Moscow Turns U.S. Volunteers Into New Bogeyman in Ukraine

With Russia’s use of mercenaries growing, the Kremlin seeks distractions.

By , a journalist based in Toronto.
A British combat volunteer heads toward the Ukrainian border in Przemysl, Poland.
A British combat volunteer heads toward the Ukrainian border in Przemysl, Poland.
A British combat volunteer, who did not want to be identified and who said he was going to Ukraine to fight against the invading Russian forces, heads toward the Ukrainian border in Przemysl, Poland, on March 7. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Putin’s War

As scrutiny of Russia’s increasing reliance on mercenaries in Ukraine mounts, the Kremlin is trying to deflect it back onto U.S. veterans who have volunteered to defend Ukraine. By targeting foreign fighters, Moscow may be trying to create a boogeyman to blame if it deploys chemical or biological weapons.

In a statement released on March 11, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned of “potential chemical provocations in Ukraine.” The statement, without evidence, accuses U.S. special operations forces and “[r]adical Ukrainian groups” of plotting a chemical weapons attack on Ukrainian civilians in an attempt to blame Russia.

The Kremlin’s statement, in describing the material it submitted to the United Nations Security Council, accuses Ukraine of plotting to bomb two chemical factories, in Severodonetsk and Odesa, and of plotting “the destruction of containers with toxic chemicals in highly populated areas.”

As scrutiny of Russia’s increasing reliance on mercenaries in Ukraine mounts, the Kremlin is trying to deflect it back onto U.S. veterans who have volunteered to defend Ukraine. By targeting foreign fighters, Moscow may be trying to create a boogeyman to blame if it deploys chemical or biological weapons.

In a statement released on March 11, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned of “potential chemical provocations in Ukraine.” The statement, without evidence, accuses U.S. special operations forces and “[r]adical Ukrainian groups” of plotting a chemical weapons attack on Ukrainian civilians in an attempt to blame Russia.

The Kremlin’s statement, in describing the material it submitted to the United Nations Security Council, accuses Ukraine of plotting to bomb two chemical factories, in Severodonetsk and Odesa, and of plotting “the destruction of containers with toxic chemicals in highly populated areas.”

This is in keeping with a concerted effort from the Kremlin to accuse Ukraine, and by extension the United States, of threatening Russia’s security by engaging in the development of biological and chemical weapons—claims for which it has supplied no credible evidence and which have been roundly debunked.

The statement makes the very specific allegation that, in December 2021, “Ukrainian radicals delivered 200-litre metal barrels with foreign markings to Donetsk Oblast. As they were being unloaded, four Ukrainian soldiers received severe chemical [burns] and poisoning.”

There appears to be no backing for such a claim—or for the following allegation that the “general coordination of the delivery and warehousing of hazardous freight was carried out by the staff of the private American military contractor Forward Observation Group.”

The U.S. State Department, in a statement to Foreign Policy, called the allegations “preposterous,” describing the Russian account as a “false pretext we have been warning the Kremlin would invent” and warning that it may be cover for the future use of chemical weapons by Russia.

“It’s Russia that has a long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons, including in attempted assassinations and poisoning of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s political enemies like Alexey Navalny,” a State Department spokesperson said. “It’s Russia that continues to support the Assad regime in Syria, which has repeatedly used chemical weapons. It’s Russia that has long maintained a biological weapons program in violation of international law.”

Russia’s fingering of a specific entity, the Forward Observations Group, is a curious inclusion: It is a real organization that has fought alongside Ukrainians in the Donbass region and that has showed up to help defend the country from the Russian invasion. But the group’s members are volunteers, not contractors.

Forward Observations, founded by Derrick Bales, a former U.S. infantry soldier who served in Afghanistan, originally began as a lifestyle brand, selling tactical gear. The group has traveled to Ukraine to make connections with local fighters there and to shoot photo and video from the conflict.

A member of Forward Observations, who asked for anonymity due to threats from the Russian government, told Foreign Policy that they are focused on sourcing medical supplies, gear, and money for their Ukrainian compatriots.

“With an impending Russian invasion on the horizon, we traveled to the most forward position in the fight to bring you the raw, unfiltered truth, straight from the soldiers in the trenches themselves,” the group wrote on its YouTube page in January.

Bales has taken heat for associating with Vadim Lapaev, a member of the far-right Azov Battalion in Ukraine. Bales, who is Black, apologized but downplayed the radical aspects of those Ukrainian fighters. Lapaev told Vice News that he regretted his past association with neo-Nazis.

The Forward Observations member told Foreign Policy that the group’s connection to Lapaev has given Moscow ammunition to target it.

Since war broke out last month, a number of individual volunteers and groups of ex-soldiers have made it to Ukraine to fight on Kyiv’s side—a Russian missile strike on March 13 targeted a Lviv military base housing many of the foreign volunteers. But Forward Observations, in particular, has become a useful villain for the Kremlin, in part because it serves as a rejoinder to criticism of Moscow’s own mercenaries.

From the outset of the invasion, reports have indicated that the Wagner Group—a private military contractor believed to be owned by oligarch and close Putin associate Yevgeny Prigozhin—has been called up to bolster Russia’s regular and conscript forces.

Russian private military contractors have been used by Moscow extensively in recent years, usually deployed to conflicts where the Kremlin benefits from plausible deniability. The Wagner Group has been deployed to, among other places, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Syria, Mali, Mozambique, and Libya—where, according to the United Kingdom, it has been “involved in multiple and repeated breaches of the arms embargo.” The U.S. State Department told Foreign Policy that it believes the Wagner Group has a “destabilizing engagement in numerous regional conflicts.”

The State spokesperson added that they believe Prigozhin “seeks to build his own wealth and influence, often targeting control of mineral resources in the countries in which he operates.”

While the Wagner Group may be private, its goals and objectives never diverge from those of the Russian state. “We should probably not think of the Wagner Group as being a typical private firm,” Kimberly Marten, a professor of political science at Barnard College, told a House foreign affairs subcommittee in 2020. “A better term for it, rather than a [private military contractor] or mercenary outfit, might be an informal semi-state security group.”

The State Department spokesperson said Washington believes “Prigozhin and the Wagner Group operate with the direct influence from the Russian Federation.”

The group’s possible involvement in Ukraine does not seem to be much of a secret. Last week, a user in a Wagner Group Telegram chat linked to a video, uploaded to a pro-Russian YouTube page, consisting of a series of stylized propaganda shots. They appear to show the Wagner Group operating around the world; some appear to be filmed near Palmyra, in Syria.

“We are waiting for the green light,” the description of the video, uploaded March 8, reads.

The Wagner Group is not a mercenary organization in the classical sense. Some members have fought in volunteer corps, some alongside special forces. As Foreign Policy has written previously, there doesn’t appear to be a single Wagner Group per se, but the term rather describes an array of private companies and groups of mercenaries and veterans. Bellingcat has reported how Wagner has become a sort of code name for Russian military operations abroad.

How Russia may use these Wagner Group fighters remains to be seen. The Ukrainian armed forces and the BBC have reported that there is an intense effort afoot to recruit soldiers to fight under the group’s banner—fighters from the Central African Republic have recently expressed their intent to travel to Ukraine and assist in the ongoing invasion. The Kyiv Independent has reported that Wagner Group dog tags have been found in Ukraine.

“At least one contingent [of the Wagner Group] was prepositioned inside Ukraine before the invasion started,” said Candace Rondeaux, the director of Future Frontlines and an expert at the Center on the Future of War at Arizona State University. She and her colleagues have extensively studied the movements of the Wagner Group.

Rondeaux said there are “Russian military contractors that have certain capabilities and experiences, including experiences of working with hazardous materials.” As to whether they could be called up to administer the type of false-flag chemical weapons attack that Western governments are concerned about remains to be seen, she added. “It’s way too speculative to try and guess at what current contingents might be doing and what their current objectives may be.”

To some degree, the Wagner Group is a propaganda effort—much like how Russia weaponizes the prospect of dispatching Chechen fighters. Shadowy, ruthless mercenaries carry a certain psychological effect. But fighters who operate outside the direct chain of command can also be useful for committing particularly heinous actions.

“There’s a twin purpose,” Rondeaux said. One is clearly the operational utility of having contractors who can be called up to conduct offensive operations in—or to escort or extract natural resources such as oil from—the countries in which Russia operates. The other, she said, is the “psychological value” in “propagating the notion that Russia has a secret, shadowy group of saboteurs and agent provocateurs that can penetrate behind enemy lines and that will use terrorizing force against populations that get in their way.”

Social media channels linked to the Wagner Group have been marketing T-shirts featuring a soldier swinging a sledgehammer onto a horned skeleton’s head—the logo of the Forward Observations Group.

The T-shirt logo itself is a macabre nod to the brutal killings of Syrians at the hands of Wagner mercenaries with crude tools in 2017. Videos recorded by the mercenaries show them slaughtering unarmed individuals with hammers, axes, and pickaxes. Users in the Wagner Group-linked Telegram channels have recently taken to sharing those old videos again, even applying the Wagner watermark to them.

“In the last three or four years, what we’ve seen is the intentional branding and marketing of this shadowy force to the video game-playing population of Russia,” Rondeaux said. That appeal is quite literal: A Russian fighter who appears in one of the 2017 videos, showing the brutal killing of a Syrian man, bears a striking resemblance to a Russian mercenary character in the 2019 first-person shooter game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

“[I]f the growth of the online networks that bind Russian paramilitary groups together are any indication, it seems highly unlikely that the killing of Hamdi Bouta will mark the last time so-called Wagner Group operatives are implicated in war crimes in the Middle East, Africa, or other places where Russia is keen to gain a strategic foothold in the local energy sector,” Rondeaux wrote in a 2020 report investigating Bouta’s killing.

The propaganda campaign has extolled the Wagner Group as hunting neo-Nazis and extremists. Yet the group’s own ties to the Russian far-right are well documented: The likely founder of the group has the logo of the Nazi Schutzstaffel tattooed on his neck. Various elements of the current Wagner Group have ties to neo-Nazis and far-right extremism.

Moscow’s penchant for deflecting back criticism of its own war crimes is a well-known tactic. But the fervent targeting of Americans, especially those near the Polish border, presents an increasingly provocative challenge to NATO. The heated allegations of an impending chemical or biological weapons attack—particularly involving private military contractors—hint at a dark escalation of the conflict.

Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto.

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