Speaking to the media on June 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that “when it comes to private security companies […] they are indeed present there [Syria]… However, they are related to neither the Russian government, nor the Armed Forces; therefore, we have no comment.” At the same time, Putin noted that such companies are involved in various activities “related to oil extraction.” He also argued that “members of these firms are risking their lives in the fight against terrorism by retaking oil wells and infrastructure that had been controlled by the Islamic State” (News.mail.ru, June 20). Incidentally, in December 2018, Putin finally de facto admitted the obvious existence of Wagner Group, the notorious Russian private military company (PMC) known to have taken part in conflicts in Ukraine and Syria: “They [Wagner Group] can pursue their business interests anywhere in the world” as long as they are not violating Russia’s domestic norms and regulations, he declared (Meduza, December 20, 2018).
Putin’s June 20 remarks may, in fact, have been a preemptive gesture to obfuscate an explosive news story on PMC activity in Syria that the Kremlin likely knew would eventually come to light. Specifically, a recent investigative report by the newspaper Novaya Gazeta revealed that, a month and a half earlier, on June 15, three members of the Russian PMC Shchit (“Shield”) were killed in the vicinity of the Tvenan natural gas field (in central Syria). The trio’s death certificates (in the Arabic language) were reportedly signed by a Syrian military general and notarized at the Russian military air base in Khmeimim (Novaya Gazeta, July 29).
Although the investigative report does not explicitly identify Shchit’s ownership structure, some facts in this story nevertheless shed new light on the broader Russian PMC industry. First, the Novaya Gazeta article unequivocally states that all three men who died in Syria were employed by Shchit (Novaya Gazeta, July 29). This private military firm was allegedly formed in 2018, but so far it has not attracted significant attention in either Russian or Western media due to high levels of secrecy. Russian-style PMCs like Shchit tend to be inseparable from two notable Russian power centers: the siloviki (state-related security services and the armed forces) and large businesses enjoying cordial ties to the Kremlin (Stripes.com, July 17). As such, it is perhaps not surprising that Shchit was created in Kubinka (Moscow Oblast) under the umbrella of the 45th Spetsnaz Airborne Brigade, an elite reconnaissance and special operations military unit. Originally formed as the 45th Independent Spetsnaz Regiment (expanded to a full brigade in 2015), this military formation took an active part in various conflicts and operations, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 (Redstar.ru, October 22, 2015).
Second, the Novaya Gazeta journalists highlight important linkages to the Russian military by providing biographical background on the killed Shchit members. One of these men (nom de guerre “Shaman”) had fought in 2014–2015 on the territory of Luhansk Oblast as part of the pro-Russia “volunteer” battalion Vitiaz, which was active in the Ukrainian cities of Krasnodon and Izvaryne. Importantly, the investigative reporters link this battalion to the regular Russian Armed Forces based on its equipped weaponry: in particular, the Vintorez special sniper rifle, which is used exclusively by the Russian special forces (Cripo.com.ua, September 20, 2014). Further pointing to the ties between Shchit and the Russian military, the report quotes an unnamed source who claimed that the roots of this PMC can be traced to Konstantin Mirzoyants. Until 1994, Mirzoyants worked as a deputy chief of the above-mentioned 45th Spetsnaz Regiment and was suspected of involvement in the 1994 assassination of Russian investigative journalist Dmitry Kholodov, in Moscow (Novaya Gazeta, July 29).
Third, the piece alludes to potential ties between Shchit and Yevgeny Sidorov, who (along with Vadim Gusev) organized the Slavonic Corps Limited, a PMC that was destroyed in Syria in October 2013 but later gave rise to Wagner Group. Incidentally, the Novaya Gazeta article argues that in terms of functions and tasks, Shchit is totally different from Wagner. Namely, the overall number of personnel of this less-well-known PMC is unlikely to exceed 200–300 operators, while Wagner Group is thought to employ up to 3,000. Moreover, Shchit (unlike Wagner) is not involved in direct military operations, focusing primarily on security- and protection-related services. This de facto makes Shchit’s activities more similar to Western PMCs. These facts lead the Novaya Gazeta journalists to argue that the PMC may be coordinated by “former and still serving top military generals from Russia’s Ministry of Defense” (Novaya Gazeta, July 29), which, of course, is rather difficult to prove at this stage.
Finally, additional interesting details revealed in the investigative piece pertain to some specific functions that Shchit has allegedly performed—namely, the “physical protection and securing of objects and infrastructure located on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic that belong to OAO Stroytransgaz” (Novaya Gazeta, July 29). At this juncture, it is essential to note that the latter company, 80-percent-owned by Gennady Timchenko (a Russian oligarch with famously close ties to President Putin), has demonstrated long-lasting and multifaceted interests in Syria since at least 2007 (Vedomosti, July 3, 2007). Indeed, the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 actually led to Stroytransgaz visibly increasing its involvement in Syria. In 2017, the energy-engineering firm allegedly started exploitation at the al-Sharqiyah phosphate mine, located near Palmira (RBC, June 27, 2017); and one year later, Timchenko’s company expressed serious interest in acquiring “the only factory in Syria producing mineral fertilizers” (Himagregat-info.ru, November 19, 2018). The most recent news related to Stroytransgaz’s Syrian activities emerged in April 2019, when the company signed a 49-year agreement with Damascus on “exploitation and extension of the port of Tartus.” This deal de facto allows the Russian enterprise to become the main investor in the port. The project, which envisages full renovation and reconstruction of the port facilities, is said to be worth $500 million (Vedomosti, April 25).
Syria’s geo-economic landscape is being actively penetrated by various Russian players with close ties to the Kremlin. Aside from Timchenko, Yevgeny Progozhin (sometimes referred to as “Putin’s cook” and the alleged sponsor of Wagner Group) is said to have hammered out lucrative agreements with the Syrian government for his company Evropolis, in the realms of hydrocarbon extraction as well as protection of critical infrastructure (RBC, June 27, 2017). Their economic expansion is likely to be boosted by Russian PMCs like Shchit, whose numbers and prominence may continue to grow.