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‘Armed to the teeth’ Who runs — and who funds — a new private military company in annexed Crimea?

Sergey Aksyonov, the Kremlin-appointed governor of annexed Crimea, has created his own private military company called Convoy and headed by Konstantin Pikalov (call sign: Mazai), a former Wagner Group leader whom publication Vazhniye Istorii (Important Stories) called Evgeny Prigozhin’s right hand man. Meduza summarizes Vazhniye Istorii’s reporting on the group, its origins, and its links to both Wagner Group and official Russian military structures.

Convoy is a new paramilitary organization and its eponymous Telegram channel was created in November 2022. In addition to calls to join the group, the channel publishes texts about “a strong, Orthodox Russia,” “Ukrainian satanists,” “the victorious nation,” as well as conspiracy theories

A former member of the organization told Vazhniye Istorii that formally, Convoy is an army combat reserve whose members sign two contracts — one with the private military company, and another with Russia’s Ministry of Defense. The former Convoy fighter said that while he was with the group, he earned almost 200,000 rubles (around $2,588) a month, and commanders earned 300,000 rubles ($3,882). The group promises land “in Crimea or Abkhazia” to anyone who serves for a full year.

He says he signed on with Convoy when the group had just formed, at which point it consisted of about 300 people. At the moment, Convoy is reportedly located in the Kherson region, which neighbors Crimea.

Convoy’s training grounds are “in the village of Perevalne,” in Crimea, writes Vazhniye Istorii, citing information gleaned from texting with a Convoy volunteer. The same village houses an educational center where people can learn to use Lobaev sniper rifles, which Convoy also uses. 

The former Convoy member told journalists that the group has a sniper unit. When he was with Convoy, he says, it employed five snipers.

In March 2023, the Russian state-owned television network Crimea 24 aired reporting about a professional military unit formed by the governor of annexed Crimea, Aksyonov. That report said Aksyonov regularly visits “the unit’s positions at the front.” Not long before it aired, Convoy’s Telegram channel ran a video clip showing Aksyonov inspecting Convoy positions.

In February, Olga Kurlayeva, an employee of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), visited Convoy positions. Her report called the paramilitary group an “assault-intelligence unit.” The propagandist enthused about Convoy’s dugout, saying “I’ve never seen such a fortification: a whole apartment building underground. Their equipment is brand new, they’re armed to the teeth.”

According to Kurlayeva, the Russian-appointed governor of Crimea finds extra-budgetary funding sources to keep the group supplied with provisions, equipment, and weapons. She says the group has its own electronic intelligence and heavy equipment, including T-80 and T-90 tanks.

A former member of the group told Vazhniye Istorii, “In terms of material support there are no problems. We got bulletproof vests, helmets, goggles, gloves, balaklavas, raid backpacks — everything. Three sets of things.”

Kurlayeva’s report also showed Convoy’s commander to be a servicemember with the call sign Mazai. Journalists recognized him as Konstantin Pikalov, a Wagner Group supervisor in Africa. The research group Bellingcat and journalists at Der Spiegel and The Insider called Pikalov a key figure in Prigozhin’s “Africa project,” which included political, commercial, and military work in several African countries. The VGTRK reported noted that Mazai “worked in Madagascar and the Central African Republic.”

Pikalov is legally listed as the chief of a Cossack Society, Convoy. That society founded the Convoy Military Security Company, which contracts with mercenaries, according to Vazhniye Istorii.

The Cossack society’s cofounder is Vasily Yashikov, a self-styled Cossack blogger who allegedly beat up Navalny supporters at a 2018 rally in Moscow. He told VGTRK that one of his ancestors had been the personal bodyguard of the Empress Maria Feodorovna. He told Vazhniye Istorii that the private military company had been named in honor of the imperial convoy, but declined to answer the publication’s other questions.

“This is Aksyonov’s private military company, but the entire command is former Wagner Group employees. They’ve all known each other a long time,” a former Convoy mercenary told Vazhniye Istorii.

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