On December 9, the Kremlin marked the Day of Heroes of the Fatherland with a lavish event attended by "more than 300 military personnel and civilians who have demonstrated particular courage and heroism, including Heroes of the Soviet Union, Heroes of Russia," and other top honorees. President Vladimir Putin personally addressed the audience and thanked them for their service.
From state media coverage of the event, St. Petersburg investigative journalist Denis Korotkov identified among the guests a man who he has been writing about for several years: Dmitry Utkin, who uses the nom de guerre "Vagner" and is believed to be the head of an unregistered private military contracting agency called ChVK Vagner.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on December 15 confirmed that Utkin, 46, was at the reception, adding that he qualified because he holds the Order of Courage. Asked why Utkin had been given the honor, Peskov only said: "Usually they give it for courage."
Korotkov and others who have been researching the shadowy world of Russian mercenaries see Utkin’s presence as the clearest indication yet of the key role paramilitary mercenary formations have played in Russian foreign policy for at least the last five years, particularly in Ukraine and Syria.
A tweet from Fontanka.ru, where journalist Denis Korotkov works, showing a photo of Utkin at the ceremony:
Вагнер в Кремле https://t.co/V7DdQZmzOM pic.twitter.com/gofj7eKdAM
— Фонтанка. Новости (@fontanka_news) December 12, 2016
"Their function [in Syria] is very unclear," Korotkov told RFE/RL. "Based on how they are trained at their camp in Russia, it would seem to be preparation for special forces. That is -- for reconnaissance, work with diversionary groups, and things like that. Based on information coming out of Syria at first- or secondhand, the Vagner group is often used as elite infantry, which naturally leads to casualties much greater than special forces typically see. But who coordinates this work and who commands them, I don’t know."
It is a murky topic for many reasons, not least because mercenary activity is illegal in Russia. But by all indications, Russia has been using private military contractors in close cooperation with the military in ways similar to those pioneered by the United States in the early 2000s, particularly during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (end of excerpt)
Click here for the full story, on the RFE/RL website.