Britain should confront Russian “mercenary groups”, the Defence Secretary has said, as intelligence images show Vladimir Putin is supplying tanks and planes to his “private army”.
The Russian Wagner Group mercenary force, run by a man known as “Putin’s chef”, showed “how modern warfare is rapidly changing,” Ben Wallace told The Telegraph.
The Defence Secretary’s comments come as recently declassified intelligence photos, below, show the Wagner Group using regular Russian military equipment in Libya, suggesting it is, in effect, a deniable part of the Kremlin’s army.
Security experts believe the Wagner Group is used deniably to flex Moscow’s military power by supporting weak or illegitimate regimes, often with direct military support from the Russian army.
The group is particularly active in Syria, Libya and across sub-Saharan Africa, where armed assistance is rewarded with access to energy reserves and gold and other precious metals.
British security officials warn the use of such unregulated forces shows how state threats can manifest below the traditional threshold of armed conflict.
Ben Wallace said: “These shadowy outfits, now supported so brazenly by well-funded and highly trained militaries, pose a complex proposition for Western armed forces.
“The UK and other Allies will need to be prepared to challenge mercenary groups and improve resilience to their malign influences.
“The space in which they operate must be contested, otherwise private security forces, unshackled by international laws governing militaries, will be free to carry out deniable activity on behalf of a nation state with impunity.”
The Government’s recent Integrated Review of foreign, defence, security and development policy warned countries hostile to the UK “increasingly work with non-state actors to achieve their goals, including as proxies in conflict".
“This affords them deniability and blurs the line between state threats and other types of security threats, such as such as terrorism and [serious organised crime],” the review stated.
Russia 'operating in the grey zone'
The declassified images, thought to have come from US spy satellites, show Russian SA-22 air defence systems, IL-76 military cargo aircraft and mine resistant armoured vehicles being operated in the country.
Mixing military and non-military assets is typical of what Mr Wallace calls “operating within the grey zone”.
US intelligence agencies believe Russia has directly supplied the Wagner Group in Libya with fighter aircraft, armoured vehicles, air defence systems and other military supplies.
Images released by US Africa Command (AFRICOM) allegedly show high-tech Russian military kit in Libya either being operated by the Wagner Group, or by regular Russian forces in support of the supposedly private military company.
Such action would violate UN Security Council resolution 1970, unanimously signed in 2011, preventing the supply of arms or personnel to the conflict in Libya.
“Images like this should provoke us to change our thinking around the threat,” the Defence Secretary told the Telegraph.
“It is that threat which runs through our recently published Command Paper setting out the foundations for a new, modern Armed Forces,” he said.
Kremlin 'is lying'
AFRICOM says at least 14 Mig-29 and Su-24 fighter jets were flown from Russia to Syria and repainted to cover the Russian markings. The aircraft were then flown into Libya, breaching the UN arms embargo.
The US headquarters assesses the jets have flown combat operations in Libya.
“Russia continues to play an unhelpful role in Libya by delivering supplies and equipment to the Wagner Group,” according to US Marine Corps Major General Bradford Gering. “Imagery continues to unmask their consistent denials.”
An AFRICOM spokesman added: “Russian involvement is evident – which the Kremlin lies about every time they deny it”.
Russia’s activity in Libya is thought to extend beyond the provision of military materiel.
The Times reported in June last year that people linked to Yevgeny Pigozhin’s Internet Research Agency, the St Petersburg-based troll factory, were being held by Libyan authorities after seeking to help Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of former leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, gain power.
Maxim Shugalei, 54, a political strategist from St Petersburg, and Samer Seifan, 37, a translator from Moscow with dual Jordanian-Russian citizenship, were working for the Foundation for the Protection of National Values (known as The Foundation).
The Foundation’s chairman is Alexander Malkevich. Mr Malkevich, 45, a consultative media adviser to the Russian government, was sanctioned by the US in 2018 by an order that linked him with Mr Prigozhin.
According to The Times, Shugalei and Seifan offered Gaddafi help in smearing opponents and said they could arrange flash mobs at the Hague were he ever to be arrested and put before the International Criminal Court on trial for war crimes.
Elusive group has shady origins
Like much about the Wagner Group, the origins are murky.
Security experts say the images of Russian military casualties returning from Afghanistan throughout the 1980s significantly undermined the-then Soviet Union and contributed to the regime’s collapse.
It is thought the Kremlin encouraged the outsourcing of military activity to avoid similar risks in the future.
Such groups train armies, protect leaders and secure energy and natural resources, such as gold, diamonds and rare earth metals.
In exchange, mercenary outfits are often granted exclusive privileges and licenses to procure weapons, technology and natural resources.
Russia today allegedly prefers using unattributable military forces in areas like Ukraine, Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic, both for political ends and as a means of raising money.
President Putin is particularly keen to expand Russia’s influence across Africa. Libya, in particular, is oil rich and can control the migrant flow into southern Europe.
Last year, a German foreign ministry report said Russia was “contractually assured" it would "be allowed to build military bases in six countries," namely the Central African Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan.
The classified document said Vladimir Putin had made Africa “a top priority”.
Links to Putin's regime
The nature of the links between Moscow and the Wagner Group are unclear. US officials have suggested the force has been used in Syria to secure oil facilities for the Assad regime, with suitable compensation for Moscow.
However, one such action in 2018 resulted in a direct clash with US forces when Syrian forces, allegedly supported by Wagner Group fighters, fought near Deir az-Zawr.
Around 200 Russian mercenaries and Syrian fighters were killed by air and ground fire. There were no US casualties.
Western security officials believe the humiliation, and continued reliance on regular Russian military support, soured the relationship between Mr Prigozhin, 59, and Russian defence minister and head of the military Sergey Shoygu, 65.
One alleged former Wagner Group fighter, reporting how Mr Prigozhin and Mr Shoygu fell out over the battle for the Syrian city of Palmyra in 2016, seemingly revealed the close links between the Russian state and the deniable private military company (PMC).
“Before Palmyra, everything was fine, the supply was [from the Russian] army. When Palmyra was taken for the first time, the PMC had T-90 tanks, howitzers, Tigers, and armoured personnel carriers,” the former fighter told a Russian online news agency.
“But when Shoigu reported to the commander-in-chief ‘We took Palmyra,’ the director of the PMC Wagner, Prigozhin, was indignant: ‘We took Palmyra, not you!
“Wagner's PMC took all the heights around it, then the units of the Ministry of Defence calmly walked through the desert, meeting almost no resistance. All the hard assault work was done by Wagner's PMC.”
The man said that after the row, all decent military equipment was withheld and Wagner Group had to rely on old or looted equipment.
The Wagner Group is thought to number around 3,000 fighters, although it is unclear if all are private military contractors or serving military personnel on attachment.
Moscow hides behind plausible deniability
In March 2018 the Duma (Russia’s parliament) voted to make PMCs illegal.
However, in his annual press conference that December, President Vladimir Putin said: “As long as [PMCs] don’t violate Russian law, they have the right to work, to pursue their business interests, in any spot on the planet”.
In testimony to the US Committee on Foreign Affairs last year, Professor Kimberly Marten of the Political Science Department at Columbia University, said keeping PMCs illegal in Russia enhanced plausible deniability for the Russian state, by allowing the Kremlin to distance itself from any unsavoury or risky actions the groups took.
She said illegality also served two other purposes. First, it keeps such groups loyal to the Kremlin and Putin personally. Second, “it restricts the market and ensures that only Putin’s favourites can profit from these activities, since any outsider who attempted to form such a group ... can be prosecuted and imprisoned for mercenary behaviour”.
Professor Marten also related how some Wagner troops killed in battle had received the Russian military Medal for Courage in Death, normally given only to uniformed service members.
Geolocatable video shows Wagner troops at the Battle of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine in January 2015 with new Russian BPM-97 Vystrel armoured trucks, providing further evidence of their cooperation with the Russian state. In December 2016, Wagner's leader, Dmitry Utkin, received a medal for bravery from Mr Putin at the Kremlin.
“Given the opaque relationship between business, government, Putin’s personal friends, and the law in Russia, we should probably not think of the Wagner Group as being a typical private firm,” she said.
“A better term for it, rather than a PMC or mercenary outfit, might be an informal, semi-state security group.”
Who is ‘Putin's chef’ Yevgeny Prigozhin?
Yevgeny Prigozhin amassed his fortune through lucrative catering contracts with the Kremlin. As a consequence, he is known as “Putin’s chef”.
His sponsorship of the Wagner Group came after that organisation grew out of an earlier failed private military company.
In 2013 an outfit called the Slavonic Corps, registered as a company in Hong Kong, conducted a failed mercenary operation in Syria. Heavy casualties were avoided by a sandstorm covering their retreat, but Russian authorities were unimpressed.
The Slavonic Corps was founded and owned by two Russian nationals, Vadim Gusev and Yevgeny Sidorov, then employees of a private military company called the Moran Security Group.
The two men were jailed in 2014 after the debacle. All Slavonic Corps fighters were set free, including a man called Dmitry Utkin, a Ukrainian-born former member of the GRU, who set up a new firm with many former Moran Security Group fighters.
Sponsored by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Utkin, an admirer of the Third Reich, called the new organisation the Wagner Group after Hitler’s favourite composer.
Utkin was photographed at a Kremlin reception held on December 9, 2016, where he was decorated with the Order for Courage, allegedly for his services in Ukraine, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
As well as the Wagner Group, Prigozhin is thought to be the sponsor of the St Petersburg Internet Research Agency, a troll factory believed responsible for producing misinformation and the interference of democratic institutions in countries considered hostile to Moscow.
US authorities sanctioned Prigozhin for the use of fake internet accounts and misinformation in an attempt to influence the 2016 US presidential and 2018 mid-term elections.
Then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at the time: “Treasury is targeting the private planes, yacht, and associated front companies of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian financier behind the Internet Research Agency and its attempts to subvert American democratic processes”.
Responding, Mr Prigozhin said: "Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. I'm not at all upset that I'm on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him."
Rumours appeared in Russian media and social media in October 2019 that Prigozhin had been killed in the crash of a gun-running Russian military plane in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
However, no evidence was ever produced to substantiate that claim and while Prigozhin does not seem to have appeared in public since then, he has never been a very public figure, Professor Marten said.
"It makes sense to assume for now that he is still alive."