opposition leader Alexey Navalny exposed a corruption affair which consists of a meeting between billionaire Oleg Deripaska and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko. The information, including clear-cut evidence, was supplied by a call-girl - Anastasiya Vashukevich, nicknamed as Nastya Rybka.


The most probable assumption is that she supplied the information to Navalny without being aware of its severity. Vashukevich had traveled to Thailand, where she and her companion were detained in the city of Pattaya after a police raid on a "sex training" seminar. She and several other Russian nationals were supposed to be deported to Russia, however Vashukevish requested political asylum   in the U.S. embassy in Thailand. Former head of the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) and current chairman of the Russia’s security council travelled to Thailand at the same time.  Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on February 28 denied any connection whatsoever between Patrushev’s visit to Thailand and Vashukevich's detainment there. Peskov said any speculation about a link between the two developments is "absurd." So, the Kremlin reiterates the same behavior pattern in all similar incidents: it denies the most obvious facts to the point that no normal person can believe the Kremlin’s version of anything, even in those cases when it could be true.

The recent poisoning of the Russian defector Sergei Skripal


The same denial and lies are detected in the recent poisoning of the Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter.  The investigation is trying to track Russian intelligence fingerprints. I would suggest a different approach.


The assassination attempt of Skripal resembles the murder of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015 in Moscow. Naturally, the official investigation did not yield any results, but the most credible version among independent investigative journalists in Russia was that the murder was outsourced to Chechen  mafia under the auspices of  the Chechen president Ramzan Kadirov


The same pattern could have existed also in London. “Outsourcing” of wetwork to mafia elements has disadvantages but also potential gains. The independent and liberal Novaya Gazeta presented evidence that lethal chemical weapons similar to “Novichok” could have been found on the black market since the 90s.  There is always a danger that an unprofessional attacker might cause lethal ‘side effects’ as indeed happened in Salisbury where British police also were wounded .


However, the advantages are also considerable: it allowed the diversion of the attention of investigators into a possibly false direction. British authorities expelled Russian diplomats and possibly the UK intelligence community is pursuing Russian operational agents. If my assumption is correct,  one should search not for hidden Russian intelligence agents but rather for Russian criminals. The investigators should also consider ethnic profile of the suspects.


A question remains: why is Russia’s international behavior characterized by these criminal patterns: how does all this happen and why?

The worldview of Soviet security services and the temperament of the Russian criminal underworld


As journalist Ivan Davydov bluntly and perceptively puts it, the reason lies in the fact that Russia is ruled by people whose mindset is an amalgam of two types of mentality:  the worldview of Soviet security services and the temperament of the Russian criminal underworld.


The former implies the perception of policy only as lies and conspiracies while the latter entails disdain for rule of law and informal mafia laws. It is not that Putin commands mafia gangs or that organized crime controls Russia’s government. But it is the case in Russia that the government, criminal groups and security services contact each other and have relations whose nature is ambiguous, to put it mildly. 


Everything is designed to serve the maintenance of “vertical of power” (“Vertikal’ vlasti’) where all the institutions, bureaucrats and military are subservient to the will of one man, be him Secretary-General, Czar or President. Moreover, Russian political culture precludes the existence of any institution that would be able to set a system of accountability and checks and balances on the rulers. Russia is ruled not by law but by “Ukaz”-decrees and orders, that are issued or “recommended” by President from the top to the bottom. 


Such a culture has sweeping implications. To go back to the Fenruary 7 incident, it is connected also to the unwillingness of the Russian military to adopt principles of integrated combat, which in turn, require bestowing more autonomy and responsibility to combat officers on the ground. Absent clear notions of state of law, it is impossible to clearly distinguish between geopolitical “professional” planning and vested business interests of the president’s cronies.


There is no one simple method to cope with kind of behavior, nevertheless it is obvious that one cannot play a  gentleman’s game with Russia - one should be decisive, ready to resort to physical force,  and shrewd.


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