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Russian mercenaries have deployed to separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine in recent weeks to bolster defenses against Ukrainian government forces as tensions between Moscow and the West rise, four sources have told the media.

In recent weeks, Russia has moved tens of thousands of regular troops to staging posts closer to Ukraine and followed up by demanding urgent security guarantees from the West designed, Moscow says, to prevent Ukraine and other neighboring countries being used as a base to attack it.

The West and Ukraine have for their part accused Russia of weighing a fresh attack on its southern neighbor as soon as next month, something Moscow denies.

Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and backed pro-Russian separatists who seized a swathe of the industrial Donbass region of eastern Ukraine that same year, and continue to fight Ukrainian government forces there.

Of four sources, three described their offers from mercenary recruiters to go to Donbass. They said the recruiters did not disclose who they represented. All four sources declined to be named, citing fears for their safety.

Two of the three sources said they had accepted; the third said he had refused.

“There is a full house. They are gathering everybody with combat experience,” said one of the two who accepted.

He said he had previously fought in Ukraine and Syria for groups of Russian security contractors whose operations have been closely aligned with Russia’s strategic interests. He declined to identify the contractors.

The fighter said he was planning to join up with fellow mercenaries on the Russian side of the border with the separatist-held Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine.

On Thursday more than a dozen Western powers also expressed anger that Russian mercenaries appear to be working for the controversial Wagner group, which have started to deploy in Mali, accusing Moscow of providing material backing for the fighters.

The powers involved in the fight against a jihadist insurgency in Mali, including Canada, Germany, France and the U.K., said they “firmly condemn the deployment of mercenary troops on Malian territory.”

It was one of the first official acknowledgements by Western capitals that the deployment of fighters has begun in Mali after months of warnings to the Bamako government. But the statement did not say that the presence of the Wagner group in Mali would result in a pullout of foreign forces.

“This deployment can only further deteriorate the security situation in West Africa, lead to an aggravation of the human rights situation in Mali (and) threaten the agreement for peace and reconciliation in Mali,” the group of 15 nations said. “We are aware of the involvement of the Russian Federation government in providing material support to the deployment of the Wagner group in Mali and call on Russia to revert to a responsible and constructive behavior in the region.”

A satellite image shows Russian armored units training in Pogonovo Training Area near Voronezh, Russia, on Nov. 26. In recent weeks, Russia has moved tens of thousands of regular troops to staging posts closer to Ukraine. | MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES / HANDOUT VIA REUTERS
A satellite image shows Russian armored units training in Pogonovo Training Area near Voronezh, Russia, on Nov. 26. In recent weeks, Russia has moved tens of thousands of regular troops to staging posts closer to Ukraine. | MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES / HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

The Kremlin says it has nothing to do with private Russian military contractors whose operatives it describes as volunteers with no connection to the state.

The Wagner Group has caused controversy through its involvement in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. EU ministers have agreed to draw up more sanctions against Wagner.

Russia denies any government link with the group but the unit has been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to Russian President Vladimir Putin who has been hit by separate sanctions over meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

Speaking on the accusations of mercenary deployment, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “It’s the first we’ve heard of this and we don’t know how reliable these assertions are.”

Peskov said there were no Russian regular forces or military advisers in eastern Ukraine and never had been, and that Moscow was not considering sending any. Kyiv disputes that and says regular Russian army forces are present.

Special training for Ukraine

Alexander Ivanov, head of the Community of Officers For International Security, a nongovernmental group representing Russian contractors in the Central African Republic, said he had “not a single confirmation” that any Russian mercenary had been deployed to Ukraine.

Three of the sources said they were not aware of any plans for a new Russian attack on Ukraine or of preparations that would suggest one was coming.

One of the sources, a contractor who has taken part in Russian operations abroad and had already arrived in eastern Ukraine, said the deployment was for defensive purposes. The first mercenary said the same.

Another source said he was not directly involved in the deployment, but was in touch with people on the ground who were undergoing special training. He said the aim of the deployment was what he called sabotage activities to undermine stability in Ukraine.

The Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) proclaimed its independence from Ukraine in 2014 after separatist fighters took control of a slice of eastern Ukraine. Backed by Russia, its self-proclaimed status has not been recognized internationally.

Alexander Borodai, ex-prime minister of the DPR and head of the Union of Donbass Volunteers, said his organization was not involved in the recruitment of any mercenaries for eastern Ukraine.

Members of his organization have previously fought in Ukraine and Syria.

“If and when it’s needed, we’ll call people — but there has been no call for now,” said Borodai, who is also a lawmaker for Russia’s ruling party, United Russia.

Separatist spokesperson Eduard Basurin said he knew nothing of any recent Russian deployments of security contractors to eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s military intelligence service declined to comment, while the state security service did not reply to a request for comment.

Mali on the chessboard

A French government source who asked not to be named said intense activity had been noted as the Wagner group deployment went ahead in Mali.

“We are seeing repeated air rotations with military transport planes belonging to the Russian army and installations at Bamako airport to allow the arrival of a significant number of mercenaries,” said the source.

Also noted had been frequent visits by Wagner executives to Bamako and the activities by Russian geologists known for their association with Wagner, said the source.

Western powers expressed anger that Russian mercenaries also appear to be working for the controversial Wagner group in Mali, while the Kremlin says it has nothing to do with private Russian military contractors. | ASHLEY GILBERTSON / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Western powers expressed anger that Russian mercenaries also appear to be working for the controversial Wagner group in Mali, while the Kremlin says it has nothing to do with private Russian military contractors. | ASHLEY GILBERTSON / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Washington was not a signatory of the statement but U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week warned Mali not to accept Wagner mercenaries, saying a deal would divert needed funds and further destabilize the country.

There has been growing concern over the situation in Mali under transitional leader Colonel Assimi Goita — who took office in June after the country’s second coup in less than a year — and in particular over fears a commitment to hold elections in February is slipping.

The French source said the deployment of the Wagner troops was a “symptom” of the attitude of the current authorities towards transition and showed that, rather than paving the way for civilian rule, they wanted to “stay in place.”

Mali is the epicenter of a jihadist insurgency that began in the north of the country in 2012 and spread three years later to neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso.

France intervened in 2013 and now has roughly 5,000 troops in the region, but plans to lower that number to 2,500-3,000 by 2023.

French President Emmanuel Macron was due to raise concerns about the Wagner deployment on a visit to Mali this week to meet Goita for the first time.

However, his trip was scrapped with Paris blaming the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paris has previously said any deployment of Wagner militia would be incompatible with the presence of French troops.

The statement from the 15 powers indicated they planned to remain engaged in Mali, saying “we will not give up our efforts to address the needs of the Malian population.”

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