An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Case of the Keystone Cossacks

Who sent a bunch of hapless Russian soldiers of fortune to go do battle in Syria?

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Getty Images

In late October, amendments were made to Article 208 of the Russian Criminal Code outlawing the "Organization of, or Participation in, Illegal Armed Units" in foreign countries. Intended to stanch the rising flow of radical jihadists from the Russian Federation to Syria, and purposefully written to encompass foreign military activities for which the participant need not receive payment, the amended law now carries a six-year prison sentence for anyone found guilty of violating it. According to Sergei Smirnov, the first deputy director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), some 300 to 400 fighters, mainly from the North Caucasus, are thought to have already joined with religious crusaders in trying to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The prior statute in the Russian Criminal Code, Article 359, which dates back to 1996, outlaws the more conventionally defined activity of the noncitizen mercenary — as in the soldier of fortune who works for pay. Funnily enough, it’s that earlier statute that has already been broken by more than 200 Russians who just returned from a lackluster military performance in Syria. Only they were fighting for Damascus, not for al Qaeda.

In late October, international media outlets reported that Russian mercenaries appeared to have joined with Syrian army regulars in a fight against rebels. After a battle in Homs between regime troops and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, one of the two main al Qaeda groups in Syria, the jihadi website Kavkaz Center — known more for its crude propaganda than its empirically verifiable information — claimed that among the 100 enemy slain were several Russians. One of the dead was even named: Aleksei Malyuta, from the city of Abinsk in Krasnodar territory. Kavkaz posted videos, including one reportedly showing a Russian mercenary breaking a piece of wood in half over the head of another, as well as documents allegedly showing that Malyuta worked as a professional gun for hire for the Moran Security Group, a Moscow-based private military company, which had contracted a Hong Kong-registered entity called Slavonic Corps Ltd. to dispatch armed personnel to Syria. According to its website, Moran "offer[s] targeted approaches in the world’s current hot spots, such as the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, which include the enlistment of local experts in these dynamic and highly sensitive environments." As for Slavonic Corps, on its website it claims to operate "in strict correspondence to Russian law" and "never take[s] part in events related to overthrow of governments, violating human rights of civilian population and in any other actions violating International Law and Conventions." If one judges from some of the now-verified photographs that Kavkaz Center produced, these contracted "local experts" in Syria may have included the thuggish pro-regime shabiha, whose white trucks with mounted machine guns have become symbols of atrocity.

The story idled for several days until the St. Petersburg newspaper Fontanka published an investigative piece querying executives of Moran and Slavonic Corps. Alexey Badikov, a director of Moran, whose signature appeared on Malyuta’s personnel ID, which was obtained by jihadists in Syria, told Fontanka reporter Denis Korotkov that Malyuta did indeed work for Moran in 2012 and early 2013 and participated in seagoing operations to protect private merchant ships from piracy, though he didn’t specify where. However, Badikov said, Slavonic Corps had no relationship with Moran, and Moran hadn’t contracted any work in Syria.

Fontanka proved that both assertions were false. It authenticated the ID documents published by the Kavkaz Center, proving that Malyuta did indeed have a contract with Slavonic Corps and was in Syria in October. But Malyuta, the newspaper found, was actually still quite alive and now back in Russia, celebrating his return with his brother, Sergei, who was the acting head of the same security detail in Syria, nine days after jihadists prematurely announced Aleksei Malyuta’s demise. Sergei Malyuta told Fontanka that Slavonic Corps contracted the Russian mercenaries, all of whom returned alive. They were tasked with the "guard and defense of economic facilities of the Syrian Republic. The point was to free the subdivisions of the Syrian army from these duties, so that they could take part in the battle against the bandits." Sergei Malyuta denied taking part in any clashes with jihadists or other rebels; his brother’s documents, he said, were "simply stolen" out of an unattended backpack. As proof of life, Aleksei Malyuta sent Fontanka a video, taken in Russia, in which he was drinking and toasting to his good health. Fontanka further verified that all the mercenaries had returned safely but prematurely owing to the "failure of the hosts to fulfill their financial obligations, which caused problems with the housing and feeding of the fighters from Slavonic Corps." The contract, apparently, had been broken.

But the story didn’t end there. In a follow-up article published on Nov. 14, Fontanka revealed that Russia’s domestic security service, the FSB, had arrested two high-ranking members of Slavonic Corps for illegal mercenary activity — the first-ever application of the criminal code’s old Article 359. Moreover, since the spring of 2013, Fontana‘s Korotkov found, based on interviews with several ex-contractors, Slavonic Corps had been recruiting former soldiers with combat experience to guard "energy facilities" in exotic locales for the promise of $4,000 per month. Recruits were interviewed over the phone before meeting directly with the president of Moran, Vyacheslav Kalashnikov, a lieutenant colonel in the FSB reserves, "who introduced himself as a general" and explained what the overseas missions would entail. A second face-to-face interview followed at the Baltic Shooting Center on Alexander Blok Street in St. Petersburg, where the appropriate forms would be completed and "passports ordered." Finally, recruits were invited to Moscow, where they were told, in Moran’s offices, that they’d be subcontracted to Syria with Slavonic Corps.

The men were called up just as soon as they arrived back in St. Petersburg. "Contracts with Hong Kong’s Slavonic Corps Limited were literally signed on knees on the platform at Leningrad railway station," Korotkov wrote. According to Oleg Krinitsyn, the head of RSB-Group, Russia’s largest private military company, whom Fontanka interviewed, the Slavonic Corps team was a shambles from the start:

Among those guys, photographed against a backdrop of Syrian equipment, festooned with weapons, I noticed a few of our former employees who had been dismissed because of their poor moral character. I saw guys with criminal records amongst them. This once again confirms that the aim of the re
cruiters was not to attract high-quality professionals, but just to plug a ‘hole’ with cannon fodder, and fast. And the boys were sent on contracts that resembled contracts for suicide missions. Right away, people signed a contract that included a will to bury their remains in their homeland or, if that proved impossible, in the nation where they died, and then be reburied in Russia. Dreadful.

Moreover, Krinitsyn told the newspaper, the contract these mercenaries signed apparently had been commissioned not by any ministry in Damascus but by "some Syrian oligarch, supposedly with Assad’s consent." Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who specializes in the Russian security services, concluded, following the Interpreter‘s translation of the Fontanka exclusives, that "it is difficult to sustain any notion that at the very least the Russian government did not give this its blessing."

As recounted by several of them to Fontanka, the mercenaries were flown to Beirut and then traveled by car to Damascus, before being transferred to a military base in the coastal province of Latakia. The Russians say they were greeted as foreign heroes by regime loyalists and housed in the makeshift barracks at the former stables of a horse track, alongside Syrian reservists. In October, according to one recruit, there were 267 Slavonic Corps mercenaries in Syria, split into two companies, one of them made up entirely of Cossacks, with the expectation that the total force would grow to 2,000 over time. They were given assault rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers as well as other Soviet-era hardware, some of it 70 years old. According to one unnamed Slavonic Corps mercenary:

When they spoke to us in Russia, they explained that we were going on a contract with the Syrian government; they convinced us that everything was legal and in order. Like, our government and the FSB were on board and involved in the project. When we arrived there, it turned out that we were sent as gladiators, under a contract with some Syrian or other, who may or may not have a relationship with the government.… That meant that we were the private army of a local kingpin. But there was no turning back. As they said, a return ticket costs money, and we’ll work it off, whether we like it or not.

The manager of the entire outfit in Latakia was Vadim Gusev, identified by Fontanka as deputy director of Moran. (According to documents Foreign Policy obtained from Slavonic Corps’ registry, Gusev also owns all 10,000 shares of the Hong Kong-based company.)

The one and only actual campaign Slavonic’s mercenaries participated in was a complete debacle: an abortive attempt to regain control of oil fields in Syria’s eastern province of Deir ez-Zor. Portraits of Assad and Baathist flags were stuck to Hyundai buses and JMC trucks as the men set off on a 350-mile trek eastward from Latakia across rebel-infiltrated terrain. Signs that their safety wasn’t really a paramount concern of their hosts became apparent immediately. Battle-ready T-72 tanks were replaced by older, dilapidated T-62s before the mission began back in Latakia. A Syrian helicopter, evidently mistaking the Russian convoy for enemy action, got itself tangled in power lines and crashed on top of the entire mercenary column albeit, wondrously, without killing anyone. Then, on Oct. 18, the Slavonic Corps fighters met their bathetic Little Bighorn after getting stuck in the town of al-Sukhnah, Homs, where they were surrounded by a contingent of up to 6,000 anti-Assad rebels (a figure almost surely exaggerated). "[N]ot wanting to die in vain for the ideals of the Syrian state," Korotkov writes rather grandly, the Russians "jumped into their vehicles and began to retreat. It’s most probable that during this retreat, Alexei Malyuta’s bag was lost and fell into the hands of the regime’s opponents." And from there his ecstatic obituary was uploaded to the Kavkaz Center.

Six mercenaries were wounded in the melee, two seriously. But the mercenaries credited their escape and survival to a sandstorm that they say blinded the advancing jihadists. The Russians returned first to an air base in Homs where they recalled "a loud argument … between Vadim Gusev and the Syrian ’employer’ of the Slavonic Corps: It was clear that they had different views on the subsequent plan. Everybody heard their yells, including mentions of dollars and, more specifically, of $4 million, that would have to be worked off." In the event, nothing was worked off, and all 267 Russians drove back to the base camp in Latakia neither expecting a hero’s welcome nor receiving one; instead, they were now scorned by the same crowd that had cheered them days earlier. A risky but remunerative assignment that was to have lasted five months barely lasted one. All the men were flown back to Moscow in the final days of October on two chartered planes. But as they filed off the planes at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, all the men were taken into temporary custody by waiting FSB agents who confiscated their SIM cards, electronic media, and passports and began interrogating them individually. Gusev, the head of the mission, was arrested under Article 359 along with Evgeny Sidorov, Moran’s human resources head and a 20 percent owner of the company. Both men now face as many as eight years in prison for recruiting mercenaries.

Galeotti told the Interpreter that given Moran President Vyacheslav Kalashnikov’s background as an FSB reservist — you never really "retire" from this status — he and his private military company would have had "frequent and dense" contacts with the Russian security organs. "Someone within the government apparatus must have put/kept Syria on the list of countries where they are clear to work and processed their request," he said. Andrei Soldatov, another expert on Russian intelligence and co-author of The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB, agrees. "We cannot exclude the possibility that [Kalashnikov] just used his contacts in the FSB to get some good contracts in Syria," Soldatov said. "I mean, it might be not that the FSB exploited him but that he exploited the FSB."

It’s not hard to surmise why the FSB would have turned on a company it may have given tacit support to send men into Syria. The mercenaries performed poorly in the field, and proof of their illicit activity had been plastered all over the Internet, so not tossing Gusev and Sidorov in the clink might have caused the kind of scandal that even an unembarrassable Kremlin would want to avoid. Moscow has been outspoken in its criticism of U.S. and Arab arms transfers to Syria’s rebels, even as its own state arms export company dispatches more and more sophisticated hardware to Assad, according to the State Department’s Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria. The Kremlin is also trying to ensure that the imperiled Geneva II peace conference takes place in December, just in time for the regime to be in a much-
strengthened negotiating position after a series of tactical gains on the battlefield.

True, Russia hasn’t been shy about showing support for Assad even after the regime deployed chemical weapons on Aug. 21 (something the Russian Foreign Ministry still denies). Reuters reported recently that second-tier Russian banks have been taking Syrian regime deposits, including barter accounts that would allow Damascus to import foodstuffs in exchange for oil or goods. Russian military technicians have also been in Syria to train and advise regime personnel on the use of Russian-sold air-defense systems. At least one "former" GRU (Russian military intelligence) officer took a bullet in the face while claiming to have been vacationing in the war zone and moonlighting as a correspondent with pro-regime Abkhazian Network News Agency. There were also rumors this past May that soldiers with the elite Zaslon ("Screen") detachment of the Russian special forces were being sent to Syria, likely to guard Russian diplomatic and military installations from rebel assault. But all this, as the Kremlin loves to point out, has been undertaken strictly in compliance with "international law" and with respect to Syria’s state sovereignty. But evidence of Russian citizens breaking Russian law to fight in Syria — that’s something that hard-line Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would find hard to explain in one of his big-grinning, palm-slapping rap sessions with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Complicating things even more for Russia is that Moran may have violated sanctions on Syria — in the British Virgin Islands. While Moran is technically registered in breezy see-no-evil Belize, it is 50 percent owned by an entity called Neova Holdings Ltd., which is registered in the Caribbean territory, a favored offshore corporate landing post for Russian enterprises trying to obfuscate their ownership structures. (In fact, even Moran’s domain name is registered to Neova Holdings.) The islands constitute a British overseas territory, and as such, they typically comply with British, U.N., or E.U. sanctions regimes. Indeed, in October 2012, the British Virgin Islands’ Financial Services Commission announced that it was in full compliance with the European Union’s sanctions and arms embargo on Syria and would "give effect to an asset freeze in relation to persons responsible for the violent repression against the Syrian population in Syria, persons and entities benefiting from or supporting the Assad regime." An attempt by Foreign Policy to reach the office of the British Virgin Islands’ premier for comment was unsuccessful. But regardless of what comes of the ongoing FSB investigation into Moran’s weekend-warrior work in Russia, its largest owner seems to have found itself on the wrong side of British Virgin Islands law.

Moran previously made international headlines way before its abbreviated adventurism in Homs. In October 2012, one of its ships, the MV Myre Seadiver, was seized by the Nigerian Navy in Lagos, where it had docked temporarily to change crews en route from Madagascar to Conakry, Guinea. Fifteen Russian sailors on board, all of them comprising the new crew that had been replaced in port, were arrested. (The prior crew, which brought weapons into Nigeria, was not detained.) Myre Seadiver, registered in the Cook Islands — a territory legally bound to New Zealand — but sailing under a Dutch flag, had a maritime registration certificate, dated June 2012, authorizing the ship to "store, carry and embark/disembark arms & ammunitions along with security teams." It found was carrying 14 AK-47s, 22 Benelli MR1 rifles, and thousands of rounds of ammunition for both, according to the Nigerians, who said that the vessel had no prior authorization to dock in the country or transport weapons. Nigeria is a hub for global arms trafficking, given its chronic problems with Islamist insurgents, oil bandits, and pirates. It took until February 2013 for the sailors of Myre Seadiver to be granted bail — which also came along with a $500,000 demand for the release of the ship — and remanded to the custody of the Russian ambassador in Lagos. (The sailors were returned to Russia this past October.) Yet one veteran Russia watcher, John Helmer, who has investigated this incident, believes the Nigerian Navy was at fault in this affair.

Moran has also cropped up in an unflattering light in a recent report by C4ADS, a nonprofit security and analysis firm based in Washington, D.C. "The Odessa Network: Mapping Facilitators of Russian and Ukrainian Arms Transfers," written by C4ADS senior analyst Tom Wallace and Chief Operating Officer Farley Mesko, notes that one of Moran’s clients is the German-owned Hansa Heavy Lift (HHL), the rebranded incarnation of Beluga Shipping, a bankrupted company that was notorious for Russian and Ukrainian arms trafficking through Europe. "Two members of HHL’s four managing directors are Beluga veterans," Wallace and Mesko write, "and a high percentage of HHL’s fleet is inherited from Beluga. Beluga was responsible for shipments of A.Q. Khan centrifuges to Libya, anti-tank missiles to Myanmar, and tanks to South Sudan. The exact nature of Moran’s relationship with HHL, or what kind of cargo they are hired to protect, is unknown."

Illegally running Keystone Cossacks into Homs and contracting with Muammar al-Qaddafi’s former courier service for rogue nuclear technology isn’t exactly a winning corporate profile, even in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But Moran’s humiliating moment at the hands of jihadists in Syria, now confirmed by the Russian media, comes at an especially sensitive time for Moscow, which has lately been trying to host a meeting between Assad regime officials and representatives of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition in advance of Geneva II. "The Russian authorities are cracking down on these mercenaries because to not do so would compromise the image the Kremlin is trying to cultivate as a fair and neutral player in helping solve the Syria crisis," said Donald Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat in Russia and now a resident fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Transatlantic Relations. "Russia wants to be the country all parties to the conflict have to turn to, rather than the United States." A surefire way to scupper this self-appointed role as peace broker for a 19-month civil war that has killed 115,000 people and externally or internally displaced millions more is to get caught allowing hired killers into Syria under the auspices of a shady private military company with ti
es to Russian intelligence.

Moran – Interfax Spark Company Info

Slavonic Corps- HK Company Info

Michael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss. Twitter: @michaeldweiss