Ruslan Trad is a freelance columnist, journalist, and author with a focus on Syria, hybrid warfare, and mercenaries. He is a member of the Association of European Journalists-Bulgaria and cofounder of the Bulgarian journal De Re Militari. Trad has been a correspondent in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Thailand for TEMA Weekly and Bulgarian National Radio, and he has also reported from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. In 2014, he received the Activist of the Year award from the Helsinki Committee for his journalistic and activist work on refugee issues and coverage of the war in Syria. In 2017, he published his first book, The Murder of a Revolution, in Bulgaria. In 2020, he published his second book, Russian Invisible Armies, coauthored with Kiril Avramov, on Russian private military companies, such as the Wagner Group. Diwan interviewed Trad in mid-January to discuss the Wagner Group’​s actions in the Middle East and North Africa.

Michael Young: What has led the Russian regime to rely increasingly on mercenaries, among them those belonging to the Wagner Group, particularly in Arab countries such as Syria, Libya, Sudan, and Egypt?

Ruslan Trad: It should be immediately clarified that the use of mercenaries in the context of Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not a singular tool, but part of a package linked to Russian foreign policy. Let’s call it a “service package” similar to the one you buy from a mobile operator. It may sound like a simplification, but it’s the closest thing to which we can compare it.

There are some examples. Russia is back in Africa, and for several reasons: First, it needs access to natural resources, especially to replenish its budget, which has been hit by sanctions. Second, the Kremlin wants to return to the international stage. The situation in Ukraine was a strong earthquake and showed Russia’s teeth, but its intervention in Syria in 2015 was a breakthrough that showed that Moscow had no intention of standing aside while Western countries pursued their interests. In Africa, Russia is taking its biggest step, concluding treaties with African countries, including training local armies, extracting resources, and selling weapons. Third, Russia is testing and improving its mercenary model. Wagner is the result of numerous operations and experiments in Ukraine and Syria, using Soviet knowledge from the Afghan war in the 1980s, the wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and the Chechen wars, also in the 1990s. In Africa, mercenaries are not just front-line fighters, but businessmen, security guards, and military instructors, as we can see in the Central African Republic.

Let’s go back to natural resources. The extraction is carried out by private companies owned by people close to Putin. Thus, the needs of the state are met, but also services are paid for by the oligarchs who support the Russian government. Let’s not forget that Wagner is actively involved in military conflicts, costing large sums of money paid by these oligarchs, not by the Russian treasury. The connection between Putin and these people, such as Yevgeny Prigozhin, a main financier of the Wagner Group, makes it impossible to separate private interests from state interests. Thus, mercenaries are part of the package of services that Russia offers and provides to its customers—most of them authoritarian leaders experiencing economic and political difficulties. The Kremlin is using old Soviet-era ties, but dressed in new clothes, to meet Russia’s foreign policy requirements.

MY: Briefly, what have Wagner’s roles been in Arab countries, and how successful have they been?

RT: The most famous cases involving Wagner involve Syria, Sudan, and Libya, and these operations are considered successful. It is important to mention that regimes in these countries do not have to be pro-Russian. In Sudan, Wagner provided protection for longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, before he was ousted from power in 2019. Russia also maintains links with the country’s military and the Rapid Support Forces, which provide an umbrella for Wagner’s activities. These mostly involve guarding the assets of mining companies. Russia sees Sudan as a door to Africa, so it will not soon leave.

In Libya, despite the United Nations embargo, Wagner has deployed thousands of men in support of Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces, which besieged Tripoli for a year. The United States’ Africa Command has satellite images showing the Russian Air Force directly supporting Wagner’s operations.

The most important characteristic of the Russians’ success is that they do not ask questions. Authoritarian governments in the Arab world do not want their actions to be criticized, nor do they want to be compelled to obey international law. This fits in perfectly with Wagner’s development model and Russian goals. In Syria, for example, the Russians have created military formations that have officially become part of President Bashar al-Assad’s army, while in reality they are linked to the Russian armed forces. In this way, the Russians help their clients, support them on the international stage, and participate directly in conflicts.

In Libya the Russian mission was considered a success, despite the fact that Haftar failed to take Tripoli, because Moscow strengthened its local client, gained access to oil reserves, and received secure bases in exchange for Wagner’s assistance.

MY: While the Wagner Group and other private military companies, or PMCs, are one side of the coin, we’ve also seen the United States deploy PMCs, such as Blackwater, which have provided security services for the U.S. government. Is there any difference in the way the Russians and Americans use PMCs, given that in both countries they cooperate closely with the state?

RT: First, it should be emphasized that Wagner is a different model than that of American mercenaries or South Africans. Most people today associate the word “mercenaries” with Blackwater, now known as Academi. But doing so is inaccurate, and even misleading. Today, mercenary companies have many more functions and are much shadier than in the past.

Wagner is a completely different company than Academi. First, it is a private mercenary company only on paper and in terms of registration. I remind you that Wagner is not registered in the Russian Federation, because such companies are still illegal. Second, Wagner is a result of years of trial and error by the Russian government. Wagner is just one of many Russian mercenary companies deployed where the Kremlin has economic and political interests—Ukraine, Syria, countries in Africa, and Venezuela. Wagner is, therefore, not a private company like Blackwater, but is strongly associated with Russia’s special forces and the economic and political elite close to the Kremlin. This is a company that can be used at any time without creating a commitment, as Wagner does not officially exist for Moscow. We can trace the roots of what is today Wagner to the Soviet era and the war in Afghanistan, where Moscow deployed similar special units. The Wagner model is a “recycled” Soviet idea, but with new ambitions and different tools. Organizationally and in terms of action, Wagner has commonalities with South African mercenary groups, as South African commanders who operated during the Apartheid era today are advising Russian mercenary groups.

The context is also important. Moscow is looking for new allies. It is in the process of reestablishing old Soviet-era ties and establishing new ones. The PMC sector allows for useful activities in this regard, as it fits in perfectly with Moscow’s intention of offering “service packages,” as I mentioned earlier. This was first introduced in Syria and the packages have included arms sales, military advisers, the training of regular armed forces and paramilitary groups to wage anti-guerrilla warfare and quell riots, combined with providing bodyguards for the political elite, as well as providing political advisers to strengthen regimes facing challenges. This is the specificity of Russian mercenaries, whether they are the Wagner Group or other companies. They operate close to Russian state interests. They are present where Russia has treaties and seeks to gain influence or access to resources. When it comes to Western companies, such conditions are not mandatory.

Using mercenaries provides several major advantages. First, it allows deniability. Governments, such as Russia’s, can sponsor military operations without visible involvement. Second, on most occasions mercenaries are efficient, experienced, and mobile. Third, they are cheaper to maintain than regular army units. Soldiers receive lifelong pensions, while mercenaries only have contracts. They also cost less than the expensive heavy weapons that governments purchase. Sometimes, Western governments use mercenary companies to provide military backup for leaders in Asia or Africa with whom they have profitable relations.

In the Russian model, the boundaries between private and public interests, between Putin’s businesspeople and Russian foreign policy officials, are blurred and, in some cases, do not exist. In military terms, mercenaries in Russia are often led by special forces officers, recruit military veterans, and most importantly, do not work for those whose interests go against those of Russia. In contrast, American and Western mercenaries have been known to work with China.

MY: What is the relationship between the Wagner Group and the regular Russian military in Arab states where both are deployed? Is it a harmonious relationship, or one characterized by friction?

RT: Russia has taken advantage of the chaos on the ground to test combining official military involvement with opaque private military companies. Syria has proven to be a good laboratory for testing the operational potential and deniability of a mix of such official and unofficial efforts. The Syrian example is very important in the history and development of Wagner and should be remembered.

Prior to their departure to Syria, the new Wagner recruits were trained at a base in Molokino, near the southern Russian city of Krasnodar, that housed the 10th Special Mission Brigade of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), Russia’s military intelligence agency. Publicly, their designation was solely security provision. However, as became evident in 2018, the company was very actively involved in training, intelligence collection, and directing operations on behalf of Assad’s army. On paper, no official links exist between the Russian forces in Syria and Wagner. In essence, Wagner personnel are actively augmenting the Russian troops on the ground in the execution of their special tasks. If Wagner is not an integral part of the Russian armed forces, then certainly the two entities act in concert, where Wagner is carefully overseen on the ground by elements of the GRU and of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. This applies not only in Syria, but also in Sudan and Libya. The model is clear and is just being replicated in different countries. But it began during the war in Syria.

Russia’s efforts in Syria have spawned units that are tailored to fighting in the Middle East, such as the so-called ISIS Hunters, in reference to the so-called Islamic State. Such units serve as valuable assets on the propaganda and psychological warfare front at home, and for designated foreign audiences. The ISIS Hunters were originally thought to be just a façade, whose existence was denied. However, like another such group, Turan, it is a product of Russian forces and has many Russian members in its ranks, although officials have stated that the ISIS Hunters unit is mostly made up of Syrians.

Syria has proven to be the perfect application of a hybrid military-PMC deployment model, and it is now being exported to other countries. Russia’s deployments of its own forces abroad operating alongside PMCs are on the rise and Libya is one of the most visible examples of this. In Libya, Russians are working according to the Syrian model in fulfilling common business and military objectives that help both the Kremlin and the host country. Just as Syria served as a springboard for Sudan and Libya, so today Libya is a springboard and starting base for the deployment of forces in the Central African Republic, Mali, and other African countries.

MY: Do you have any information on the incident near Deir Ezzor, Syria, in February 2018, in which U.S. forces attacked pro-government Syrian forces, among which Russian mercenaries were deployed, killing dozens of members of the force? What did the incident tell us about the Wagner Group and its limitations in Syria?

RT: What can be said, apart from the publicly known information, is that many of the bodies have not been returned to Russia. There are reports that many Wagner members involved in the failed attack have not even been identified. The exact number of dead is not yet clear, but it is not small. We can say that the episode was one of the worst failures of the Russian command in Syria.

MY: Is there any type of ideological framework in which PMCs like the Wagner Group have acted in the Middle East and North Africa, or is this solely about interests?

RT: If we talk about members of the company, ideologically they are a mixture. There are people with fascist views, as well as those who worship ancient traditions that border on paganism. This should come as no surprise, as PMCs are a breeding ground for extreme, machismo, paramilitary subcultures in which brotherhood and support during operations are vital. In this respect, Wagner’s mercenaries are similar to many of those recruited by Western units, including the French Foreign Legion.

And yes, payment is always a good reason for enrolling. Information coming from relatives suggests that many young men get involved either because they have lost their job or need to pay off debts, and because it is profitable to work for a PMC.