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In Syria, A Mutilated Corpse, Video Evidence, And New Scrutiny For Russian Mercenaries

The clip purportedly showing a brutal murder in Syria resurfaced this week after apparently being filmed in 2017.

MOSCOW -- The graphic video shows four men in camouflage gear exchanging jokes in unaccented Russian as they pour flammable liquid over a man's mutilated corpse strung up on two wooden beams.

Before setting it alight and watching it burn as they pose for the camera, they scrawl a Russian phrase praising the country's airborne forces on its chest.

The clip of the brutal murder in Syria, apparently filmed in the summer of 2017, resurfaced this week in the wake of an investigation by Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

The newspaper ties the men to Vagner, a shadowy Russian mercenary group widely believed to be spearheading the expansion of Russian influence across Africa and the Middle East.

In its report published late on November 20, Novaya Gazeta identified one of the men shown in the clip as a former police officer from the southern Russia region of Stavropol who promised to "represent the interests of Russia abroad" in a form he allegedly submitted to Vagner upon joining the organization in 2016.

The newspaper identifies the man by his first name and the first letter of his surname but withholds his full name amid concerns for his family's safety.

Questioned about the clip and Novaya Gazeta's report, the Kremlin denied any knowledge of the men depicted.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said he had not had time to watch the video. But he denied that Russia's armed forces had any connection to the incident.

"I'm convinced this has nothing to do with the Russian military operation in Syria," Peskov told reporters.

Asked whether the Kremlin is aware of accusations of potential war crimes allegedly committed by some of the Russian mercenary groups fighting in Syria, Peskov answered: "This is not a question for the presidential administration."

Who Is Vagner?

Vagner is one of the best-known of several Russian private military companies that have come into being over the past decade. The company is widely believed to be controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a longtime associate of Vladimir Putin who once served as the Russian president's chef.

He has previously denied any links to the group, though various investigations have linked him to its activities.

Prigozhin is also believed to have created and funded the Internet Research Agency, an online "troll farm" that U.S. authorities have charged with waging a propaganda-and-influence campaign in a bid to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) serves food to Vladimir Putin in 2011.
Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) serves food to Vladimir Putin in 2011.

Prigozhin, who had been charged by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller in early 2018, was slapped with new U.S. Treasury Department sanctions on September 30, in an announcement that also included photographs of three jets and a 122-foot yacht that purportedly belongs to Prigozhin or his companies.

Vagner's operations have always been shrouded in secrecy, but its role in Syria came into the spotlight in February 2018 when U.S. military commanders launched a massive ground and air assault against a column of fighters and weaponry in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor.

Then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo told Congress that a "a couple hundred Russians" were killed in the attack.

The Defense Ministry denied any Russian uniformed personnel were killed.

Then as now, the Kremlin denied any ties to Vagner, but the incident put major pressure on Russia to explain the presence of private mercenaries.

Gruesome Soundtrack

The video published by Novaya Gazeta appears to be just one instalment of a series of clips that record the same incident at the hands of Russian-speaking fighters, including the victim's torture, mutilation, and, ultimately, decapitation.

In another part of the video that originally surfaced in 2017, the four men laugh to a soundtrack of Russian rock music as they use a sledgehammer to crush the hand of a man shown pinned to the ground wearing bloodied civilian clothes in what appears to be an industrial zone.

The Novaya Gazeta report added more clarity to an incident that prompted anger and confusion when evidence of it first surfaced.

Four days before the newspaper report, the Syrian news site Jesr Press published what it claimed was the victim's name: a 33-year-old from Deir al-Zor who had left the country when civil war broke out but reportedly returned in 2017 to join government forces propping up the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

According to Jesr, the man was captured by Russian forces after a desertion attempt from the Syrian Army.

Jesr said the killing took place near the al-Shaer oil field in the Syrian province of Homs, which at the time of the incident, would have been under the control of the Russian-backed government of Assad.

Contacted by Novaya Gazeta, relatives and friends of the Russian man, named as Stanislav D., either did not respond or denied any affiliation with him. His wife, according to the newspaper, deactivated her social media account when she received follow-up questions from its reporter.

An image uploaded to social media shortly before the article was published shows four men posing before a decapitated body in what appears to be the same spot shown in the videos. Their faces are uncovered.

The newspaper also offered to hand over materials acquired to Russian law enforcement. It's unclear if Russian investigative agencies have conducted, or intend to conduct, any such investigation.

Expanding Influence

Vagner and other Russian private military companies have helped advance Moscow's influence efforts in regions beyond the Middle East, targeting countries that are often rich with natural resources and vulnerable to political influence from the outside.

Journalists, open-source researchers, and other observers have tracked Russian military companies to operations in the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Libya.

A billboard in Bangui with the slogan "The Central African Republic is hand in hand with Russia" (file photo)
A billboard in Bangui with the slogan "The Central African Republic is hand in hand with Russia" (file photo)

A report published earlier this month by the Washington-based New America Foundation and Arizona State University said that Moscow's reliance on private military companies had brought benefit to the Kremlin, including a cheaper, quicker, and more clandestine way of expanding Russia's influence.

"Yet, [private military companies] also pose substantial risks for a regime determined to keep a lid on domestic outcry over its military adventurism and to manage blowback," the report said. "The advent of the digital age means [such companies'] activities are often hidden in plain sight, and disinformation is no longer a fail-safe remedy when the secrecy of covert operations is compromised."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.