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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 26th January 2018 > PUTIN’S (SECRET) ARMY

PUTIN’S (SECRET) ARMY

Why the Kremlin is using mercenaries to fight its foreign wars

IN THE DESERT OF EASTERN SYRIA, NOT FAR FROM A town called Deir ez-Zor, there’s reportedly a pile of stones surrounding a wooden board, with an Orthodox cross and an inscription burned into the wood: “2017. To the eternal memory of the warriors killed and missing in the SAR [Syrian Arab Republic].” The stone cairn is decorated with a machine gun belt, a large-caliber bullet and a Russian army helmet. The dead are identified only by their wartime nicknames: Warrior, Executioner, Scorpion, Nightingale. All were purportedly Russian mercenaries who perished in the war in Syria. But their real names don’t appear on any death toll. Russia will never acknowledge their apparent role in the conflict. For Moscow’s secret soldiers, that pile of stones may be as close as they will ever get to official recognition.

The use of mercenaries is illegal under Russian law. But since at least the 1990s, Moscow has used them as deniable proxies for its military interventions abroad. In Bosnia and in the breakaway Moldovan province of Transnistria, teams of “volunteers” secretly backed by the Russian military went into battle—while Moscow’s real troops officially acted as neutral peacekeepers. Over the past four years, however, President Vladimir Putin has dramatically ramped up the use of private military contractors as a crucial part of his foreign policy, using them to extend Russian power in eastern Ukraine and Syria.

The shift began at dawn on March 18, 2014, when units of regular Russian servicemen, their insignia removed from their uniforms, moved out from a base at Sevastopol to occupy key military targets across the Ukrainian province of Crimea. Backing these soldiers was a motley group of unidentified fighters who swooped into radio stations and local government buildings. Some were pro-Moscow Ukrainian policemen, others were local gangsters—but many, according to Western analysts and the Security Service of Ukraine, were paid mercenaries.

Later that summer, as war flared in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, began sending much larger and better-organized units of ex-Russian servicemen, recruited mostly from the North Caucasus, to fight in the Donbass. Since then, mercenaries have become “a central element of the Kremlin’s geopolitical adventures, whether in Ukraine or, even more clearly, Syria,” says Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations, a Prague-based think tank.

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