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This week's main stories:
- Ex-Wagner commander seeks asylum in Norway
- Wagner continues its slow crawl out of the legal shadows
- Wagner recruitment in Serbia under the spotlight
- Lawyer discusses Wagner's prison recruitment
| Ex-Wagner commander seeks asylum in Norway|
The Wagner Group, a Russian private military company (PMC) with a penchant for self-publicity, is likely to be a major theme of this newsletter. The first edition of this newsletter is something of a Wagner special, given the number of significant reports over the last week or so. One major story concerned Andrey Medvedev, a former Wagner commander who has fled to Norway for asylum and will apparently testify against the group.
Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin reported on 15 January that Medvedev had illegally crossed the Norwegian border in Murmansk Oblast and surrendered (Gulagu.net, 15 January). The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration confirmed that a man was seeking asylum, but declined to comment further on grounds of “security and privacy.” Medvedev’s Norwegian lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes, said that Medvedev will provide testimony, including on Wagner’s involvement in war crimes (Guardian, 17 January). On 23 January, Norwegian police reported that Medvedev had been arrested under the Immigration Act (BBC News, 23 January). Risnes responded to the arrest by saying "This is what everyone wanted to avoid, but we are looking for solutions,” but insisted Medvedev was still being treated as a witness.
In late 2022, Medvedev had posted a video in which he criticised Wagner for its activities, including the treatment and murder of people recruited from prison (TV Rain, 17 December 2022). He had been recruited to the group in July 2022, having struggled to find work after being released from prison, and signed a four-month contract. He deserted Wagner when the contract was extended without his consent, after allegedly becoming disillusioned with what he had seen (Gulagu.net, 15 January).
| Wagner continues its slow crawl out of the legal shadows|
Despite their proliferation and prominent role in Ukraine, private military companies remain illegal in Russia. However, Wagner continues it slow process of almost legalisation. BBC Russian Service has reported that, for the first time, a legal entity with “PMC Wagner” in its name has been registered with the Russian Unified State Registry (BBC News, 17 January). “ChVK Vagner Tsentr” was registered on 27 December to the offices that Wagner have opened in St Petersburg (Sky News, 4 November 2022), with Aleksey Tensin as General Director; its owners have not been declared. According to the BBC, the centre is classified as providing consulting services and operating across a variety of sectors.
Just Russia leader Sergey Mironov, meanwhile, called for Russian private military companies to be legalised in response to Wagner's role in capturing Soledar, Ukraine. Just Russia submitted draft legislation for this purpose in 2018 and 2022, but the proposals were rejected by the State Duma (Kommersant, 17 January). Mironov posted a picture to his Twitter account of himself with a hammer that was gifted to him by Wagner (Twitter, 20 January). The hammer has become a symbol of the extrajudicial killings that Wagner has carried out in Ukraine.
| Wagner recruitment in Serbia under the spotlight|
Reuters have led the way over the last week in covering issues related to Wagner’s alleged recruitment of Serbians.
On 16 January, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučićh called on Wagner to stop the online recruitment of Serbian citizens to fight in Ukraine (Reuters, 17 January). His comments came after a Russian news video apparently showed Serbian volunteers training alongside Russian troops (BBC News, 20 January). It is illegal for Serbian citizens to participate in conflicts abroad, a point Vučićh alluded to in his comments.
The US has recently expressed concerns over Wagner recruitment in Serbia, with its ambassador Christopher Hill referencing "the threat to peace and stability posed by Wagner potentially operating in Serbia” (BBC News, 20 January). In December, Wagner announced that it had set up a cultural and information centre in Belgrade (bne Intellinews, 7 December 2022).
On 17 January, Reuters reported that activists have sought to push the Serbian authorities to take stronger action against Wagner by filing criminal complaints about the group’s activities in the country. They filed charges against Russia’s ambassador to the country, Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko, and the head of Serbia’s head of Serbia's state Security and Information Agency, Aleksandar Vulin. Reuters cited Cedomir Stojkovic, a lawyer and leader of the October civic group, as insisting: “We have reasonable suspicion that Vulin gave orders, directives and guidelines that the activities of the Wagner Group in Serbia should not be prevented” (Reuters, 19 January).
Wagner owner Yevgeniy Prigozhin subsequently issued a statement claiming “I do not recruit Serbs” (Reuters, 20 January).
| Lawyer discusses Wagner's prison recruitment|
Yana Gelmel from the In Defence of the Rights of Prisoners foundation gave an expansive interview in which she discussed Wagner’s prison recruitment (Kavkaz Realii, 20 January). Gelmel became an activist for prisoners’ rights after her spouse was convicted, left Russia in 2022, and has subsequently continued to train as a lawyer.
Gelmel makes a number of interesting observations based on her experiences. She thinks that Wagner’s prison recruitment started in southern Russia and the North Caucasus already in summer 2022, earlier than was reported in other parts of the country. Gelmel argues that recruiters are particularly targeting those in prison for murder. She agrees with Olga Romanova, the founder of Russia Behind Bars, that convicts’ rights can only be defended while they are in prison; once they have been recruited, there is little activists can do.
Gelmel sees the implementation of quarantine measures as a potential sign than recruitment initiatives are underway: This becomes a way of restricting visits by relatives and lawyers, and cutting off communications more broadly. Gelmel contends that prisoners are often existing in an information vacuum that is purposefully maintained by the prison authorities. In her view, recruits often believe that if they do not volunteer for a PMC, they will nevertheless be forcibly enlisted by the Russian Ministry of Defence for lower reward. She paints a picture in which many recruits harbour few illusions about how they will be used in the war in Ukraine, i.e. as cannon fodder; nevertheless, the slim hope of achieving something, such as a pardon, is preferable to the bleak certainty of their current situation.
| Other stories of interest|
- The White House’s national security spokesman, John Kirby, has said that the US Treasury Department will designate Wagner as a Transnational Criminal Organisation. He also publicised an image purportedly showing the transfer of weapons from North Korea to the group, an accusation the US first made in December 2022 (Reuters, 20 January).
- The UK government estimates that Wagner controls up to 50,000 fighters in Ukraine (Twitter, 20 January).
- Olga Romanova estimates that only 10,000 of the roughly 50,000 recruited to Wagner are still fighting on the frontline. The rest have been killed, wounded, disappeared, deserted or surrendered. Such numbers are, of course, impossible to verify (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, 23 January).
- Hacked emails reveal that the UK government helped Prigozhin circumvent sanctions in order to target a British open source intelligence analyst (Open Democracy, 23 January).
- Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, TV company and the Turkish private military company with ties to the authorities end up in orchestrated spat over placement of advert during interview (Bianet, 19 January).
- Astrakhan resident sentenced to two years for posting material online that incited terrorism (Caucasian Knot, 17 January).
- Two people from Stavropol Kray sentenced for their involvement in the 1999 invasion of Dagestan (Caucasian Knot, 17 January).
- Dagestani woman sentenced to 12 years for travelling to Syria, providing IS fighters with medical treatment and food in 2016, collecting money for the group both in Syria and after her return (Argumenty i Fakty Dagestan, 17 January).
- Four residents of Ingushetia sentenced to between five and nine years for joining Islamic State and planning an attack on a local security service facility (Caucasian Knot, 18 January).
- Chechen Head Ramzan Kadyrov plans to send 300 Chechen imams and qadis to train at the Russian University of Spetsnaz in Gudermes. The first group has completed its seven-day course and is ready to be dispatched to Ukraine, although — since the group includes the Chechen mufti — they clearly will not all go (Caucasian Knot, 20 January).
- Two Chechen residents fined for failing to inform security services about their acquaintance’s plans to form an illegal armed formation. Failure to inform became a criminal offence in July 2016 (Caucasian Knot, 20 January).
- Khasavyurt resident to face trial for fifth time, accused of helping insurgents from the Endirey group and storing a grenade. One case was returned to investigators on procedural grounds, while three prior convictions were overturned on appeal (Kavkaz Realii, 20 January).
- The Federal Security Service (FSB) claim they have prevented an attack on police in the North Caucasus. They have arrested a Russian citizen who they allege was working on behalf of the Ukrainian security services (Caucasian Knot, 23 January).
- Five Dagestani natives to face trial, accused of joining a terrorist group while in prison in Kalmykia in 2013. Thirteen alleged members of the group, which reportedly operated until 2019, have already been sentenced; a further 25 are awaiting trial; and the group is suspected to have consisted of more than 100 convicts overall (Argumenty i Fakty Dagestan, 24 January).
- Six residents of Crimea detained on suspicion of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir (SOVA Center, 24 January).
- Dagestan resident sentenced to nine years and two months for transferring R16,210 to militants in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in 2021 (Caucasian Knot, 24 January).
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