… “Irregularis” translates to “wrong” in Latin. Does this mean that the “irregular” Wagner troops and other PMC fighters are simply soldiers of fortune gone wrong? This was what I thought when Segei Ts. told me that Russian mercenaries had finally acquired at least some kind of semi-official status. They acquired this strange status almost thirty years after the first local wars in Transnistria, Abkhazia and the Balkans.
Exactly what kind of status are we talking about? Sergei Ts. took a moment to think and replied: “It resembles, for example, the way the Cossacks served before the revolution. They were not counted as the army. They were considered irregular units, which were recruited on a territorial basis. In Tsarist Russia there were about a dozen Cossack troops.” Only in contrast to the Cossacks, modern irregular troops, just like many things in the XXI century, are formed in a networked manner. That is, even they are caught in the toils of the omnipresent digitalisation. And our mercenaries’ business trip geography is all around the globe: Afghanistan and Syria, Central African Republic and Madagascar, Iraq and Libya.
And the longer I listened to Sergei Ts., the more I understood that our mercenaries had literally become some kind of “wrong” soldiers. What he was saying was totally different from my usual perception of warfare.
“F***ING KILL THEM ALL!”
But first, let us digress briefly into the history of our acquaintance. It occurred quite by accident, in 2017 we travelled in the same compartment of the train “Tikhiy Don” from Rostov-on-Don to Moscow. Three of my fellow travellers were celebrating a battle award, without fanfare or drunken tears. You could see that the guys were no strangers to warfare and didn’t consider participation in combat anything out of the ordinary. For them, it was a job like any other, there was nothing heroic about it. They were PMC Wagner soldiers and were returning from Syria. I published a photo of this medal and records of our conversations in the newspaper “Sovershenno Sekretno” under the headline “The Russian “Assaults” Of The Syrian Victory”.
Afterwards, we met more than once. It was him, Sergei Ts., who introduced me to the Israeli citizen, who “worked” in the Middle East as part of PMC Wagner. An extensive interview with “the Israeli” was published in March 2019 on the website of our news agency FLB under the headline “Wagner PMC Soldiers Do Not Serve, But Work”.
Before one of our meetings I asked Sergei to bring some “souvenir”, which illustrates the everyday life of a mercenary. At first, he was unenthusiastic, saying “you’ve already seen the medal, there is nothing else to show”. Then he remembered the patch of the 5th PMC Wagner Brigade, which he happened to have by chance. And this mercenary’s “artefact” struck me to the core with its incorrectness: in the center of the emblem there is a Spartan Hoplite helmet with crossed axes behind it, at the top there is the letter W, and at the bottom there is a motto in strong language - “F***ing kill them all!”
The emblem of the 5th PMC Wagner Brigade
“PAYMENT TERMS AT PMC WAGNER ARE SHITTY”
Immediately afterwards, without pausing, Sergei astonished me with another bit of news: “Do you know that those fighting in Libya are on Saudi Arabia’s payroll?”
- How do you know that Saudi Arabia provides them with funding?
- There are persistent rumours about Saudi Arabia. Nobody’s gonna give you the documents. War is expensive. The Libyans themselves are no good at fighting. There was a guy among us who had been training their troops back in the days of Gaddafi. He was very sceptical of their military skills. And these were elite units. What’s to say about ordinary soldiers then? With what money does Haftar (Khalifa Haftar https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A5%D0%B0%D1%84%D1%82%D0%B0%D1%80,_%D0%A5%D0%B0%D0%BB%D0%B8%D1%84%D0%B0 commander of the National Army of Libya - FLB) fight? Don’t be surprised by the way I talk answering a question with another question (smiling).
- How much do you think the Saudis pay?
- I think the Saudis pay by Western standards - about a thousand dollars a day per person. Mercenaries might be hired by Haftar or by someone else. I don’t know, I haven’t looked into whether he has real power. There are those in the Middle East who are nominally considered official personas, but who in fact have neither power, nor authority. Those who have the opportunity to gather their own army - religious figures, tribal leaders, authoritative military unit commanders, businessmen of different levels of wealth - it is them who possess the real power in these regions. That’s their mentality - everyone aspires to become a boss, however insignificant.
- How much does a private military company (PMC) contractor from Russia earn on average?
- The payment terms at PMC Wagner are shitty, and the drill is as follows: stand still, keep silent, be afraid, stand at attention. The pay is lower than in other PMCs. First, the monthly salary was reduced from 240 thousand rubles to 180, then to 150. Most recently, they cut it down to 120 thousand rubles. The contingent got worse instantly. Now the only ones who agree to sign a contract with Wagner are those who either can’t make money otherwise or haven’t found a link to other PMCs. I know several contractors who went to war to earn enough to get a Russian passport. And when they acquire citizenship, they are going to look for other options. Those who recently returned from a business trip received 240 thousand rubles each, though before the trip they were counting on 180 thousand rubles. However, this was a pretty “hot” business trip - about a hundred people died in six months.
They say that PMC Redut and PMC Patriot pay 320 thousand rubles a month or even more. They guard important facilities, including oil developments. Rumour has it that Patriot recruits young guys who have just recently completed mandatory service. On average, Russian mercenaries earn eight thousand rubles per day. Or even two hundred dollars a day, given the cost of food and equipment. Where do another 800 dollars per day go? It’s kind of obvious… And there are hundreds and thousands of people. I think they’re insured for more than 5 million rubles.
I think, those who run the mercenary business earn good money on this. And that’s on top of everything else. If you’ve run out of luck and got wounded you’re paid 60 thousand rubles a month during treatment. The treatment is good though. It’s not like in Israel, but it works. At the same time there are cases when you can’t get better for a long time or it’s no longer possible for various reasons. Then comes the moment when you’re told “Sorry man, we did our best.” Just like Leonid Filatov has it “here’s a nickel for your vodka, now get out””. There’s no official recognition of disability, no pension - nothing.
“THE STRUCTURE OF THE MERCENARY SYSTEM HAS BEEN CREATED”
- What is the approximate total number of Russian PMC contractors?
- It’s simply impossible to name the exact number of fighters. There’s only a rough estimation which is not intended to be accurate. Just the other day I read a statement of the Turkish government that two or two and a half thousand PMC Wagner mercenaries are fighting in Libya. In my opinion, this is complete nonsense! We didn’t have this many men when we liberated Palmira, conquered Akkerbat or attacked Deir al-Zor. There could be five or six hundred soldiers across the whole front simultaneously, and no way more than a thousand, including administrative and logistical services. As I see it, if the enemy overstates the numbers, it means that the guys are fighting very well.
People are mostly recruited from places where employment is neither available nor expected. There are about five hundred people from Moscow and the Moscow region in total. Most of the men come from the Krasnodar region, the Caucasus, and the Rostov region, many arrive from the Urals and Siberia. The small town near the Black Sea Goryachy Klyuch is particularly notable. Practically its whole male population goes to fight in the Middle East on a shift basis. They have even developed their own jargon. For example, “I’m going to Lipetsk” means you’re going to Lebanon.
Syria also has its own nickname - “Peski” (the sands). Three or four buses travel from the village of Molkino, where our base is located. None of the ordinary contractors knows which airport they’re going to. It could be Rostov, or Krasnodar, or one of the Moscow airports. Everybody stays in the buses until registration for the flight starts. Then they advance towards the terminal to complete registration and customs inspection. Everything is smart and fast, with no undue talking and fussing.
In total, about ten thousand people across the country are engaged in this “business”, including occasional soldiers. Recently, more and more guys are being recruited from neighbouring countries - Kazakhstan, Abkhazia, Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine.
- How does recruitment into PMCs work on the technical side?
- This method of recruiting was most likely tested during the first Chechen war. When the company started to suffocate due to a shortage of people, a short-term contract for six months was introduced. Recruitment was carried out through the system of district enlistment offices. The military commissioner was asked to “look around for guys willing to fight for a little while”. Over time, PMCs realised that although this system worked well, it wasn’t fast enough.
Army structures are cumbersome both in terms of speed and legislative matters. Sending a military unit to solve short-term tasks is a very big problem. It is better to gather a crowd of mercenaries: they go, do some shooting, those still alive receive a penny, the relatives of the killed receive two pennies - it’s as easy as that. A certain number of people knowing how to fight a little bit and willing to risk their lives was in demand everywhere - recall the conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia, Karabakh, Ossetia, some squabbles in the Central Asian republics. Shady men started to show up among the Cossacks, in veteran organisations, offering money for going to war. Thus, a system of recruiting soldiers of fortune gradually developed.
For some time PMCs even recruited fighters online, afterwards, when a critical mass was reached, they started recruiting through word of mouth from contacts. Today all you have to do is call for men using the phone numbers on hand. A system of horizontal connections is now working.
For example, I got a call, the company said they were five people short. They asked: “Do you want to go? If you don’t, call someone”. If you want to go, you take a physical training test and a drug test at the base. When you’ve passed the tests, you sign a contract in vague language with a questionable firm. And that’s it! Now you’re an employee. In fact, you’re a mercenary. That’s how the system works at the moment.
- Is this questionable firm located in Moscow?
- I don’t know any such firms in Moscow. They say there are some in St. Petersburg. The staff department is in Molkino, in the Krasnodar region (near a General Intelligence Department base).
- What is the structure of this mercenary industry? Can you name its main beneficiaries?
- This is a total mystery… Nobody knows the details of who actually owns all these PMCs, it’s all speculation. In fact, it all comes down to gossip. It’s even unknown how much they pay for the killed: some say it’s 3.5 million rubles, others that it’s 5 million.
Only one thing is clear: the era of the “illegal armed groups” that the liberals were so emotional about has come to an end! I think after some time the authorities will finally allow de jure what now exists de facto. The notion “irregular units” will reappear. You could say that the structure of the mercenary system has been created.
Apart from the three or four PMCs, the “League for the Protection of the Interests of Veterans of Local Wars and Military Conflicts” also plays a role. This organisation pays “allowances” under the guise of charity to relatives of those on business trips abroad. But this is not an allowance, it’s the contractors’ salary simply paid out under the guise of an allowance. In Moscow these payments take place near Semyonovskaya metro station.
The League for the Protection of the Interests of Veterans of Local Wars and Military Conflicts is registered at 5 Mezhevoy Kanal Street, St. Petersburg. The chairman of the board of the League is Andrey Troshev, a retired police colonel, one of the leaders of PMC Wagner, his call sign is “Sedoy” . According to the Kontur.Fokus register, the League’s balance sheet total for 2018 was about 100 million rubles.
Business description for the League for the Protection of the Interests of Veterans of Local Wars and Military Conflicts.
Head and co-owner of the League for the Protection of the Interests of Veterans of Local Wars and Military Conflicts.
The established system suits everyone: officially there are no PMCs, however salaries must be paid. The Russian authorities, who have not yet authorised the existence of military companies, seemingly have nothing to do with it. And Western politicians cannot de jure accuse Russia of aggression and violation of laws.
- What is the usual duration of business trips to the Middle East?
- At the moment the time frames are really large: six, eight, ten months. Some people stay for almost a year. People used to go to war for three or four months. The reason for longer time periods is either logistical problems or increased cost savings.
- Where do contractors come from? They say most of them are from Lugansk and Donetsk…
- They come from all former Soviet republics, not just from Donetsk and Lugansk. People come from the whole Ukraine. In Iraq and Afghanistan both those who fought for Donetsk and nationalist battalion soldiers work for the same firms. No ideas bother anyone. There simply are no ideas over there.
Now a few words about the famous PMC Wagner: almost everyone who came from Ukraine is usually enrolled in the 6th Brigade. Sometimes there is also a brigade called “Karpaty” (the Carpathians), which also consists of nationals of the former Soviet republics. But it’s not clear whether it is the same 6th Brigade or a separate formation. They have a bad reputation: the commanders are, to put It mildly, uneducated, and the recruited personnel is sloppy. If you know a little about these formations, you won’t join the 6th Brigade or the “Karpaty” Brigade.
- Why is this unit called “Karpaty”?
- Whenever a mass recruitment is announced, a unit under this name appears somehow. There are many Ukrainians there. I long ago noticed they lack self-control, unable to critically assess the situation and their actions. There was a case when the Carpathians camped near our position and in a simple conversation over tea two young “Karpaty” soldiers asked how to properly post guards. I outlined my vision of this problem without a second thought. We talked and I immediately forgot about it. They went to their direct junior commander and offered to do as I told them. The commander then ran to me and started shouting that I was undermining his authority with such advice! He shouted: “I’m an ensign of the Ukrainian marine corps, I have served for fifteen years, and who are you? I know better than you what to do, how and when to do it!” That’s some wild ambition! Realising he didn’t know anything and that it was useless to prove anything to him, I didn’t argue with him… The very next night two shahids infiltrated their camp and blew themselves up. Lots of people died. They say this all-knowing ensign survived and left in a hurry. I never saw him again.
That is, incompetence is their primary trait - you can still wander around “Karpaty” positions and not meet a single sentry. At war you must be alert at all times, even if you go to take a leak in the bushes - take a gun. You go to sleep cuddling with a gun. You listen to gunshots and determine whether the bullets are going in your direction. I can’t say it has anything to do with nationality itself: Ukrainian or Russian, but there is a category of people that can be defined as “guys from the land of unabashed idiots”. For some reason there are especially many of them in the 6th and the “Karpaty” Brigade, that is among the Ukrainians.
Here’s a real-life example. In one of our trips “Karpaty” were deployed on a nearby hill. The enemy positions were on a hill opposite them and our Brigade. The bearded men were watching both us and the Ukrainians. So, in forty days the Arabs never attacked us and attacked the Carpathians twice. Both times they were taken by surprise. Those who managed to escape said “The Arabs appeared out of nowhere! As if from underground.” At least they didn’t drop their weapons. They were attacked in the night and approached our base only in the morning, screaming: “The Arabs, they crushed us, they crushed us”. Many went home after that incident. They sent others in their place. Then it all happened again.
- Is this a national trait of Ukrainian mercenaries?
- There are lots of careless people, but for some reason there are especially many among the Ukrainians. And it doesn’t matter what city they come from - Donetsk or Nikolaev, Kharkov or Kiev. You can educate a Russian soldier by physical means, but it’s useless with the Ukrainians. They’re not afraid of anything and when they get punched in the face, they immediately change their mind, saying: “I don’t need this money, I don’t need anything…”
WELCOMED AMONG STRANGERS: RUSSIAN MERCENARIES IN THE DISPOSITION OF THE UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES
Sergei Ts. told another incredible story, which finally convinced me that Russian mercenaries have gone wrong. Ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which was held from June 14 to July 15 in Russia, a group of Russian mercenaries was secretly sent to Ukraine under fake identities. They were then deployed and put on allowance in a Ukrainian Armed Forces training camp near Nikolaev. According to Sergei Ts. this special operation was carried out in case Ukrainian politicians decided to launch a large-scale military provocation against the rebellious Donbass. At the time, mass media all around the globe reported on the possibility of such a provocation, the purpose of which would be to disrupt football games. If that happened, our mercenaries were to hit the Ukrainian army from behind and upset their plans.
During the 2018 FIFA World Cup some “volunteers” went to Ukraine
- In May 2018 I arrived at our camp in the Krasnodar region and was told that there was no work at the moment but that I could live at the base for the time being. I decided not to wait, but to return to Moscow and work at the World Cup. A week later a firm (as it turned out, this was a St. Petersburg company) called and said they were desperately in need for my services in Ukraine.
I made my way through Belarus and quietly crossed the border and was met on the Ukrainian side of the border and put in a minibus. Then they handed out documents - military registration cards - and brought us to the Ukrainian Armed Forces training camp near Nikolaev. The soldiers were placed in two tents. We, the PMC guys, lived in one of them. Shady tough fighters looking like Spetsnaz soldiers lived in the other.
The Ukrainian ensign asked: “How long will you stay?” - We, subordinate people, replied: “We will stay as long as we’re told to”. - “Well, will you need all the equipment?” - We said: “Of course, hand out all of it.”
We were put on the payroll and even got pistols (we were supposedly officers). In the first few days all this was very uncomfortable. At first we were afraid, then we realised that nobody cared whatsoever. We learned how to scare away overly curious people and brought grenades from the shooting range.
- How did you manage not to raise suspicions?
- No suspicions, we’re all on the same side over there (laughing. - FLB), but of course we did our best to simulate the local speech, the Ukranian accent. When we were bombarded with questions about where we had come from, we responded vaguely and got away with platitudes, saying we were from the east. When they were told that we had come for a special assignment, the inquiries stopped altogether. And who could seriously get to know us there: there’s a thousand of men in this camp, all of whom basically look the same. If some overly curious guy showed up, they’d grab him by the ear, take him aside and ask: “do you think you’re the smartest one around here?” That was it, the questioning was over. Often we’d drive around the region in groups, monitoring the locality.
- It appears that the Russian intelligence has deeply penetrated into the middle and higher echelons of the Ukrainian army?
- I got the impression that it isn’t an army. If our armed forces are a mess, Ukraine has no army at all. All the soldiers do is binge drinking and cannabis smoking, it’s really scary when stoned guys walk around with loaded guns. You can’t hide behind tents. Imagine, one of them, a sentry on duty, enters your tent and asks: “Got a drink?” - “You’ve had enough." - “Why do you say that?” - he asks, snapping his shutter.
Kherson, Odessa, Nikolaev, Mariupol - that’s all practically Russian. So the idea of Malorossiya (Little Russia) is de facto implemented, but decades of Ukrainian propaganda have their consequences: these Ukrainians are absolutely nuts, mindless, you see, completely mindless, they cannot link a primitive logical chain. They speak in cliches.
- And after all this you just packed your tents and went home? As if returning from a Pioneer camp
- Yeah, just like that, as if returning from a Pioneer camp. I can’t tell you how we got to Russia, but it wasn’t through Belarus. Someone went through the Czech Republic, someone through Hungary… I visited Bratislava. After arriving in Russia on a certain day, at a certain place I got the agreed amount. Thanks, that’s it! I appreciate that nothing bad happened whether because of fate, fortune or political prudence.