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‘People think it doesn't affect them. But it affects everyone.’ Meduza interviews the reporter who blew the lid on Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria

Meduza
14:39, 30 august 2017

Fontanka journalist Denis Korotkov

From his personal photo archive

On August 24, the St. Petersburg publication Fontanka announced that threats have been made against its reporter, former police officer Denis Korotkov. The messages have appeared in comments on numerous blog posts calling Korotkov a “traitor,” among other things. Internet users have promised promised to “knock some sense” into him and “get him by the balls,” sharing a home address that Fontanka confirms “is linked” to Korotkov. The publication suspects the threats are a response to Korotkov’s reporting on operations in Syria by the “Wagner group,” a private military contractor staffed by mercenaries from Russia and Ukraine. The organization has possible financial ties to the Kremlin-connected entrepreneur Evgeny Prigozhin, and its commanders have received awards from the Russian government. Fontanka has been reporting on “Wagner” since 2013, and in August 2017 it published photographs from the company's “recruiting center,” along with the personnel records of several dozen mercenaries filed during hiring procedures. To learn more about this story, Meduza’s Evgeny Berg spoke to Denis Korotkov.

Denis, where you are located now?

First, I decided to change where I was living for the time being, to avoid giving someone the pleasure of bashing me over the head in the hallway of my own apartment building. But starting this Monday I came into the office and moved back home. If they want, let them come and visit me.

Do you think there’s a good chance you’ll be bashed in the head?

Not because somebody will read some weird blog post and decide to take revenge against Korotkov the Traitor, but because all this hysteria whipped up by certain commentators could serve as a smokescreen for a small, but effective operation by specific people working for a particular person.

You’re referring to Dmitri Utkin, the leader of “Wagner”?

More likely, the person backing him.

So Evgeny Prigozhin?

That’s my guess.

Since 2013, you’ve been writing about Syria and the former Russian military personnel fighting there unofficially. Why are the threats pouring in only now?

Because the situation has escalated to a completely new level. For the most part, it was possible to ignore all my previous reports, and that’s exactly what all the government agencies did. They could deny there was any story at all, and say, “Fontanka and Denis Korotkov dreamed up Wagner.” And they could vacate the base in Molkino in half a day, if they wanted. But now, as a result of many years of work, at last we’ve got [important] documents: the records of Wagner mercenaries. It’s not so easy [to dismiss] these. Our critics might say it’s possible to fabricate one résumé, or two, or five, or 10 — right? But we published roughly 40 of these, and they’re all logically consistent. Who would forge recruitment photos from Molkino? Or all the other documents? We uncovered internal documents, reports, some appraisals, memos, and more.

So the threats could be part of some targeted revenge or just a distraction. But the threats against me aren’t the most important issue. Nobody is talking about the fact that Wagner’s army exists, or asking whether it’s good or bad that our oligarchy is waging war.

I don’t rule out that there are people who consider me a traitor to the country for various reasons: some people probably believe that I’m endangering the relatives of those killed in combat. To these people, I say: gentlemen, what on Earth are you talking about? It was our dear president and defense minister who took the stage and read out the names of the heroically deceased artillery scout-spotter and the pilots who bombed the Mujahideen, ISIS fighters, and other bad people. And let’s look at the list we [at Fontanka] published: Alexander Vladimirovich Karchyonkov? My God, people. Stary Oskol’s Channel Nine reported his name, as did the station’s director, who presented Karchyonkov’s posthumous Order of Courage medal. And then there’s Ruslan Davidovich Sakhipov, whose name was reported by the Saratov newspaper Krasnokutskiye Vesti. And in the presence of Saratov’s governor and the chairman of the regional parliament, the relatives were presented with a Wagner company award. Nobody says the governor is a traitor, or, God forbid, that Krasnokutskiye Vesti betrayed the nation.

The Molkino training grounds in the Krasnodar region, March 2017
Vitaly Timkiv / TASS / Vida Press

You’re listing names that were already known. But you published the names of individuals who’d never been in the news before. Do you really believe this doesn’t create any dangers for their relatives?

I think it’s unpleasant for the relatives. It’s very unpleasant. But I believe the public interest here is many times more important. We proved that these people fought for money in the Wagner group, and their actions look a lot more like mercenary work than voluntary service. And that’s what is causing all this hysteria. Because if a person is going off to fight for money, that’s wrong.

Of course, I understand the relatives of the men killed. Everyone wants to believe their spouse, their loved one, or son is a hero who died defending Russia from terrorists. Just knowing that this person went to fight for 240,000 rubles ($4,000) a month, in order to pay off credit loans and provide for his family — yeah, that’s a lot less pleasant, unfortunately.

You said that it’s wrong to fight for money. Why?

A paid army is a good thing. Even the ideology and system of the French [Foreign] Legion, which is still very controversial I think, is fine. Moreover, I think private military companies are a perfectly just, good, and absolutely acceptable form of employment.

In Russia, private military companies have operated well through offshores. This was also fine. There was the Moran Security Group, which essentially went belly up. Can private military companies be involved in military operations? Certainly. They can guard bases and communications lines, and protect key human assets in zones of active operations. However! When a private company is armed with tanks, 122-mm artillery, and armored infantry vehicles, and it’s carrying out attack missions or performing tasks better suited to the special forces, that, in my view, isn’t okay.

Why?

Because these people aren’t constrained by the law. Guys, if we’re using violence in the state’s interests, it should be done by the army, which has to comply with the laws of the state, which observes the laws of war. For example, who qualifies as a combatant under the Hague Convention? It’s someone who openly carries arms, has some clearly visible and distinctive mark, and obeys some command structure [the convention also specifies that combatants observe the “laws and customs of war” in their actions]. [With mercenaries] we don’t see this. And who are these people really? Who gives them their orders? Who are they fighting for? When we’re fighting for some oligarch, instead of our country — guys, I don’t know, but this is like something out of the 15th century. And I’m not even talking now about the fact that it’s simply illegal. The legal, ethical, and reputational losses here seem to me to be incompatible with any supposed benefit we could possibly be getting.

I mean — Jesus! [Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor] Konashenkov had to lie on camera when he commented on these publications. [Konashenkov called Fontanka’s reports “rumors“ and said information published by Fontanka and Reuters about Wagner mercenaries killed in Syria is based on “invented conversations.”] Is that okay?

You published information from 40 personnel records belonging to Wagner mercenaries. Fontanka, meanwhile, says it has in its possession more than 2,000 such records.

That’s a conservative figure.

So there are actually even more? How many?

Lots.

You’ve written that the Wagner company has employed a total of roughly 5,000 people.

By my assessment, that’s more or less correct. Some people leave after a month, and some people arrived in 2014 and are still fighting with them to this day. I think that’s generally the case.

Do you have copies of all 5,000 employees’ records?

We don’t have all 5,000, no.

And you now only acquired these records?

I think you know that I didn’t crawl under barbed wire into the Molkino base, and I didn’t sneak into their security office… I’m not prepared to assess the command of Mr. Utkin [the supposed founder of Wagner] or Mr. Troshev [Uktin’s supposed deputy]. I’m not an expert in these matters, but many people who are experts have noted a great number of professional and organizational issues [with Wagner]. And it drives them nuts because — and this is what they told me, so I can’t judge this assessment — the successes [Wagner] has enjoyed could have been even greater and achieved more effectively with fewer losses.

And there’s also information — still unverified, it’s just rumors — that there were incidents of physical violence, including fatalities [at Wagner’s compound]. For now, we’re just treating this as rumors, but we’re not ruling out that they’ll be confirmed in the future.

Let’s talk about [Wagner’s] ties to the Russian Defense Ministry. In 2016, according to all our sources, there was very close cooperation at all levels: aviation-artillery support, weapons supplies, military hardware, ammunition, and evacuation of the wounded (not an irrelevant concern for soldiers who found themselves on the ground). At some point in 2017, the support suddenly dried up, especially when it came to weapons.

And of course everyone was also shocked that the cash allowance dried up suddenly, when monthly pay in all units not engaging the enemy in direct combat fell to 160,000 rubles ($2,700). For risking being killed in the Syrian desert, that’s low even by Russian standards. According to another rumor (that again still needs to be verified), men in the companies that supposedly arrived in the latest rotation were significantly shortchanged.

So you received these records from someone inside Wagner?

I’m not going anywhere near that question.

But you already broached the subject when you started saying that discontent is ripening inside the company.

There is discontent ripening inside the company, and that’s why information and photographs are appearing.

You’ve been writing about Syria since 2013. How did you even get involved in this field?

Generally speaking, I found out about the existence in Russia of private military companies in 2012, I think, when I learned about the Moran Security Group, which was working in Nigeria with sailors, guards, and weapons. Then we [at Fontanka] got interested and we contacted the management at Moran, and spoke to staff who handled hiring for the operations there and documentation for the sailors. Then we managed to get documents from the Nigerian authorities, as well.

In October 2013, when they tore apart the “Slavic Corps” in Syria [a private military company out of which Fontanka says Wagner emerged], [Syrian] militants uncovered documents allegedly belonging to a killed Russian mercenary.

There were several photographs, and among the documents was a certificate from the Moran Security Group, which was another impetus to dig further into this story. We were pretty quick getting to the bottom of the Slavic Corps. We even managed to find this supposedly killed mercenary named Alexey Malyuta, who turned out to be alive and well.

Then we reported this story in great detail, and managed to speak very openly to one of the participants. In 2013, two Slavic Corps commanders were arrested the instant they returned to Russia, and they were subsequently convicted in court.

Among the casualties in Eastern Ukraine, I’ve recognized some of the names from Slavic Corps staff records. I assumed these people went there as volunteers, because among contract soldiers and staff at private military companies there are lots of people who consider warfare to be their profession, and these people are ready to fight for money or for a cause they believe is right. And why not? All the stories [I’d heard from sources] about these people actually fighting as part of private military companies, and later forming the backbone of the Wagner group, I confess I thought it was all tall tales and exaggerations.

Meaning that you didn’t believe this story back then?

Well, it sounds to me like total nonsense even when I hear it now, but back then I really thought it was something completely insane. But in the fall of 2015, I heard that these people were now headed for Syria. I started digging, asking around, and searching. And then we realized that Wagner really exists. We obtained some of the company’s internal documents: contracts, non-disclosure agreements, and so on. And we wrote about it.

Then they tell me: “Listen, these guys are getting medals from the government.” I didn’t believe it. But later we got the first proof that they had received these medals, with photographs and bios of the people involved. The further we went, the more there was. Then my sources tell me that two of them have been named Heroes of Russia. There’s no way that could be true! But in December 2016, at a Heroes of the Fatherland Day celebration, there are Mr. Utkin and Mr. Troshev sitting in the Kremlin, appearing in TV broadcasts!

Still later, there was the photograph showing the Wagner commanders with Vladimir Putin. We weren’t the ones who found that. It surfaced on its own, but we did report on the people depicted in the photo. Why hide it? What kind of secrets could we be talking about, if these people were standing in the presence of the president at a public event with these medals?

In your opinion, how did Utkin manage to win state support in 2016?

He didn’t succeed at all. This wasn’t his area at all — it wasn’t his job. He’s the commander of a unit that could be called a battalion group.

So why did they start getting money?

Listen, I can’t produce any documentary proof showing that the Wagner group is funded by Mr. Prigozhin, though there are certain analyses of the situation and there’s some evidence. Another issue is that this connection has seemed to me to be very obvious since the beginning of this year, when we learned about a contract [on extracting oil from Syrian territory recovered from the rebels] between the Syrian authorities and the Russian firm "EuroPolis,” which Russia’s Energy Ministry verified to us. And the links between EuroPolis and Mr. Prigozhin have already been documented.

If you remember that the army gets its provisions almost entirely from firms tied to Concord [the catering empire founded by Evgeny Prigozhin]... We’re talking food supply, army rations, the maintenance of military installations, and the construction of portable buildings, which have also been erected in Syria. For example — and this isn’t some classified military secret — the food being provided to [Russian] forces in Syria comes from the limited liability company “RestoranServis Plus,” which has ties to Concord.

Let’s assume that Prigozhin really is behind the supplies. Can you make any assumptions about his motives?

I’m not personally acquainted with Mr. Prigozhin. I’ve tried to speak with him on a few occasions, but naturally nothing came of it. I can imagine any motive: from profits to ideological motives. Maybe Prigozhin thinks that this is how he’s helping the government or the head of state. Maybe he thinks what he’s doing is right.

Restaurateur and so-called “Putin's favorite chef” Evgeny Prigozhin, August 2016
Mikhail Mettsel / TASS / Vida Press

Let’s return to 2012, when you found out about private military companies in Russia. Had you written anything about them, before this?

Before this, I’d written very little in general, having less than a year of experience as a writer and journalist. After serving in the army, I served in Interior Ministry agencies, working in the Petersburg police force. And I don’t hide any of this — I’m completely proud of my service. I worked in St. Petersburg’s Frunzenskiy District. The first half of my service, I worked in the patrol-guard service, and then I joined the criminal investigation department.

So you did investigative work there, too?

The methods for this work are almost the same everywhere, whether it’s business, expert analysis, or police work. You collect and analyze the information, and then you present it.

Why did you decide to leave the service?

It’s complicated. I started feeling like my work was mostly pointless. I don’t mean that I was catching criminals and they were letting them go. It’s just that I had too little time for that [kind of real work].

The criminal investigation service “on the ground” is built on an enormous amount of paperwork, and this leaves too little time for the very work that attracts people to the police force in the first place. The job is 80 percent talking to people — thinking, finding people, and talking to them. But this process is weighed down by so much paperwork that sometimes it loses its meaning.

Take any criminal case: thousands of sheets of paper, and maybe only a tenth of them have any meaning or significance. Everything else is just procedural waste. Maybe it’s all a guarantee on the rule of law, but it smacks strongly of idiocy.

And how did you end up in journalism?

I wrote a letter offering my services. Fontanka posted a job vacancy. I told them, “I’d like to work for you.” They told me: “You’ll need to know what’s happening in this city [St. Petersburg] and some other things.” Well I had no problem with knowing the city, though I’d never in my life been a writer. But I thought: maybe this could work?

Why go to Fontanka? People say Fontanka has close ties to the police agencies. What’s your position on this?

My position is philosophical. If you look at the work at Fontanka written by my colleagues, I think many of these articles caused a lot of police chiefs to toss and turn at night and lose sleep, and some of them were demoted and lost their jobs.

After any story that affects someone’s interests — and thank God most of our reporting is like this — they always write, “This is a planted story. It’s a leak.” This kind of thing is obvious, in my opinion. And how am I supposed to respond? I can’t prove that nobody paid me to write a story, that nobody brought me two bags of money or something to write some article. Guys, let’s just argue about the established facts.

Do you use acquaintances you made on the force in your journalism today?

Almost never. In the last few years, the [police] staff has changed considerably. And I just don’t treat my friends like that. I’m not going to try to make my friend into a source or befriend someone to gain a source.

The security measures you’re taking now — is that long-term? How does this story end?

They’re long-term. I think something has got to happen. I don’t understand how you can ignore the documents that we published. If Fontanka can get this information, then it’s eventually going to become accessible to a wider circle. If 5,000 people have passed through this private military company, [sooner or later] somewhere… something will happen.

Will the Wagner Group continue to exist?

Again, according to rumors and the echoes of information that reach me, they’re planning of course to keep Wagner. And they might use it in commercial projects. People tell all kinds of stories, some more believable than others.

What kind of stories? The company will wage small victorious wars?

Just looking within the former USSR, there are places where there could be possible disturbances, like what happened in Ukraine. And there’s Central Asia and the African continent. [Wagner] has a command structure, with a staff of mid-ranking commanders and experts who are accustomed to this kind of work. There’s a database that allows them to fill vacancies with personnel, and there’s money to pay them.

For most [mercenaries], the money was very important, if not the most important thing. And other people are looking for opportunities to realize their own potential and find a lost place in life. For a former artillery battalion commander, there’s a difference between being a civilian storeroom clerk and commanding a military unit. Even for just 160,000 rubles ($2,700) a month, men in Eastern Ukraine and in Russia are willing to go fight. And they’re going and fighting.

I’d also like to point out that all this baffles me. I actually didn’t believe in this whole system [at the beginning of my investigation]. But I kept uncovering more, with every step. And I simply don’t understand why nobody really cares about this story. To be honest, it hasn’t really caused much public interest. Some people deny it, and some say, “Okay sounds great. Any bad guys — go ahead and crush them in Syria, and everything will remain peaceful here in Russia.” Some people say, “This is all fine. These guys are national heroes. They’re fighting in the war on terrorism.” And the fact that there are illegal armed formations right here in Russia, run by who the hell knows, doesn’t interest anybody. That’s what bothers me.

How do you explain the absence of the public interest that you hoped for?

Because, on the one hand, it’s interesting as an exotic story. It’s about pirates, mercenaries, and soldiers of fortune. This is the kind of thing we like to read about in the evening, after dinner. But it doesn’t affect anyone personally. Some dude went somewhere, and they buried him. Big deal. It’s like it doesn’t concern anybody else. But it concerns us all.

Interview in Russian by Evgeny Berg, translation by Kevin Rothrock