On October 10, the Russian pro-government daily Moskovskij Komsomolets (MK) released an interview with an anonymous member of Russia-linked groups of private military contractors (PMCs) operating in Syria. The interview has some questionable points. However, it provides an interesting critical look at the situation with PMCs involved in the conflict.
Original by MK
Following the capture of two Russian fighters by ISIS, the media started talking about PMCs. Are these people just mercenaries? Their contracts include NDAs, so the fighters tend not to tell much about their work. MK managed to get in contact with one of these people from the frontlines.
Amongst themselves they refer to Syria as a “sandbox”. There’s a lot of sand, and the heat is unbearable. If something bad were to happen, no one will come to their rescue. Their bones would rot under the incinerating sun, and the jackals would deal with the rest. Their contracts say as much: having bodies returned home is a needless expense.
Sergei is just over thirty. He is a former lawyer from Donetsk, though he hasn’t practiced law for four years. At first it was a war in Ukraine, then a war in Syria. War has no rules. There is no need for judicial minutiae on a battlefield.
[SF comment: According to some reports, Russia-linked PMCs were operating in Ukraine’s Donbass region supporting the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic in their conflict with the Ukrainian government.]
Sergei’s voice is cigary and distant. He says that he smells like gunpowder, and that this smell won’t ever go away. It probably won’t go away even when he gets back home. If he gets back home.
We speak over the phone. I suppose he would look like a short, hardy man in green camo. He’d have a mark on his trigger finger from constant gun use. He’d probably also have a bruised shoulder due to assault rifle use. He’d have no medals, that’s for certain. Mercenaries don’t get decorated.
“No, we don’t get awarded medals. The awards are for the Cossacks, they love medals and this kind of stuff. They don’t know how to fight though. Like, this one new guy, he didn’t understand what we were dealing with here. He was like, if you see an ISIS vehicle, you throw a grenade at it. No, stupid: if you see a vehicle, you get the hell out of there. The vehicle is rigged with a load of explosives.”
“A car bomb?”
“Yeah. Car bombs, and Ingimashi squads, which at first act like regular fighters but when they run out of ammo, they activate their explosive belts. They kill themselves and everyone around them. They’ve got a lot of explosives in their belts. That’s their reason for being on a battlefield, they want to die. That’s their motive.”
“And what’s your motive?”
“Our motive? It’s money. Not patriotism. Although some Cossacks tell some tall tales about how they arrive here to learn about Orthodox Christianity in extreme conditions. Syria is the cradle of Christianity, but that’s just an excuse. Most people are here for the money, though not everyone admits it. That’s fine. We came here to make some money too, we did not come here to kill. The recruiters had told us that we would be protecting checkpoints, oil-rigs and the like. But as soon as we arrived, we were designated to be a strike team.”
“Have you signed a contract?”
“If you could call it that. There was an agreement. It featured all the things we must do, all the different requirements, no liberties allowed. If you violate a requirement, it comes out of your paycheck. For example, if you are caught drinking liquor on the job, the whole squad’s pay gets docked. Still, people tend not to drink that much, it’s way too hot out here already. Syrian vodka is pretty good though.”
“Where are people getting recruited from?”
“The recruiters have been working in Donbass region since 2014, although only a small amount of people decided to go for it at the start. Nobody knew about Syria, and people were already fighting for the Donetsk People’s Republic. Now the situation is different over there — it’s not wartime, yet it’s not peacetime either. Many Russian volunteers went home, the militia dispersed, and what about us? We know nothing, but war. If you sign up in Donetsk you get maybe 15 thousand rubles (~$260). I get 150 thousand rubles (~$2600) per month with bonuses. My wife’s on leave, I’ve got a son and a daughter, my parents are old. I won’t make this much money in a year otherwise. Even if they lied and paid me less, it would still be better than nothing.”
“Are PMCs untrustworthy?”
“Depends on the PMC. There are two big PMCs groups on the market now: Dmitry Utkin’s “Wagner” and “Turan” Muslim battalion. “Slavonic Corps” was the original PMC, but it’s defunct now. There are also subcontractors who recruit people. None of them are related to the official Russian military. Are they legal? I don’t really care. I think they are registered in other countries like South Africa. I know some companies that offered 240 thousand (~$4160) per month, but in the end everyone gets paid approximately the same amount, about 150 thousand (~$2600). I can’t recall anyone being totally finagled though. I mean, everyone knows each other. If they screwed one of us over, nobody would come back. During training I got paid 2 or 3 thousand rubles per day. That’s $1000 per month.”
“Could you have just taken that money and went back home?”
“To my knowledge nobody did that. The training wasn’t that good, to be honest. They basically had a shooting range and a training area. They did teach us Syrian customs. The desert survival training was the most useful to me. There are a lot of vermin in the desert, so you take four sticks, drive them into the sand, and tie a wool string across the perimeter. Scorpions are afraid of it for some reason.
“How did you arrive in Syria? By boat?”
“Yes, charter boat. We came to Latakia. Our cover story was that we were builders, I think. It’s a great city, the sea is nice. They didn’t let us stray from the group though. Some people did ran off to swim in the sea.
“Did they disobey orders?”
“It wasn’t like that. I don’t think you understand who generally comes to Syria with the PMCs. The Ministry of Defense won’t sign you up, if you have something fishy in your life story. The PMCs though? We had people with us with criminal backgrounds, unemployed people who couldn’t find another job at home, former volunteer fighters, former Donbass militia and even ethnic Ukrainians who had fought against Donbass forces. It sort of blows your mind when you see that.”
[SF comment: Donbass forces are forces of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics.]
“See what exactly? People with no convictions?”
“No, that’s fine. It’s just sort of surprising how life turns out. The first people sent to go to war in Syria had been chosen very carefully. Now anyone can go. I’ve seen an armless amputee gunner recruited. How will he even manage firing? I think recruiters are getting paid for the amount of people recruited, disregarding whether they’re fit for battle at all. That’s why the losses are so high. The Cossacks that ISIS executed, they arrived in May, in a group of 150 people. In the first firefight 19 of them died. The numbers are hidden, so the media can’t report on this. The latest group to arrive was barely trained. They were doomed from the start.”
[SF comment: There is still no official confirmation from ISIS that the group has executed the captured Russian nationals.]
“How much do they pay to relatives of deceased? Is it included in the contract?”
“Three million rubles (~$52,000) for dead ones, 900 thousand (~$15,600) for injured ones. Though our insurance policy says that if you get injured and you were not wearing body armor or your helmet, you won’t get paid. The body armor with equipment weighs 18 kg (~40 lb). That’s not something you’d want to wear when it’s hot as hell. You get fined for not wearing it, too. The relatives of the beheaded guys will be paid for sure. The media made sure of that.”
[SF comment: The story about helmet and body armor is a common urban legend in military circles around the world.]
“They are heroes. They did not pledge allegiance to ISIS.”
“Don’t make me say it. They pussed out. A real fighter wouldn’t have been taken alive.”
“But beheading people…”
“We do it too. Nobody wants to carry a dead body across the desert. We were paid 5 thousand rubles (~$85) per head. As you can imagine, a whole lot of ISIS terrorists lost their heads. Then the price got dropped to a thousand rubles (~$17) per head, in order to stop terrifying the local populace. I don’t know the precise numbers, I don’t do this kind of thing.”
“Are you sure those heads belonged to terrorists and not the peaceful locals?”
“There’s no mistake. Syria is divided into zones. The “pink zone” — Damascus, Latakia and their outskirts — is off-limits, no one is to be harmed. There is also a “grey zone” with some terrorists there, and there is a “black zone” in which we are situated. The “black zone” has no non-combatants. Hostiles only.”
“I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t you conduct airstrikes on the countless ISIS villages instead of involving the infantry? That would cut down on the insane amount of human losses, right?
“That’s a no-brainer. Infantry is way cheaper. Infantry is disposable, that’s how it always has been.”
[SF comment: The air power does not win wars. Somebody on the ground has to secure areas “liberated” by airstrikes.]
“Long ago there used to be a rule that for the first three days since the town’s capture, the town was relegated to the captors. Is this true now?”
“I guess. Everything you find in liberated villages is yours. The money is the only thing you don’t take. ISIS uses their own money: golden dinars, silver dirham… Even though it is made of gold, you can’t take it with you. It is branded by ISIS symbols. Possession and circulation of this money is a crime, and supporting terrorism. Why would you want that?”
“What do you do when you’re off duty? You are not an official army, hence you don’t get to see performing artists from Moscow.”
“Yeah, it can get boring around here. But you can buy yourself a wife. A virgin from a good family costs $100 for a year. It’s a sort of a ransom for a bride. Buying a wife for life would cost you from $1500 to $2000. It’s easier to buy a wife over there than to find one home. I know some guys who have taken them home to Russia, having set the documents straight. In general having a woman around during war helps a lot. Usually only officers are able to afford to have wifes.”
[SF comment: The text states that “Sergei” gets ~$2600 per month. So, any PMC can afford to pay $100 for a wife.]
“How’s the food?”
“They give you a lot of food. The drinking water, on the other hand, can be difficult to come across.”
“What about weapons?”
“It’s kind of bad. The equipment is really old. The assault rifles they give you are Chinese. People usually spend their own so-called “cigarette money” on guns and ammo. If you want to survive, you will not regret those $100 or $200 per month.
[SF comment: Russia has lots of Soviet-made weapons and munition that are supplied to Syria on a constant basis.]
“Are the payments transferred to a bank account?”
“If you like. They can be transferred to your wife’s account or to whoever else’s you want, yes.”
“Are your relatives supposed to honor the NDA, in case you die?”
“Generally, yes. They are noticed that they should keep quiet, if they want to get paid. In the end, no one forced you to go to war. Your body won’t return home, of course, because it is costly, and there is no point in doing so. It would take you two years of work to get those three million rubles that get paid in case of death.”
“Do you consider yourself a mercenary?”
“No. This is just a result of the conditions I was put in. I had been fighting in Donbass since the very beginning of combat almost up until the end. I had convictions. I know people that would never agree to die for money — they would only die for the homeland and for an ideal. But step by step the ideals got lost, and war became routine business. Ordinary people adapt, yet I have not betrayed myself.
“Did you betray anyone else?”
“Yeah. Once, our guys caught on fire. It happened. They were burning for a long time. It was hard to watch them suffer. I should have shot them. This would be mercy. I couldn’t do it. I guess I have betrayed them.”
“Do you believe in God?”
“I don’t know. I guess I believe in something. I don’t know if that something is good or bad. Haven’t got a clue. I just know that killing is bad. And I don’t like it.”
One of the PMC officials, who desired to remain anonymous, gave us the following comment:
“I don’t consider this a crime. Yes, technically private military companies are illegal. Forming or taking part in an illegal military formation can mean 20 years of prison time in Russia. But think of the fact that there are new kind of wars taking place around the globe now. The US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are mostly handled by private military companies . The French Foreign Legion is supported by the government. It’s silly to pretend that this way of doing things has no place in this country, because it’s bad.
It’s business. If we don’t have a foot in the market, then others will take our place. Russian PMCs are sidelining the western ones, because we are undemanding and we take any job. Yes, sometimes we get taken advantage of. But that is necessary life experience.
We earn approximately $5000 per person contracted. According to the contracts, we pay a salary of $2000 and $500 to outfit and supply them. That’s $2500 of pure profit per person.
One thousand people nets you $2,5 per month.
The people that come to us I consider to be romantics, no matter what they say. If a foreign intervention were to happen, I’m convinced they would defend the homeland. So let them get combat experience. I think that Russia can export not only gas and oil, but also retired professionals, capable and knowledgeable.”