Dmitry Utkin, director of the Wagner Group
Russia is engaged in a major buildup in Syria, both in support of the de-escalation zones established in conjunction with the United States, and in order to solidify its military control of the country.
debkafile’s military and intelligence sources reported exclusively on Wednesday, August 2, that 2,000 mercenaries had just been airlifted into the country, boosting to a total of 5,000 the number of mercenaries on hire from the Wagner Group private contractors for service under the Russian flag in Syria. They are all retirees from elite units of the Russian ground forces, air force or navy.
In another new Russian project, our military sources also report the arrival in the past few days of Muslim troops from the republic of Ingushetia. Although clad in Russian military police uniforms, they are actually commandoes trained in anti-terror warfare. They have been posted as “ceasefire monitors” at the three de-escalation zones established by Russia and the United States along the Syrian borders with Israel, Jordan and Iraq.
President Vladimir Putin and his defense minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu have ramped up the Russian military presence in Syria without adding ground and armored troops – even though the Russian constitution bars the recruitment of mercenaries to fight overseas for profit.
Moscow is a veteran client of the Wagner Group contractors, which largely resemble the US Blackwater security contractor now calling itself Academi. It was hired to provide military personnel during 20014 and 2015 for Moscow's battle to conquer Crimea and in support of the pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Their mercenaries first arrived in Syria in October 2015, right after Moscow stepped up its intervention in the civil war. In March 2016, several hundred of them fought in the big battle that wrested Palmyra from ISIS.
Ironically, the Wagner Group does not officially exist and is not listed anywhere in Russia. However, a company bearing that name operates out of Argentina, even though its recruits receive training in Russia. They are trained, our sources reveal, at a base of the 10th special forces brigade of GRU military intelligence, located near the village of Molkino in the Krasnodar area of southern Russia, about 150km northeast of the Black Sea. The identity of Wagner’s boss is held secret, but Western intelligence sources name him as Dmitry Utkin, who until 2013 was a lieutenant colonel in the 2nd Spetznaz brigade.
The placement of Russian Muslim forces or hired mercenaries on Israel’s northern border – in the guise of ceasefire monitors – poses a serious problem for Jerusalem. Russia’s record for keeping its promises and commitments on its military moves in Syria is far from good. The US has confirmed that Russia gave Israel a commitment that Iranian and pro-Iranian forces, including Hizballah, would not be allowed to approach the Syrian-Israeli border. But Israel can’t be certain how the Ingushets or the mercenaries will react if confronted with such troops. Will they resort to arms to evict them or let them stay?
The coming DEBKA Weekly out on Friday, Aug. 4, expands on the Russian buildup in Syria and its repercussions. To sign up to this exclusive publication, click here.