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This week's main stories:
- Suspect rejects accusations about prison extremism in Kalmykia
- Novaya Gazeta challenges speculation about Belarusian PMC
- Reflecting on the implications of Russian PMC activity in Africa
| Suspect rejects accusations about prison extremism in Kalmykia|
Kavkaz Realii has published an in-depth article on alleged prison extremism in Kalmykia, essentially dismissing the story as fake (Kavkaz Realii, 26 January). It follows on from last week’s report on the latest charges involving a group of more than 100 people that purportedly operated from 2013 to 2019.
The article is centred around an interview with Magomedali Ramazanov, one of the accused in the case. Ramazanov talks about how co-religionists are bunked together to reduce frictions over religious practices, and how this clustering has then been used to declare the existence of an extremist “cell.” He notes that all literature that prisoners have access to has been checked by both the Spiritual Board of Kalmykia and the prison authorities, and claims prisoners even turned in literature after it was declared extremist by a Russian court.
Ramazanov also notes that Shakhban Gasanov was held in the prison for a short period in 2013-2014, at a time when the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) was prominent in the media. He says that two men from the Federal Security Services (FSB) repeatedly visited Gasanov. After his release in 2015, Gasanov joined the insurgency and declared himself emir of Kizlyarskiy Rayon in Dagestan, before being killed in March 2015. Gasanov allegedly founded the extremist prison cell, but the implication here is that he was under such close supervision at the time that this would have been impossible.
Ramazanov himself was summoned to see the FSB over an extremist video found on his smartphone and asked to sign a confession that he supported IS. Ramazanov says he refused, but was nevertheless sentenced over the clip. After his release, he moved to Makhachkala, but was summoned to the Interior Ministry’s extremism centre in 2019 over IS membership and subsequently arrested in an operation. He then claims he was pressured into a confession about the existence of the IS cell in the Kalmykia prison.
Ramazanov faces from five to 15 years in prison on charges that include recruitment to a terrorist group. He claims the charges have been fabricated in order for the authorities to be able to claim successes in combatting terrorism.
There isn’t much in previous material on Gasanov that would allows for Ramazanov’s claims to be verified or dismissed. The dates all align, but that information is easily accessible. A report into Gasanov’s death noted his release from prison in October 2014 (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 31 March 2015). A Russian-language website representing rebels in Syria posted the clip of his pledge of allegiance to IS in January 2015 (FIsyria.info, 21 January 2015). The one certainty, therefore, is that Gasanov’s career as an emir on the outside was a short one.
| Novaya Gazeta challenges speculation about Belarusian PMC|
In mid-January, Deutsche Welle published an article claiming that Belarus is setting up an equivalent of Russia’s Wagner, called GardServis (GuardService) (Deutsche Welle, 11 January). Molfar — which describes itself as a “global OSINT community” based in London, but is frequently referred to by Western media as a Ukrainian open-source intelligence company — then produced a report that used cellular activity to argue that GardServis’ activities were intensifying (Molfar, 20 January). Continuing the theme of skeptical reporting, this week, Novaya Gazeta published an article that sought to pour cold water on these concerns about a new Belarusian PMC (Novaya Gazeta, 31 January).
Novaya Gazeta’s report provides some important context for the discussion around Belarusian PMCs. It notes that, under Belarusian law, private security firms are not legal; instead security activities are the exclusive purview of state security agencies. Companies are allowed to employ their own security staff, but specialist security providers are not permitted to provide security services as external contractors. That, it should be noted, is different to the situation in Russia, where private security firms are legal (it is private military companies that are illegal — the distinction comes down to the type of services offered). The report also goes into details on historical rivalries within the Belarusian security services over control over the revenue from providing security services.
Novaya Gazeta recounts the background and evolution of GardServis. To be honest, the article is all over the place: long, rambling, and with many distracting asides. However, the crux of its argument seems to be that nothing much has changed in the way GardServis operates since it was first created in 2019. Thus reports that Russia’s use of Wagner in Ukraine have inspired Belarus to mimic the setup are wide of the mark. The report notes that other accounts are reliant on a single source: former Spetsnaz officer Valery Sakhashchik, whom Novaya Gazeta dismiss as “a source as reliable as ice in the spring.” GardServis does, according to this account, represent an innovation of sorts, given the previous point about private security companies being illegal. Nevertheless, the story is portrayed as much less dramatic than would be the case if Belarus had set up a genuine paramilitary outfit.
| Reflecting on the implications of Russian PMC activity in Africa|
Colin P. Clarke has published an interesting article in Foreign Policy which argues that Wagner’s activities in Africa will lead to an increase in terrorism (Foreign Policy, 25 January).
He offers three grounds for this assertion. First, human rights abuses committed by PMCs will lead to increased grievances, thereby aiding recruitment by terrorist groups. Second, their use will further delegitimise local regimes. And third, they will only provide short-term security gains rather than bolstering long-term resilience.
Broadly speaking, Clarke's argument is compelling, although there is a clear need for further research on some of the points. There is no doubt that Wagner is implicated in serious human rights abuses, and therefore that it is contributing to grievances. Whether this worsens the situation largely depends on the local baseline: they could simply perpetuate rather than exacerbate the grievances. The issue of accountability, however, is one that really warrants further investigation. We need a better understanding of how external PMC involvement affects both actual accountability and perceptions of it, and how this in turn impacts conflict dynamics.
Does PMC use further delegitimise local regimes? In some ways, this overlaps with the previous. But regimes need to first have legitimacy before they can lose it. The transactional nature of the relationship isn't really the main issue here -- one suspects that the same critique about the loss of a monopoly on violence wouldn't be made if Western PMCs were being used. Rather, it is the practices of the PMCs that undermine the legitimacy of the local regimes. Reliance on Russian PMCs therefore won't help boost legitimacy, but for the most part this is a reflection of the first point. There is also a need to be wary of conflating Russia's support for authoritarian regimes in Africa and the impact of PMCs specifically. ‘No strings attached’ support can manifest itself in other ways beyond the activities of PMCs, and the same point holds for other actors, such as China.
The third point — that security gains will be transient — is also plausible. This is a broader issue with PMCs: they have no long-term investment in the regions in which they operate. It also echoes a broader issue with Russia’s approach to counterinsurgency, which has tended to favour the use of brute force over addressing underlying conditions. However, the inference that Western countries would do a better job warrants critical scrutiny. The problem is inherent to external involvement, though again the human rights abuses do not help.
| Other stories of interest|
- An investigation by the New York Times reveals that a cemetery used by the Wagner Group has grown considerably in size in a couple of months. Interviews and analysis of satellite and video material is seen as indicative of combat losses suffered by the group in Ukraine (New York Times, 24 January).
- The United States has formally designated Wagner a transnational criminal organization (Reuters, 26 January).
- Maxim Samorukov argues that the recent scandal over Wagner recruitment in Serbia (see last week’s newsletter) is a PR stunt that suits both sides. According to Samorukov, Wagner has used it to demonstrate that it is advancing Russia’s foreign policy interests, while Serbia can appease the West without significantly impacting its relations with Russia (Carnegie, 26 January).
- Astrakhan resident sentenced to ten years for aiding Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Caucasian Knot, 27 January).
- Court in Crimea arrests 26 Crimean Tatars for an administrative offence after they attend a court hearing for six suspected Hizb ut-Tahrir members (Mediazona, 27 January).
- Data from the General Prosecutor’s Office shows that the number of extremist court cases opened in several areas increased considerably in 2022 compared to the previous year. Chechnya’s figures went up from one to eight, Rostov Oblast’s from 17 to 42, Stavropol Kray’s from 32 to 60. The number of cases recorded in Dagestan, however, fell by half (Kavkaz Realii, 29 January).
- Ukrainian court sentences Belarusian citizen to ten years in prison for fighting in Ukraine with Russian PMC Redut (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, 30 January).
- Case against Chechen native accused of participating in 1999 invasion of Dagestan, led by Shamil Basayev and Emir Khattab, transferred to court (Caucasian Knot, 1 February).
- Far-right student sentenced to sixteen years in Altay Kray for planning a terrorist attack (SOVA Center, 1 February).
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