From Russia With Love: Mercenaries, Trolls, Oligarchs, and the Story of Yevgeniy Prigozhin

Two months ago, on the night of February 7th 2018, T-72 tanks, BRDM armored personnel carriers, and trucks carrying 122mm howitzer artillery and BM-21 rocket launchers rumbled over a bridge crossing the Euphrates river in Deir ez-Zur, Syria. Sitting in the vehicles were approximately 500 government fighters, many of whom were private Russian contractors working for a paramilitary firm known as the Wagner Group. After crossing the river, the convoy turned to the east and drove toward the burnt out remains of the town of Khasham. After pushing ISIS out of the town and the nearby oil fields, the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces had dug in defenses overlooking the Euphrates and agreed to a ceasefire line along the river with the Syrian and Russian governments. Along with the Kurds were a number of U.S. military advisers sent to coordinate with the SDF in the fight against ISIS. Around 10 p.m. the pro-government force halted a few miles west of Khasham, unloaded their troops and artillery, pushed tanks up into firing positions, and began to shell SDF positions in preparation for a ground assault. [1]

The Kurdish commander immediately called the Russian liaison officer stationed in Deir ez-Zur demanding to know what was going on. The officer stated that they had not ordered or knew of movements across the river and that if any forces had done so they were operating without regime permission. [2] Once tank and artillery rounds began falling dangerously close, the Kurds and U.S. advisers called in artillery and air strikes. Within minutes the attackers were struck by an unexpectedly violent bombardment. F-22 and F-15 jets dropped precision munitions and strafed the regime fighters, while AC-130 gunships as well as Apache helicopters and MQ-9 reaper drones circled overheard destroying nearly all the armored vehicles and artillery pieces using auto-cannons and hellfire missiles. [3] The regime soldiers had no anti-air weapons and were forced to retreat with devastating losses. The next day the main hospital in Deir ez-Zur was filled with wounded fighters, stretching thin the resources and abilities of its skeleton crew of doctors. At least 100 Russian mercenaries, with some sources claiming up to 300, were killed in the attacks, and many more were injured. Only one SDF fighter was wounded in the battle. In an audio recording, a Russian soldier described the incident as “a total f*** up” and said “they tore us to pieces, put us through hell.” [4]

What initially puzzled U.S. command was why the regime had attacked during a ceasefire and who had ordered them to. After the Russian government disavowed ordering the assault, tracing the involvement of the Wagner Group mercenaries seems to provide answers. The main target of the Feb 7th attack seemed to be the Al-Tabiyeh oil fields near Khasham formerly owned by ConocoPhillips an American energy company. The Wagner Group is also almost entirely financed by a company called Evro Polis owned by Russian Oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin. Prigozhin had signed a deal with the Syrian Government’s state-run oil company General Petroleum in which Evro Polis would receive 25% of revenue from oil fields that its “contractors” captured and protected from Islamic militants. [5] Wagner has a history of operating parallel to Russian regular and special forces. Its mercenaries fought in eastern Ukraine and in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Evidence suggests that Prigozhin ordered the February 7th attack to secure the oil field and hoped to present Putin and Assad with a pleasant fait-accompli. During the fighting against ISIS near the city of Palmyra, Wagner conducted similar operations, attacking ISIS positions and securing control of oil-fields then protecting them while government workers made them operational again. However, it is possible that Prigozhin did not have the same information about the presence of U.S. ground troops at Khasham that the Russian government and military command did, and so sent his forces into a death trap.

Yevgeniy Prigozhin is known by the press as Putin’s cook for good reason. After being released from a nine-year prison sentence for robbery, fraud, and underage prostitution, he began his entrepreneurial career as the owner of an extensive network of hot dog stands. His surprising success led him to open two high end restaurants in St Petersburg. The second restaurant, named New Island Restaurant, became a favorite dining spot of political elite including Vladimir Putin. Putin took multiple foreign dignitaries to New Island including Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush. [6] On several occasions Yevgeniy personally served the Russian President. After ingratiating himself with Putin, Prigozhin opened Concord Catering. Concord was given numerous government contracts including providing food for schools and over 1.2 billion in US dollars to feed the Russian Military. Concord Catering evolved into its parent company Concord Management and Consulting. The company is involved in many sectors including food, construction, luxury housing, and energy. The current CEO of the company is Dimitry Utkin, the founder and former leader of the Wagner Group. [7]

Concord Management, Concord Catering, and Yevgeniy Prigozhin himself were all indicted on February 16th by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for interference in the 2016 presidential election. According to information in the indictment, Concord created and funded Internet Research Company LLC. Initially created in 2013 the company employed a couple hundred people in the Lakhta-Olgino neighborhood of St Petersburg where they spent their time writing generally pro-Putin anti-Western blogs and comments on social media and internet forums. Initially spreading misinformation about the Ukrainian Civil War and bolstering right wing parties in Europe, the upcoming American election became IRA’s target of choice.

In 2014, Internet Research Agency opened new offices at 55 Savushkina Street and hired a host of new employees. Then three Russians went to the U.S. and acquired server space to mask the location of propaganda. They also toured swing states and observed the issues and attitudes of voters. As the election season got underway Internet Research agency set up hundreds of fake American social media accounts on both the right and the left which garnered thousands of followers. Right wing pages and personas bashed Hillary Clinton and organized rallies in support of Trump. Left wing pages called “Blackivist” and “United Muslims of America” urged minorities not to vote by saying that neither candidate had their interests in mind. A fake twitter handle for the Tennessee Republican party called @Ten_GOP was retweeted by Kellyanne Conway and Michael Flynn. IRA helped organize an anti-Hillary rally in D.C. and then hired a protester to carry a sign with a false quote by Clinton saying that she was in favor of using Sharia Law in the U.S. [8]

Throughout 2015 and 2016 Concord’s funding for Internet Research Agency amounted to about 1.25 million dollars a month labeled as “software support and development” and distributed through fourteen separate bank accounts. After the election, IRA continued to work to spread misinformation unabated, however, despite attempting to cover their tracks, they were eventually discovered. Mueller’s team caught on too many of IRAs fake social media and bank accounts, including discovering a picture from June 1st 2016 of a man who IRA paid to hold a sign outside the White House reading “Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss”. The American who was hired was told that the picture was a gift for someone “who is a leader here and our boss…our funder.” In his indictment, along with his deep ties to Concord Management, Mueller did not fail to uncover the fact that Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s Russian passport lists his birthday as June 1st 1961. [9]

Despite managing to cause an international incident, kill a hundred Russian nationals in the process, and getting indicted by the United States, Prigozhin seems to be doing as well as ever. His resilience in Putin’s government highlights just how cronyism affects Russian foreign policy. Operating through shadowy companies, businessman like Prigozhin promote Putin’s interests abroad overtly and covertly all the while using conflict and corruption as a source of profit. This system creates a web of interest and intrigue that seems to capture Russian state policy and cause dangerous opportunism, like the Feb. 7th attack.

 


Endnotes

[1] Hauer, Neil. “Russia’s Mercenary Debacle in Syria.” Foreign Affairs. 25 Mar. 2018. Web. 23 Mar. 2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2018-02-26/russias-mercenary-debacle-syria

[2] Lister, Tim. “The Oil Field Carnage That Moscow Doesn’t Want to Talk About.” CNN, Cable News Network, 19 Feb. 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/18/middleeast/us-airstrike-killed-dozens-of-russians-in-syria-intl/index.html

[3] Brown, Daniel. “The US Reportedly Killed More than 100 Russian and Syrian-Backed Fighters in a 3-Hour Military Blitz.” Business Insider , 8 Mar. 2018, http://www.businessinsider.com/us-syria-killed-100-russian-syrian-backed-fighters-2018-2?r=US&IR=T&IR=T

[4] Brennan, David. “Russian Mercenaries in Syria Lament U.S. Strikes.” Newsweek, 1 Mar. 2018, www.newsweek.com/total-f-russian-mercenaries-syria-lament-us-strike-killed-dozens-818073

[5] Vasilyeva, Nataliya. “Thousands of Russian Private Contractors Fighting in Syria.” AP News, Associated Press, 12 Dec. 2017 https://www.apnews.com/7f9e63cb14a54dfa9148b6430d89e873/Thousands-of-Russian-private-contractors-fighting-in-Syria

[5] Vasilyeva, Nataliya. “Thousands of Russian Private Contractors Fighting in Syria.” AP News, Associated Press, 12 Dec. 2017 https://www.apnews.com/7f9e63cb14a54dfa9148b6430d89e873/Thousands-of-Russian-private-contractors-fighting-in-Syria

[6] Graff, Garret. “Inside the Mueller Indictment: A Russian Novel of Intrigue.” Wired. 20 Feb. 2018. Web. 23 Mar. 2018 https://www.wired.com/story/inside-the-mueller-indictment-a-russian-novel-of-intrigue/

[7] Peter, Laurence. “Syria War: Who Are Russia’s Shadowy Wagner Mercenaries?” BBC News, BBC, 23 Feb. 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43167697

[8] District Court for the District of Columbia. United States of American v. Internet Research Agency LLC. 16 Feb. 2018 https://www.justice.gov/file/1035477/download

[9] Ibid

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