oDR: Opinion

How long can Russia outsource atrocities abroad?

A murder in Syria might finally prove that the Kremlin is responsible for human rights violations by the Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries

Ilya Nuzov
26 March 2021, 9.39am
Dmitry Utkin ("Wagner") pictured here on the far right together with Russian president Vladimir Putin and other Wagner commanders. This image is believed to date from December 2016.

In June 2017, a video emerged online of several Russian-speaking men in camouflage uniforms beating an unarmed civilian with a sledgehammer, on what appeared to be an abandoned oil field. In subsequent videos, the same men behead the already lifeless victim, hang up the corpse and set it on fire.

The gruesome footage led to media investigations including one by the Russian daily Novaya Gazeta, which placed the murder at the al-Shaer gas plant in Homs, Syria.

Journalists also identified the victim as Syrian army defector Muhammad A., and several suspects as Russian nationals and alleged members of a ‘private military company’ (PMC) called the Wagner Group. This multipurpose militia operates at the forefront of Russia’s most daring and unpopular foreign policy forays.

On 11 March, the victim’s brother, with the help of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and two of its member organisations, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression and Memorial Human Rights Center, filed a criminal complaint in Moscow demanding the initiation of criminal proceedings against members of Wagner.

The complaint says that the crimes in question qualify as murder with extreme cruelty, and war crimes of torture and inhuman treatment, as well as the crime of mercenarism.

But achieving justice for the family of the deceased won’t be easy in Russian courts.

What does the Wagner Group do?

Since 2014, the Wagner Group has been involved in major conflicts around the world. The group’s primary function is to participate in armed hostilities in order to advance Russia’s economic or geopolitical interests, regardless of the price their presence exacts on local populations.

During the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, for example, Wagner operatives fought on the side of the pro-Russia separatists of the so-called ‘Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics’, under the command of Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer.

A Bellingcat investigation strongly suggests that Utkin took direct orders from a current GRU officer, who was involved in procuring the Russian Buk missile launcher that downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2015, killing all 298 people on board.

Wagner personnel have also been tied to the July 2018 murder of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic (CAR). Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal were killed while on assignment to make a documentary about the group’s activities in the area.

In February 2019, the UN launched an investigation into the torture of a CAR market vendor detained by Wagner personnel.

More recently, the group was accused of using booby-traps and landmines in civilian areas in Libya, in contravention of international humanitarian law, while fighting alongside General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army against the UN-backed Government of National Accord.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the Wagner Group’s engagement goes back to around the time of Russia’s formal entry into the conflict in 2015. The group was deployed as part of an agreement between Syria and a Russian-registered commercial entity, EvroPolis. The latter is linked to businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin – a wealthy member of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, – who is often referred to as “Putin’s chef” for his companies’ prominent role in the provision of catering to the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defence.

According to the agreement, EvroPolis agreed to provide oversight and security at the al-Shaer gas plant facility in Homs, in exchange for a 25% share of profits. An investigation places Wagner operatives in the vicinity of the gas plant around the time of Muhammad A.’s murder, in the spring of 2017.

Russia’s responsibility

Wagner is a clandestine arm of the Russian military, conceived as an informal militia complementing the hybrid warfare arsenal. The group’s ambiguous legal status under Russian law and the denial of factual links are a way to shirk Russia’s international responsibility for grave abuses of human rights committed by Wagner’s members.

The Wagner Group mimics traditional private military contractors by providing a range of functions in addition to combat, from training security forces to guarding mineral quarries. But unlike traditional PMCs, which are sanctioned and regulated by states through registration or licensing, Wagner is not a registered corporate entity in Russia. In fact, Russian law is silent on private military contractors.

A contract between a PMC and their own government usually ensures a degree of separation and independence. The Russian authorities use an intermediary to finance Wagner, so that they can deny any factual ties.

A number of corporations linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin act as Wagner’s parent companies in places where Russian interests are at stake, much like EvroPolis does in Syria. The salaries of individual fighters come from these business entities, which are financed by Russian state-run enterprises or foreign states, under the aegis of the Russian authorities.

The business intermediary thus merely masks Wagner Group as a PMC, but the pervasive factual ties between the Russian state and Wagner render it virtually indistinguishable from the Russian army.

Wagner trains next to the GRU training facility in southern Russia. Its members receive military awards and honours for their service from the Russian authorities. They receive treatment at private hospitals tied to the Russian Ministry of Defence. They are transported by military freighters and purportedly supplied with GRU-issued passports.

There also appears to be a high degree of coordination between the Russian military and Wagner. This is evidenced (among other examples) by Prigozhin’s presence at military briefings, and Utkin’s chain of command, such that it is inconceivable that any military operation could be undertaken by Wagner without the prior approval of the GRU or related structure.

This is why domestic prosecutions of individual members of Wagner are valuable. Even if they don’t result in the conviction of individuals for horrific atrocities, they might reveal factual ties between Wagner and the Russian state, pointing to Russia’s “effective control” over the entity, or the group’s “complete dependence” on the state. This would enable the attribution of Wagner’s conduct to Russia during a legal challenge in somewhere like the European Court of Human Rights.

The recent criminal complaint mounted by FIDH is the first time in Syria’s ten-year war that a Syrian victim is seeking justice for a human rights violation committed by a Russian national. But it could have wider effects. It could also lead to the eventual discovery of the Russian state’s responsibility for atrocities committed by Wagner in other countries, including CAR, Libya, Sudan and Ukraine – wherever Russia outsources violence to its de facto armed forces.

The views represented herein are those of the author alone.

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