Russian mercenaries in Syria
SBU Press Centre
Ideas
June 1, 2022 2:54 PM EDT
Brian Castner is a non-fiction author of Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike

Russian mercenaries are the all-too-real bogeymen of the war in Ukraine. Most belong to the company known colloquially as Wagner, a quasi-corporate paramilitary group connected to the Kremlin that serves as a violent tool of Putin’s foreign policy around the world. Depending on the reports you believe, Wagner mercenaries were responsible for the execution of civilians in Bucha, have deployed tens of thousands of infantry to support the eastern offensive, or have already lost 3,000 fighters in combat. Deliberate disinformation surrounds their operations, and initial reports are just that, but Wagner mercenaries often leave evidence behind, and so there are some things we can be sure of. When police from Kyiv recently posted photos on Facebook of hand grenades used as booby-traps, I had a flash of recognition, because in this case the fighters used a tactic we have seen before.

In May 2020, in western Libya, as the front lines surrounding Tripoli broke and the siege of the capital was suddenly lifted, Wagner mercenaries beat a hasty retreat across the desert. The Russians had brought in artillery and snipers to support the Libyan National Army’s final assault on the city, but when the tide turned they fled east.

Before they retreated from Tripoli, the mercenaries laid landmines and booby-traps, including hand-grenades with triplines, in civilian homes in the suburb of Ain Zara. Officials estimate these mines have killed over 50 civilians who tried to move back into their neighborhoods, not realizing they were laced with triplines. Last October, the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission in Libya directly implicated Wagner in these deaths. Landmines are banned weapons under international convention, and directly targeting civilians is a war crime.

But the Wagner operatives left more than boobytraps. They also spray-painted swastikas and SS lightning bolts as graffiti wherever they went. Nazi symbols are popular among the mercenaries; in Ukraine in April, a leader of Task Force Rusich, a Wagner subsidiary, was videotaped wearing the Valknot and Tatenkoph of the 3rd SS Panzer Division. Wagner itself is named after the notoriously antisemitic German composer, whose operas famously made Hitler weep. According to the group’s origin story, a former Spetsnaz (Soviet special forces) soldier named Dmitry Utkin used “Wagner” as his callsign while fighting in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Utkin, who many consider Wagner’s operational commander, has tattoos of Nazi “SS” epaulets along his collar bones. Many founding members of Wagner also belong to the ultra-nationalist and white supremacist group known as the Russian Imperial Movement, which the U.S. State Department has declared a terrorist organization.

This linkage, between extremist armed militias and mercenaries, is one we have seen in the U.S. as well. That a mercenary company actively recruits from a white power organization is not a coincidence, and the kind of person who joins a militia bears a striking resemblance to the kind of person who joins Wagner. “It’s the same population that joins a militia or a mercenary group,” said Dr. Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. I wanted to speak to Dr. Belew because she has written extensively about international influences on white supremacists. “In the United States, militias are extra-legal,” she said. “Mercenaries are paid but acting outside of official boundaries. Both are paramilitary activity in a liminal space.”

On January 6th, when rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol, they carried a number of flags. Trump 2020 and yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsden flags and, not unexpectedly, the Confederate flag. Nazi paraphernalia as well. But other symbols were more obscure, of the Three Percenter’s militia, and even the flag of the former South Vietnam.

All of these flags embody in some way the Lost Cause, an us-against-the-world narrative that a weaker but ideologically pure group has been unfairly undermined, overwhelmed, or defeated through a stab in the back. Historian David Blight calls it “a cult of the fallen.”

But this is not just an American phenomenon, because the U.S. exports more than Hollywood and fast food. It also exports unifying racist symbols and memes. An international white supremacist online community stokes resentments across borders, creating a toxic victimhood narrative that resonates from Ukraine to southern Africa to the Middle East and then reflects back to the U.S. again. Far-right U.S. militias borrow banners on January 6th, South African mercenaries quote American movies while killing civilians, and Wagner operatives wear Confederate flags on their body armor.

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Far-right U.S. militias borrow banners on January 6th, South African mercenaries quote American movies while killing civilians, and Wagner operatives wear Confederate flags on their body armour. (Олег Блохин Facebook)
Far-right U.S. militias borrow banners on January 6th, South African mercenaries quote American movies while killing civilians, and Wagner operatives wear Confederate flags on their body armour.
Олег Блохин Facebook

The Lost Cause is not a uniquely American myth. According to Belew, since the 1990s this trope has been deployed internationally, in the former Apartheid South Africa, and more recently in Russia, across Scandinavia, and Australia.

“They are looking for other nations that are deemed ‘salvageable,’” said Belew. “White power knows how to turn everything into a state of emergency. Adopting the Lost Cause narrative is strategic, to make whiteness under threat.”

A prime example of this Lost Cause revisionist history concerns the former African state of Rhodesia, a white-controlled enclave that fought a bloody civil war in the 1970s and is now known as Zimbabwe. Rhodesia was 5% white and 95% black, and whites viciously held onto power, even attracting hundreds of foreign white mercenaries to come fight against groups they called “terrorists.” After losing the war, many white Rhodesians would flee to South Africa, where they reinforced the apartheid regime for another 15 years.

Ever since, the American far right has been drawn to the Rhodesian Bush War, a ready-made racist Lost Cause narrative of a few white settlers fighting the swart gevaar, translated as black danger or black tide. There is a small but popular publishing industry built around stories about Rhodesian special operations forces, all-white units that occasionally let in a very few black soldiers that had been, in their words, “tamed.” The memoirs and biographies particularly glamorize the Selus Scouts, who wore blackface to conduct sabotaging “pseudo operations,” what we would now call a false flag. The ideology of these books is out in the open. The dust jacket of A Handful of Hard Men reads: “The story of a virtuoso fighter in a lost cause, and the combat companions who stood with him, against both enemies and the prevailing political winds…”

The late Rhodesia is both a powerful symbol and also a business opportunity. A number of military-themed online clothing companies sell patches and T-shirts with Rhodesian racial epithets for blacks that are unknown in mainstream American culture but catnip for the far-right. “The internet has created a truly global circulation of ideas and symbols,” said Belew. For example, T-shirts that read: “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong !”. Online marketing explains how Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine Black people in a South Carolina church in 2015, owned a jacket with the Rhodesian flag.

Much of the style and imagery from these online merchants will be (or should be) uncomfortably familiar for American veterans, nearly identical to most “thank you for your service” gun-bro T-shirts. The jingoism in the advertisements is jarring when in historical context. For example, one company, “Grunt Style,” produced a commercial that was retweeted by Rudy Giuliani, that used the same standard Lost Cause tropes, except the hordes of the swart gevaar were replaced with Antifa, and the white Rhodesians with the blue police.

But the American white power movement doesn’t just absorb these cultural artefacts from abroad, it exports them, too. The influences are circular. In a bizarre merging of cultural references, the American killing of civilians during the Vietnam war is echoed, via Hollywood, in a new conflict in southern Africa, led by a soldier of old Rhodesia.

Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) is a South African mercenary company founded by Colonel Lionel Dyck, a white septuagenarian veteran of the Bush War and the former commander of the Rhodesian African Rifles. Online posts and clothing that bears the orange and blue Apartheid-era South African flag has been seen among his staff. As part of their business activities, DAG provides “anti-poaching” services to wildlife game parks, such as the Peace Parks Foundation, where until recently his staff oversaw security operations, and there has been at least one unlawful shooting by DAG-trained rangers, at Banhine National Park in November 2020.”.

DAG operatives have also fought in combat in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, until losing a government contract in April 2021. Research by Amnesty International has revealed that in 2020 DAG helicopters routinely fired machine guns and automatic grenade launchers indiscriminately into villages, and dropped improvised explosive devices onto homes and hospitals, killing civilians and failing to distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets. These may be war crimes.

Like soldiers around the world, DAG helicopter pilots and crew photographed and took video of themselves conducting operations. One such YouTube compilation, of the type a high school sports team might make to commemorate a season, shows the all-white crews loading weapons, posing next to their helicopters with their Kalashnikovs, flying over the jungles and shoreline of Cabo Delgado. The music played in the aircraft, during missions, is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” a self-pitying Vietnam War anthem. In a photo released after the video, one could see that the mercenaries wrote “GET SOME!” on the side of the helicopter-mounted grenade launcher. This is a reference to a scene in the classic Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket— involving very similar helicopters, weapons, and jungles—where a machine gunner over and over yells “Get some!” while shooting at terrorized fleeing civilians. In the film, when a reporter asks “How can you shoot women and children?” the machine gunner replies “Easy, you just don’t lead them so much.”

To Belew, it is significant—a feature, not a bug—that DAG mercenaries chose both Vietnam and that movie scene to reference. “Taking up that particular identifier is meaningful,” she said, “because that’s the kind of combat that is indiscriminate and targets civilians.”

Some might seek to laugh off a twisted Vietnam movie reference as funny, though the darkest possible kind of humor. Belew disagrees. “The way people use humor and memes has really been augmented in social media,” she said. “People often have their first exposure to white power through humor. It’s the tip of the wedge to the rhetoric that follows.”

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Yevgeny Prigozhin shows Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory outside Saint Petersburg on September 20, 2010. The European Union in October sanctioned Prigozhin accusing him of undermining peace in Libya by supporting the Wagner Group private military company. (Photo by Alexey DRUZHININ-SPUTNIK / AFP) (SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)
Yevgeny Prigozhin shows Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory outside Saint Petersburg on September 20, 2010. The European Union in October sanctioned Prigozhin accusing him of undermining peace in Libya by supporting the Wagner Group private military company. (Photo by Alexey DRUZHININ-SPUTNIK / AFP)
SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

White power symbols are even more important in Russian mercenary circles, and no wonder, as the fall of the Soviet Union produced its own Lost Cause narrative.

“There are very strong parallels between loss of agency from the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of agency in the South after the American Civil War,” said Candace Rondeaux, a professor at Arizona State University and director of the Future Frontlines program at the think tank New America, who has written extensively on Wagner.

Wagner emerged from a toxic combination of the implosion of the Soviet Union security services, a lack of employment opportunities for young men, and rising white supremacist groups. In its current form, Wagner is a constellation of private companies, all under the control of a Putin ally, recently spotted in eastern Ukraine, named Yevgeny Prigozhin. (Prigozhin denies that he is connected to Wagner or that the group even exists, and government officials stress that mercenarism is illegal under Russian law.) Confronted in early May by a newspaper reporter who recounted Wagner abuses, Prigozhin called American and European civilization “dying out” and “a pathetic endangered bunch of perverts.” This language echoes Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine.

Over the past eight years, Wagner mercenaries have fought in Ukraine, fired artillery into Tripoli and operated MiG-29 aircraft on behalf of the Libyan National Army’s commander General Haftar, supported government crackdowns against protestors in Sudan, fought rebels and are accused by the U.N. of torture and executions in the Central African Republic, are linked by Human Rights Watch to the killing of hundreds of civilians in the conflict in Mali, and, in their hereto largest role, backfilled and augmented Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, where, according to their rhetoric, they are fighting the swart gevaar of ISIS.

“The narrative that is frequently shared online between American white supremacists and Russian white supremacists is that the rise of ISIS is also indicative of a clash of civilizations,” said Rondeaux. “The counter to that is the rise and return of white crusaders.”

In Russia, the Lost Cause focuses on the historical primacy of white Slavic men, especially over Muslims and Jews, not to mention Black and brown people. This ancient white “purity” is expressed through the wide use of symbols: Wagner armored vehicles, fighting in Libya, are decorated with pre-Christian Viking runes. (Proud Boys founder Joe Biggs took a selfie with similar runes on his armored vest.) Recent photos taken in Ukraine indicate this iconography has influenced the broader Russian military, where we’ve seen Spetsnaz wear Wagnerian “ISIS Hunter” patches on their uniforms and tanks are decorated with runes.

But Wagner does more than adopt and propagate racist symbols. They carried out a lynching as well.

One victim was Hambi Bouta, a thirty-six-year-old husband and father of four, who travelled from eastern Syria to Lebanon, for construction work, and upon return in early 2017 was picked up at the border and conscripted into service in Bashar al-Assad’s army. Less than a month later, Bouta tried to escape, but he was caught deserting, and at some point arrived at the al-Shaer oil field, where he was held by Wagner mercenaries.

In the video that emerged in 2019, four white men carrying Kalashnikovs and wearing mismatched camouflage uniforms laugh and joke while they torture Bouta. A few try to cover their faces, but they aren’t shy about recording with their cameras. The mercenaries beat Bouta with a sledgehammer, cut off his arms with a shovel, decapitate him, string up his corpse by the feet, and light him on fire. His head they hang at the fenced gate to the oilfield. Some of the torturers appear to be drunk, and rock music plays in the background. When the men’s sweaty sunglasses and masks slip off, the videographer calls out in Russian “Hide your faces … well, whatever, this video won’t go up anywhere anyway.”

The video did get out, though, which is how we know of this war crime. One mercenary in particular stands out, a tall man with spiky blond hair and white-rimmed sunglasses, who wields the sledgehammer and carries the torch.

But when the video spread on social media, the men were not vilified or shunned. Rather, the abhorrent act and the men who did it were embraced by Russian mercenary culture. The spiky-haired man and his sledgehammer became a meme.

And the memes that emerged are instructive. The sledgehammer is the recurring totem, and the spiky-haired man appears on faux WWII Soviet recruiting posters, a symbol of Russian strength. Also in a photoshopped news conference with Vladimir Putin, or as a tattoo on a man’s leg. In a new Prigozhin-financed Russian action-movie called “The Tourist,” about Wagner’s exploits in the Central African Republic, the sledgehammer even makes a cameo.

Most shocking, though, for an American, is a meme where the spiky-haired blond man’s head appears on the body of Derek Chauvin, as the convicted former Minneapolis police officer kneels on George Floyd’s neck.

Rondeaux says most Americans continue to misunderstand fundamental nature of the Russian mercenaries. “Wagner is not an official corporate entity, like Blackwater,” she said, referencing the American security firm founded by Erik Prince. “It is both a set of contingents, that work for Russia, and an online social movement. Wagner is propaganda. More than a paramilitary group, it is a meme.”

Memes are not just the image you laugh at and share on social media. “They distill the essence of an idea, and so both reflect culture and create culture,” said Jacob Siegel, an editor at Tablet magazine, who has written extensively on meme warfare, a pernicious 21st century information war of ideas and information. Memes are an inherently digital phenomenon because they are iterative—many versions of a meme will appear, using similar photos and text, until the most-shared version, like a virus, becomes the dominant strain. Social media users, unaware that they are participating in an information war, participate by spreading the meme, posting what they think are crude harmless jokes.

But it’s not an off-color joke, or a digital accident, when memes depict the Wagner sledgehammer wielded by Pepe the Frog, the American alt-right mascot. And when the head of a Russian torturer is affixed to an American police officer, it’s not a coincidence.

“You choose to put that head on that body because you believe in the supremacy of white power,” said Rondeaux. “And America is the place that is packaged and sold.”

Wagner shares with some American militias a particular apocalyptic philosophy: accelerationism, or a desire to foment immediate radical social upheaval. Perhaps the most well-known American accelerationists are the Boogaloo Bois, the heavily armed, Hawaiian shirt-wearing militia that seeks to bring on the “big luau,” the big race war, as quickly as possible.

“At the root of accelerationism is the tension between replacement theory and the supremacy of the white race,” said Rondeaux said. Replacement is the animating anxiety for white power groups, and the motivation for Peyton Gendron’s alleged mass shooting on May 14th in Buffalo. Gendron boasted Nazi symbols and specifically targeted Black people, but think also of the chant from the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville: “Jews will not replace us.” Accelerationism wants to bring on the war soon, while whites are perceived as still being in a better position to win. “The Boogaloo and the Russian Imperial Legion share a common worldview,” Rondeaux said.

The Boogaloo Bois, the Proud Boys, and Wagner are all “armed non-state actors,” to borrow a term from international law. Independent militias with ideologies. Rondeaux said that during the Cold War, “the state was primary mover and shaker when it came to collecting men to go fight for a purpose. Now different private actors, and semi-private actors, with different motivations, recruit and hire.”

The power of the international justice to control these kinds of groups is being put to the test. A year ago, in March 2021, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in France, and the Memorial Human Rights Center in Russia filed a lawsuit against Wagner in a Russian court on behalf of Hambi Bouta, the Syrian man tortured to death on video. The plaintiffs admit there is little chance to find justice in Russian courts, but they had planned to appeal up to the European Court of Human Rights, whose judgements Russia is treaty-bound to enforce. Those are now likely dashed, as Russia has been expelled from the Council of Europe, and the window for resolving legal proceedings closes on September 16th.

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, the video has done its job as a meme, converted into Pepe the Frog and Derek Chauvin. “It’s a piece of white nationalist propaganda,” said Belew, “that says the execution of people of color is justified all over the world.”

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