One of the most complicated episodes in Syria’s ever-twisting war took place the night of Feb. 7. In that incident, U.S. troops and their Syrian allies near the town of Deir al-Zour were attacked by hundreds of fighters loyal to the Syrian regime. The Americans responded with a devastating counterattack that the United States said left about 100 dead.

Soon, the situation was complicated further by reports that Russian mercenaries had taken part in the attack and were among the dead — making it the deadliest U.S.-Russia clash since the Cold War.

foto above-Security Service reported on 40 citizens of Ukraine, fighting in the Donbas as part of a Russian private military company (wagner)

The mercenary firm is named Wagner, and it has been linked to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch who was recently indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for an alleged role in “information warfare” ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Worse still, U.S. intelligence reports suggest that Prigozhin was in touch with both the Kremlin and Syrian officials shortly before and after the attack, The Washington Post reported Thursday. The situation raises big questions about what role a Russian mercenary firm — or rather a “pseudo-mercenary” firm, according to Russian military expert Mark Galeotti — was playing in the Syrian war.

When was Wagner created?

Wagner first gained attention for its operations in 2014 in Ukraine, where mercenaries with the group — mostly military veterans and ultranationalists — were reported to be fighting alongside Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. The group was believed to have been led by Dmitry Utkin, who until 2013 had served in Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency, the GRU.

After leaving official military service, Utkin is reported to have worked with the private security firm Moran Security Group and the Slavonic Corps, a group of Russian mercenaries sent to Syria in 2013 with notoriously disastrous consequences. According to the Russian investigative outlet Fontanka, Wagner’s founder is a Nazi sympathizer. Russian media reported that Utkin named his group after Richard Wagner, the German composer whose works were appropriated by Hitler. He was later sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his involvement in Ukraine.

In 2015, after the Russian military intervened to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Wagner began sending troops to Syria; as early as October 2015, just one month after Russia began airstrikes, Russian citizens were reported to have died fighting alongside pro-government forces. Subsequent reports indicated that Wagner mercenaries may be deployed to Sudan and the Central African Republic.

What is Prigozhin’s relationship to Wagner?

Yevgeniy Prigozhin serves food to Vladimir Putin in 2011, during a dinner at Prigozhin’s restaurant outside Moscow.

Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch who first became famous as a restaurateur — his nickname is “Putin’s chef.” He has had a remarkable life, taking an unlikely path from prison, where he served nine years on charges related to robbery and prostitution, to becoming a Kremlin-linked entrepreneur.

He now has a reputation as a man willing to do Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dirty work. Last week, he was included in a U.S. indictment that focused on the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based firm that was alleged to have used social media to interfere in U.S. politics, including the 2016 presidential election. The indictment says that Prigozhin and his catering company, Concord, spent “significant funds” on the venture and that Prigozhin attended regular briefings on its work.

U.S. intelligence sources think that Prigozhin “almost certainly” controls the Wagner mercenaries fighting in Syria. Notably, Russian business outlet RBC reported last year that Utkin appeared to have been listed as the general director of one of Prigozhin’s catering businesses.


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