Russian mercenaries, a discrete weapon in Syria

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad visits a Russian air base at Hmeymim, in western Syria in this handout photo posted on SANA on June 27, 2017, Syria. (REUTERS)
Updated 18 February 2018
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Russian mercenaries, a discrete weapon in Syria

MOSCOW: The death of Russian citizens in Syria from a US coalition strike last week, which has been played down by both Moscow and Washington, has exposed the role of Russian mercenaries in the multi-front conflict.
The incident followed a steady trickle of reports about Russians dying in battle in Syria while employed as guns for hire in a privately-owned outfit whose role may be securing oilfields for President Bashar Assad.
Russia on Thursday has finally recognized that five Russian citizens, not officially affiliated with the Russian military, were likely killed in the strikes in eastern Syria, in the first admission of non-military combat casualties.
The US had said the coalition acted in self-defense when an enemy unit of 300-500 people launched an attack on an established SDF position east of the Euphrates river in Deir Ezzor province.
The coalition warned the Russian military and proceeded to strike the formation, killing up to 100 people. The Russian military said it had no troops in the area.
While US officials have refused to disclose the nationality of the attackers, various reports indicated a death toll of up to several hundred Russians from the strike.
Russia can legally prosecute mercenaries under an existing law which has been applied against several citizens fighting in Ukraine and Syria in recent years.
In 2014, two Russian men, Vadim Gusev and Yevgeny Sidorov, were sentenced to three years in prison after they recruited over 200 former military soldiers to an outfit called the Slavonic Corps for a trip to Syria’s Deir Ezzor.
According to Fontanka website, which has chronicled the involvement of private military contractors in Syria, the Slavonic Corps later became the core of a new mercenary group recruited by former member Dmitry Utkin, nicknamed Wagner.
The Wagner group has no website or social networking page, instead attracting men with military experience through word of mouth.
Utkin and the Wagner group was blacklisted by the US Treasury in 2016 for having “recruited and sent soldiers to fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine.”
It is known to train at a military base in a village called Molkino outside Krasnodar in southern Russia. According to Fontanka, the Wagner group has fought in Syria since late 2015.
Unlike Gusev and Sidorov, Wagner has not been prosecuted. Instead, he was honored in the Kremlin in December 2016. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at the time that Utkin was invited as a decorated military veteran.

According to Fontanka, Wagner is associated with a Russian company Yevro Polis, which has signed a deal with the Syrian government.
Under the deal, the company would capture and secure oil and gas infrastructure in Syria in exchange for a 25 percent share in future resource production.
Fontanka has tied Yevro Polis to the empire of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Saint-Petersburg businessman running the company Concord Catering which controls several restaurant businesses and has won many contracts from the Russian defense ministry.
Prigozhin, and Concord Catering, were blacklisted by the US Treasury for “having materially assisted” Russian officials and being tied to a company building a military base near Ukraine’s border. Yevro Polis is also on the blacklist.
The US special prosecutor investigating Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election indicted Prigozhin Friday for running an influence campaign on the Internet through a “troll farm” company in Saint-Petersburg.
Prigozhin has denied ties both to the Internet company and to Wagner group.
Mercenaries not directly affiliated with the Russian military may be convenient for Moscow’s business interests in Syria while assuring deniability of government involvement.
But after numerous reports of casualties in Syria and capture of two Russians, reportedly from the Wagner group, by Daesh last year, Russian officials have called for legalizing mercenaries.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in January said legislation was needed to “protect these people,” referring to Russians in private military companies.
“Everybody understands the need for a law,” said Mikhail Yemelyanov, an MP in the Just Russia party, who is one of the authors of a bill on private military companies currently being reviewed by government.
Asked if the need was due to Russians fighting in Syria, Yemelyanov told AFP that it’s “because it’s not just Russians fighting there” and because private military companies are legal in many countries.
Some reports have said that the Russian defense ministry did not know about Russian citizens fighting in the area at the time of the US coalition strike. This would be impossible under the new bill, Yemelyanov said.
“We wrote in the bill that the defense ministry would coordinate and that participation in armed conflicts would only be with their permission,” he said.
“If our bill would be passed, everyone would know who is fighting where.”


Xi says China must lead way in reform of global governance

Updated 23 June 2018
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Xi says China must lead way in reform of global governance

  • China has sought a greater say in global organizations in line with its growing economic and diplomatic clout
  • Beijing has cast itself a responsible member of the international community

BEIJING: China must lead the way in reforming global governance, the foreign ministry on Saturday cited President Xi Jinping as saying, as Beijing looks to increase its world influence.
China has sought a greater say in global organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and United Nations, in line with its growing economic and diplomatic clout.
Since taking office in late 2012, Xi has taken a more muscular approach, setting up China’s own global bodies like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and launching his landmark Belt and Road project to build a new Silk Road.
Beijing has cast itself a responsible member of the international community, especially as President Donald Trump withdraws the United States from agreements on climate change and Iran, and as Europe wrestles with Brexit and other issues.
China must “uphold the protection of the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests, proactively participate in and show the way in reform of the global governance system, creating an even better web of global partnership relationships,” Xi said in comments reported at the end of a two-day high-level Communist Party meeting.
This would help create conditions for building a modern, strong socialist country, the ministry cited him as saying at the meeting attended by officials from the foreign and commerce ministries, the military, the propaganda department and the Chinese embassy in the United States.
While Xi did not provide details, the statement cited him as mentioning the importance of the Belt and Road, and other key diplomatic platforms like his “community of common destiny,” a lofty concept meant to guide China’s relations with the world.
This proposes a “new style” of international relations is proposed that is “win-win” and of “mutual benefit” for all, but many Western nations remain critical of China’s behavior over issues such as the contested waters of the South China Sea.
Xi added that China must strengthen its relations with developing nations, who he described as natural allies, but also learn from all other nations.
He made no direct mention of issues like the trade dispute between China and the United States, North Korea, or self-ruled Taiwan, claimed by Beijing as its own and considered China’s most sensitive territorial and diplomatic issue.