Could the Syrian war lead to a US-Russia conflict?
01:42 - Source: CNN
Moscow CNN  — 

A forum representing Russian military veterans took an unusual step Sunday by voting to ask the International Criminal Court to probe the Russian government’s use of private military contractors in deployments abroad.

The veterans agreed to submit an appeal to Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor at The Hague-based court, over Russian civilians being used as private military contractors in hotspots around the globe. The conflict zones include Syria, Libya, sub-Saharan Africa and eastern Ukraine.

The Russian government officially does not acknowledge using private military contractors to advance foreign policy, and mercenary activity is prohibited by law. But earlier this year, after US airstrikes killed and injured dozens of Russian military contractors in Syria, the families of some of the dead began to come forward, creating a public-relations conundrum for the Kremlin.

Concord Catering General Director Yevgeny Prigozhin, a target of the letter because o fhis support of using private military contractors

Dmitry Potapenko, a participant in the veteran’s forum, said the market for private military companies in Russia has grown significantly over the past few years. But, he said, it exists in a “legal gray area” as long as the government refuses to acknowledge their activities.

“There are more private military companies in Russia now,” he said. “Unless we define the legal status of these people and unless we get rid of this official-level hypocrisy, the number of PMCs will not go down. Any state has special operations it tries to carry out. It’s normal practice.”

It’s unclear if the ICC, an intergovernmental organization that investigates war crimes, would review the appeal. But by appealing to the ICC, the forum organizers say they hope to lift secrecy about the use of military contractors – and bring them out of that legal gray area.

‘Private military companies do not exist,’ state says

Evgeny Shabayev, the leader of a paramilitary organization known as the Khovrino Cossack Society, has been the most visible activist in calling for social benefits and better legal protections for Russia’s private military contractors. Shabayev has been a representative for paramilitary fighters in eastern Ukraine. He told CNN the Russian government insists that no private military companies exist in Russia.

“We’ve opened a full-fledged discussion with the state. We sent our requests to every authority,” he said. “You know, we are people of order, so we officially sent our motions and every single authority came with an answer: ‘Private military companies do not exist in the Russian Federation, they are not engaging in this sort of activities, and those who have served for PMCs are state criminals.’ “

After the US airstrike on the advancing Russian mercenaries in February 2018, some of the contractors were returned to Moscow with severe injuries. Shabayev visited wounded friends and comrades the hospital in Moscow and spoke to CNN at the time. He said the injuries were extremely severe, but insisted that none of the mercenaries would talk to media because of the illegal nature of their work abroad, and fear of Kremlin reprisals.

At a press conference, Shabayev said veterans were left with no alternative.

“We are demanding, because we’ve done enough pleading,” he said.

An open secret

It’s long been an open secret that Russia employs private contractors to advance foreign policy. In Syria, the private military company Wagner has hundreds of contractors on the ground supporting both the Russian military and pro-regime forces.

Wagner’s activities have come under international and media scrutiny. In 2017, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Wagner for recruiting and sending soldiers to fight along separatists in eastern Ukraine. More recently, three Russian journalists who were investigating the activities of Wagner in the Central African Republic were killed in what authorities describe as an ambush.

The incident in CAR cast additional spotlight on the scope of Russian mercenary activity abroad. In its appeal, the veterans’ group said that Russian private military and security companies were operating in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the, CAR, Gabon, Sudan and South Sudan, Yemen and other countries in Asia and Africa.

The Russian Foreign Ministry refers questions on private military contractors to the Russian military. The Russian Defense Ministry does not officially acknowledge companies such Wagner are in Syria. The Russian Foreign Ministry and Russian military did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday’s forum.

The veterans say they seek to pressure the Russian government to change the laws – and bring the activities of private military companies out of the shadows.

“We have families who lost their loved ones in this and haven’t received any compensation, social insurance that the state should’ve provided them with. We have wounded people who cannot receive treatment, this on such a massive scale now,” Shabayev said. “And this is one of the reasons why we are almost screaming about this in public.”

This story was reported by Mary Ilyushina and Nathan Hodge in Moscow and Sebastian Shukla in London.