Major counterterrorism op in Stavropol Kray; reasons to be skeptical about Gazprom PMC; Wagner prison recruitment

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This week's main stories:

  • Major counterterrorism operation in Stavropol Kray
  • Reasons to be skeptical about Ukrainian claim over Gazprom PMC
  • Wagner prison recruitment at an end?
Major counterterrorism operation in Stavropol Kray

On 8 February, Russia’s Federal Security Services (FSB) carried out a special operation in the Petrovskiy settlement, near to Pyatigorsk in Stavropol Kray. According to a subsequent statement by the National Antiterrorism Committee (NAK), they had received information relating to “armed bandits who intended to carry out a terrorist attack on one of the railway stations.” The local FSB imposed a counterterrorism regime (KTO) on the area, evacuated nearby houses, and laid siege to the house in which the alleged bandits were hiding. The “bandits” refused to surrender and opened fire on security service personnel; all were killed in the ensuing operation, with no casualties among the security services or civilians (National Antiterrorism Committee, 9 February). 


NAK subsequently clarified that four suspected militants were killed in the operation, and that an automatic weapon, a pistol, and two improvised explosive devices were found at the scene — one of which was detonated by the would-be terrorists themselves. NAK linked the plot to “the activities of a Ukrainian armed nationalist formation” (National Antiterrorism Committee, 9 February). The FSB lifted the KTO regime on 9 February (Caucasian Knot, 9 February). Caucasian Knot noted that it was the first time that a KTO had been declared in Stavropol Kray since December 2017 (Caucasian Knot, 9 February).


Arguably, media reports on this and similar operations are revealing more for what they don’t contain than for what they do. Media outlets have long been highly dependent on official sources when it comes to reporting on terrorism-related topics: There is very little by way of investigative or on-the-ground journalism that could challenge or even complement the official line. This is a consequence both of political and economic factors. On the political side of the equation, terrorism is a highly sensitive topic and media reporting on it has long been tightly controlled. On the economic side, Russian media suffer from the same pressures as media everywhere, resulting in limited investigative or local reporting. On this particular occasion, the overwhelming majority of media outlets added nothing to the story, merely reproducing the same details that were contained in the official statements. Caucasian Knot — as is often the case — was the only one to probe a little deeper. It cited a former local politician and a local activist, both of whom noted that there was little to distinguish the settlement. The activist and an anonymous public figure also suggested that the event largely passed unnoticed by those living in the region (Caucasian Knot, 11 February).

Reasons to be skeptical about Ukrainian claim over Gazprom PMC

On 7 February, the Defence Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine claimed that Gazprom Neft is in the process of creating its own private military company. It cited as evidence a copy of an order by the Russian Government, signed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and dated 4 February, creating a new company owned by Gazprom Neft (70%) and the STAF-Tsentr Private Security Organisation (30%). Defence Intelligence concluded that this was evidence that “the ‘arms race’ continues in russia [sic] among the main political players who are actively creating private armies following the example of yevhen prigozhin's [sic] ’Wagner Group’” (Defence Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, 7 February 2023).


It may be that Gazprom decides to set up its own private military company, or that other actors in the Russian political system look to Wagner as a model to replicate. The evidence presented by Defence Intelligence, however, does not support such a conclusion in this particular instance. First, the edict — which doesn’t appear on the Russian Government’s website — specifically grants the right to establish a private security company (PSC), not a private military one (PMC). This distinction is important, since PSCs, unlike PMCs, are perfectly legal under Russian law. Second, the edict links the creation of the company to the need to provide security to energy facilities. It is far from unusual for Russian energy companies to create or employ private security companies at their facilities.


The creation of all such companies is worth keeping an eye on, precisely because some Russian PMCs do trace their origins to security provision for the energy sector. However, the dramatic conclusion reached by Defence Intelligence -- and some rather excitable 'expert' commentary that I won't boost with a link -- is, for the time being at least, unwarranted.

Wagner prison recruitment at an end?

Yevgeniy Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner PMC, announced in a message on his Telegram channel that the group is no longer recruiting in Russian prisons. The statement came in response to a media enquiry that asked for comment on whether it was true that recruitment had ended more than a month ago and Prigozhin was no longer visiting Russian prisons to persuade people to join his PMC (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, 9 February).


This statement partially aligns with recent reporting on the group. As covered in last week’s newsletter, Mediazona claimed that Prigozhin was indeed no longer visiting prisons, but alleged that a second wave of prison recruitment was initiated in late 2022. However, the article claimed Wagner was experiencing difficulties in persuading people to join. Yana Gelmel, a lawyer for the In Defence of the Rights of Prisoners foundation, only this week claimed that prisoners in Krasnodar Kray, Rostov Oblast, and the North Caucasus are being threatened with new criminal charges if they refuse to join Wagner and fight in Ukraine (Kavkaz Realii, 8 February).


Vazhnyye istorii, discussing Prigozhin’s statement, offered several possible explanations  for it. Referencing the Mediazona article as evidence, it said that Wagner may indeed be struggling to persuade people to join. It also cited Olga Romanova, the founder of Russia Behind Bars, who claims that the Ministry of Defence has, to all intents and purposes, taken over prison recruitment and is now offering convicts more or less the same terms to sign up: monthly wages of up to R200,000, pardon after six months, but no threat of death by extrajudicial killing. Echoing last week’s report, Romanova also points to opposition to Wagner’s recruitment from the prison authorities — both because they do not want to lose prison labour, and because they do not want to be sent to fight in Ukraine themselves (Vazhnyye istorii, 10 February)


Romanova elsewhere interpreted the end of prison recruitment as evidence that Prigozhin’s star is fading (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, 9 February). Prigozhin himself attributed the end of prison recruitment to “the high levels of effectiveness in fulfilling the task,” which he claims has embarrassed some officials, as well as irritation among sections of the elite over the equality that prison recruits are enjoying (Vazhnyye istorii, 14 February). Overall, if Wagner's recruitment efforts really have stopped, it would appear to be as much by compulsion as choice.

Other stories of interest
  • Chechen Head Ramzan Kadyrov claims that nearly 300 people have been recruited to the Chechen security services in the last two months (Caucasian Knot, 8 February).
  • Igor Manushev, who is described as the founder of ENOT PMC and fought with the group in Ukraine in 2014, has died from the injuries he sustained in an apparent assassination attempt in Luhansk Oblast (Meduza, 8 February). The attack was mentioned in last week’s newsletter, although most sources only refer to him as a member rather than founder of ENOT. 
  • Kavkaz Realii profiled several high-profile criminals from southern Russia who have been recruited to fight with Wagner in Ukraine (Kavkaz Realii, 8 February).
  • A Crimean man found guilty of membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir in January has died in prison in Novocherkassk (Caucasian Knot, 10 February).
  • A court in Belgorod Oblast sentences a 15 year old to 6.5 years for preparing a terrorist attack on a school (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, 10 February).
  • Kosovan President Vjosa Osmani claims that Wagner is working with Serbian paramilitaries to smuggle weapons and uniforms into Kosovo, in preparation for a Serbian attack modelled on Russia’s annexation of Crimea (The Telegraph, 11 February).
  • A Wagner-linked Telegram publishes a video purportedly showing the execution of one of its fighters who had surrendered to the Ukrainian military before being returned to Russia. Prigozhin then posted another one in which the same man is alive, renounces published comments made while being held by Ukraine, and thanks Wagner for forgiving him (Meduza, 13 February 2023).
  • The National Antiterrorism Committee reports that security services have detained four people in Krasnoyarsk and Moscow on suspicion of recruiting for Katiba at-Tawhid wal-Jihad (National Antiterrorism Committee, 7 February).
  • Krasnodar Kray Governor Veniamin Kondratyev signs order indefinitely extending heightened (“yellow,” intermediate) terrorism alert level. The alert level was initially raised on 8 October 2022, when an explosion seriously damaged the Crimean bridge (Caucasian Knot, 11 February).
  • Kadyrov claims that Apti Alaudinov, commander of the Akhmat-Spetsnaz unit, and two others have been hospitalised after coming into contact with a poisoned envelope (Caucasian Knot, 13 February).
  • Tatyana Stanovaya deconstructs the relationship between Prigozhin and the state — and the limits on Prigozhin’s power and influence (Carnegie, 13 February).

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