The business of war: Russian mercenaries in Syria
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A paramilitary chief who serves as a contact for Russians who want to become mercenaries in Syria discusses the grim business of making war for profit. He spoke to FRANCE 24 only on condition of anonymity.
If you live near Russia's Yekaterinburg and want to fight with pro-regime forces in Syria, there’s one man you need to speak to. He is a paramilitary chief who advises Russians wanting to work for Wagner, a shadowy Kremlin-linked private military contractor known for sending mercenaries to Syria.
“Each week I receive five or six new requests,” he told FRANCE 24. “Some call me by phone, others come to see me. About a hundred people in the region are planning to go to Syria.”
He said that interest has only increased since the Russian foreign ministry reported that five Russians died in a US bombing raid on pro-regime troops attacking opposition forces in Syria's Deir Ezzor province on February 7.
“Now, it’s more about getting revenge than it is about money,” he said.
But the chief warned that these revenge-seekers don’t know the whole story. According to him, it wasn’t just five Russians killed in the American raid – it was 218. (US officials have said about 100 pro-regime fighters were killed, without specifying whether they were Syrian army, Russian or other forces.)
However, the paramilitary chief said only 150 bodies have so far been recovered.
“There are 150 people in refrigerators on the Wagner base” back in Russia, he said. “Their state? 'Minced meat' is how they described them to me.”
Even so, the chief doesn’t feel much sympathy for those who died; he believes it is a fate they chose.
“If you sign up with a private military company, you have sold yourself to them for money,” he said. “The company can use you however it wants. What will happen to you after your death? If you’ve been turned into mincemeat, so what? They put you in a bag, close the coffin and – in the best-case scenario – send you home. In the worst, they bury you there. If you are ready to earn money by killing people and defending the commercial interests of others, then that’s fine.”
Though the assault happened more than two weeks ago, the chief says that the families of the dead still don’t know what happened to their relatives.
“Nothing will happen before the presidential election on March 18,” he told FRANCE 24.
“We all know why. There’s no problem keeping the deaths secret.”
The military chief told FRANCE 24 that these private contractors step in when the Russian government needs deniability.
“What’s the main goal of any private military company? Defend the interests of a government if it can’t use the regular army,” he said.
He says Wagner, which also sends mercenaries to fight in the Donbass region in Ukraine, is in the mercenary business for profit.
“The goal is financial revenue and the possibility of taking control of a large market for oil resources so our country can control it,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing."
"We didn’t start this war. But it’s up to us to finish it."
Click on the video player above to view an excerpt. The full FRANCE 24 interview will be broadcast on Saturday.