Ghost soldiers: the Russians secretly
dying for the Kremlin in Syria
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[November 03, 2016]
By Maria Tsvetkova and Anton Zverev
TOGLIATTI, Russia (Reuters) - The start of
this year proved deadly for one unit of about 100 Russian fighters
supporting President Bashar al-Assad's troops in northern Syria.
On Feb. 3, 38-year-old Maxim Kolganov was killed in a firefight with
rebels near Aleppo when a bullet pierced his body armor and heart. Then,
on March 9, the same unit came under shell-fire near Palmyra, and Sergei
Morozov, also 38, was hit and died on the way to hospital.
Back in southern Russia, medals were delivered to their families: the
order of bravery, with certificates signed by President Vladimir Putin.
The medals, seen by Reuters, were intended to honor the sacrifice they
had made for their country.
Except Kolganov and Morozov were not employed by the Russian state. They
were in Syria as private contractors, a small part of an army of such
people who are being deployed secretly by the Kremlin in Syria.
The deaths of Kolganov and Morozov, and others like them, have not been
made public. Families say they were given little information and told
not discuss the cases. In at least one case that Reuters uncovered, the
family of a fighter killed in Syria received a payout of around $100,000
Officially, Russia is participating only in an air war over Syria with a
small number of special forces on the ground. Moscow denies that its
troops are involved in regular ground combat operations.
However, in interviews with more than a dozen people with direct
knowledge of these deployments, Reuters has established that Russian
fighters are playing a more substantial role in ground combat than that
the role the Kremlin says is being played by the regular Russian
The sources described the Russian fighters as contractors or
mercenaries, hired by a private company, rather than regular troops. But
despite their unofficial status, according to these accounts, they
operate in coordination with the Russian military and are given
privileges back home normally available only to serving soldiers.
They fly to Syria on board Russian military aircraft which land at
Russian bases. When they are injured, they are treated in hospitals
reserved for the Russian military and get state medals, people
interviewed by Reuters said.
Reuters was not able to determine the precise number of such Russian
mercenaries fighting in Syria, nor the total number of casualties they
have sustained, but three people familiar with the deployments said
there were many units of a similar size to the one that included
Kolganov and Morozov.
Neither the Kremlin nor the defense ministry responded to questions from
Reuters. Reuters was unable to obtain comment from Syrian officials on
the question of Russian mercenaries.
Reuters was not able to identify the company or companies that hired the
fighters, or the source of any payments to the fighters or their
THE KREMLIN'S BIDDING
Under Russian law, it is illegal to work as a private military
contractor in another country. However, Russian citizens have
participated in wars across the former Soviet Union throughout the 25
years since it broke up in 1991.
In 2014, large numbers of Russians fought openly on behalf of pro-Moscow
separatists in Ukraine. Western countries say those rebel units were
organized, paid and armed by Moscow; the Kremlin says any Russians there
were independent volunteers.
Last year, Russia joined the war in Syria, its first conflict outside
the borders of the former Soviet Union since the Cold War. Word got out
among veterans of the Ukraine conflict that mercenaries were needed.
According to three people who knew Morozov and Kolganov, both had fought
in Ukraine as part of the same unit that would eventually take them to
Syria. It was led by a man who goes by the nomme de guerre "Vagner", who
has become a leader of Russian mercenary forces in Syria, one of the
Little is known of his real identity. Two of Vagner's comrades say he
had already traveled to Syria as a mercenary in 2013, before commanding
his group of Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine. He then headed back to
Syria, where Russia began its intervention in Sept. 2015.
A Russian-language website, Fontanka, has published what it says is the
only known photo of him, a picture of a bald man in military fatigues
striding near a helicopter. The website said his name was Dmitry Utkin.
Reuters could not verify the image or the name.
One Ukrainian rebel commander who was close to the Vagner group in
eastern Ukraine said many of the fighters there were tempted to fight in
Syria because they had found it difficult to return to civilian life.
"I meet them now and see how much they have changed. I simply have
nothing to discuss with them. They can't imagine any other life but war.
That's why they go fight in Syria."
Morozov, the fighter who was killed near Palmyra, had returned from
Ukraine to his home in southern Russia and dabbled in local politics.
He served as an aide to a member of parliament originally from his
native city of Samara, Mikhail Degtyaryov. Degtyaryov told Reuters
Morozov was a friend and confirmed that he had died in combat during the
battle for Palmyra.
"Kapa", a former Russian officer and volunteer in the Ukraine conflict
who asked to be identified only by a nomme de guerre, was friends with
Morozov and also knew Kolganov and several other Russians who fought in
Ukraine and went on to fight in Syria with the Vagner group. He is still
in contact with some of them.
He said Morozov became frustrated when he attended a meeting of the
far-right LDPR party, and no one listened to him. Morozov gave up
lucrative business ventures to rejoin his Vagner comrades in Syria, Kapa
[to top of second column]
A portrait of Russian contractor Maxim Kolganov, who was killed in
combat in Syria, is pictured on a grave in his hometown of
Togliatti, Russia, September 29, 2016. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova
According to Kapa, Russian veterans of the Ukraine fighting were
recruited for ground combat in Syria when it became clear that
Syrians would not be able to hold ground without help, despite
Russian air support.
"The Arabs are not warriors by nature, but are thrown together and
told to storm high ground. They don't know how to storm it let alone
conquer their instincts and move towards the bullets. How can you
make them do it? Only by setting yourself as an example," Kapa said.
"That's why our guys reinforced their units."
Asked if fighters in the group coordinated with the Russian defense
ministry, Kapa said: "Of course".
According to two people who knew different fighters, they arrive in
Syria via ships that land in the port of Tartous, leased by the
Russian navy, or in military aircraft that land at Russia's Hmeymim
air base in western Syria.
A doctor at a Russian military hospital told Reuters the wounded are
evacuated to Russia on board military cargo planes and then treated
in military hospitals.
The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared
losing his job, said he had personally treated contractors injured
in Syria, whose role there was clear from their conversations.
His hospital is officially meant to admit only serving military
personnel, their family members or veterans who have served long
careers in the military, a category his patients were too young to
fit, the doctor said.
When Morozov and Kolganov were killed, their bodies were flown to
Russia aboard military aircraft and delivered to a morgue used by
the military in the southern city of Rostov, according to relatives
and Morozov's friend Kapa.
A Reuters reporter saw the Order of Courage which was given
posthumously to Kolganov. It was delivered to his family home in
Togliatti, a city on the Volga river, by someone in civilian clothes
who did not identify himself, according to relatives. Reuters has
also seen a photograph of Morozov's Order of Courage, dated Sept. 7,
Kolganov never told his relatives where he was deployed, but
pictures he sent contained clues. One of them, in which he posed
under an orange tree, is now on the wall of his parents' house.
The family got proof he was in Syria only after his death, when they
saw his passport with a Syrian stamp in it.
The people who informed the family by phone of his death, and the
people who turned over the body in the Rostov morgue, did not
explain where he was killed or who he had been working for, the
relatives said. The people they interacted with did not identify
themselves and told the family not to talk to reporters, the
In another case, a 55-year-old Russian woman said her husband was
killed this year while working as a military contractor in Syria.
She did not want her name, or her husband's, to be published because
she feared reprisals.
"They only told me about it after his death. A young man ... phoned
and told me. And he also threatened me, so I would never tell anyone
about it," she said. "They are scary people."
By contrast, Russian authorities do acknowledge some combat deaths
among serving military personnel, though often with a delay and
without keeping an official tally.
Reuters was unable to determine how many Russians have died in
Syria. According to Kapa, the small unit that included Kolganov and
Morozov has lost four fighters since the start of the Russian
campaign in Syria, including its commander, killed in the same
firefight as Morozov. Dozens have been wounded.
Reuters earlier reported that Russian major Sergei Chupov was killed
in Syria on Feb. 8 He also belonged to the Vagner group, a person
who knew him told Reuters.
The doctor at the military hospital who spoke to Reuters said that
the surgical department where he works had treated six or seven
Russian fighters back from Syria with combat injuries who were not
serving Russian servicemen.
The overall number of wounded contractors treated at his hospital
could be a few times higher, the doctor said. He also says he knows
of at least two more hospitals in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg where
contractors are treated.
(Writing by Christian Lowe and Maria Tsvetkova; editing by Andrew
Osborn and Peter Graff)
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