The Wagner Group is a private military company – effectively mercenaries. It has been used for the military activity of the Russian Federation in various parts of the world. Currently, it is operating in Ukraine and apparently has a reputation as a very brave and effective force in the battle for Donbass. Its name comes up frequently in the reports from the Military Summary Channel I referred to in How is the war going?
As the video above shows even Russian reporters treat the group as somewhat of a mystery – although an effective mystery. It would be nice to dig deeper into its formation and history but that is not the purpose of this post. I will only say I am not a fan of private military or mercenary companies – they seem to be a way governments use capitalism to do their dirty work. A way of handling problems but refusing to take responsibility.
The sole reason for this article is that it was requested on Twitter by Grae O’Sullivan (@GraeSullivan). It is another one of those requests people who discuss the problem of ultranationalism in Ukraine are often confronted with – “Russia has neo-Nazis too.” Or “Putin supports neo-Nazis.” It’s usually a way of diverting the discussion away from the Ukrainian problems. And rather than discussing any evidence for the assertions, I am usually confronted with only a citation or a link – as I was in this case.
Grae insists I “explain away the Wagner Group’s links to neo-Nazi ideology because he (ME) thinks the Ukr govt’s links to the Azov battalion gave RU a reason to invade.” Incidentally, he misrepresents me as I have never “justified” the current war that way. Putin may have given denazification as one of his aims in this war, but my analysis is aimed at understanding the situation, not justifying the action of any country. Still, it seems that the minute one tries to apply reason and evidence to the situation in Ukraine someone will accuse you of “parroting Putin” or being a “Putin puppet.”
Responding to this request is probably a waste of time and I have been burned before by someone who has made a similar request and then refused to engage with any discussion on my analysis of his citation (see Confusion about neo-Nazis in Ukraine-Russia war, Neo-Nazis in Ukraine – stages of denial, and What about those Russian neo-Nazis? which were responses to a similar request from Peter Ballie). But Gae has assured me he won’t run away from the analysis like Peter did and will engage with it – so here goes.
Grae has insisted I discuss the evidence in the article Neonacizmas Rusijos samdinių tarpe by Lucas Andriukaitis. Originally in Lithuanian, the English title is “Signs of neo-nazi ideology amongst Russian mercenaries.”
I will start by explaining that Lucas Andriukaitis is a researcher at the Atlantic Council DFR Laboratory. The Atlantic Council is well known to be strongly linked to NATO and funded by it. Ukrainians occupy many of the Council’s fellowships. Its articles are usually rather polemical in a naive sort of way, and I see it as one of the main conduits for spreading disinformation on geopolitical issues. These sorts of organisations and think tanks are often used by governments, military and intelligence groups to get opinions into the media without tainting with the associations of the real source. Bellingcat and The White Helmets are similar fronts for this purpose.
I don’t wish to condemn the article by describing the source and association. Let its claims be judged by the evidence presented in the article.
The article makes a few completely unsubstantiated claims to set the scene for the reader. Sentences like “the type of far-right ideology expressed in Russian mercenaries is showing homage to Nazi ideology,” “the numerous mercenaries who went to fight in Donbass, Syria and Libya are neo-Nazis themselves,” and its final conclusion –“open-source evidence suggests that fighter sporting neo-Nazi symbols serve in military groups associated with the Kremlin, including the founder of the infamous Wagner group.”
So what evidence is presented in the article?
Very little, really. Just some vague tattoos, a hat and some insignia noticed on military vehicles or in other countries where the Wagner group was meant to have served.
The article refers to tattoos on a single individual, Dimitry Utkin. It’s all very vague, though, as are tattoos.
The article says:
“When this photo surfaced, some concerns online were expressed about the person in the photo. In order to check if the person in the photo is really Utkin, an old passport photo of him was used with Microsoft Azure face recognition software. This software allows to compare two photos and give a confidence rating of how likely it is that the two faces belong to the same person. A score above 0.7 suggests with high reliability that it is the same person. In this case, the score given by Microsoft Azure was 0.71723.”
Yeah, right. Rather shonky evidence and it smacks of the sort of tricks Bellingcat uses in their open source “research.” But, one person with a few tattoos!
This article was pointed out to me because there are plenty of online photographs of Ukrainian ultranationalists sporting pro-Nazi tattoos. I should remind readers, however, that questionable tattoos may be quite common in young men that are conscripted for military service. To some extent the tattoos of Azov battalion soldiers could well have originated from their days as soccer hooligans. The Azov groups were originally financed by the Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky who owned a football club with an accompanying fan club from which he recruited young men for the group.
So, by itself, the presence of a tattoo is not evidence of a crime or war crime and I do feel a little bit sorry for the way Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered in Mariupol, Ukraine, recently were first filtered by checking for tattoos. No one should be made to suffer for the indiscretions of their youth.
Frankly, I find this sole evidence of the ideological leanings of the claimed founder of the Wagner group very pathetic.
But wait. There is more
The only other evidence offered for the far-right ideological leanings of this founder of the Wagner group is this photograph showing someone wearing a “Wehrmacht hat.”
This is extremely weak evidence to support the claim of the ideological views of the individual concerned. As the article says:
” Even though the exact location of the photo is unknown and the faces of the soldiers in the photo are blurred, the man in the [photograph] wearing the hat is suspected to be Utkin. The bald head and the shape of an ear visible in the photo suggests that the person in question could be Utkin.”
Let’s move on to the only other individual mentioned in this article, Yan Petrovsky. Apparently, he was “deemed a war criminal by the Ukrainian authorities.” No detail of his alleged crimes, although another Ukrainian report links them to “torturing and killing POWs from the Ukrainian Aidar Volunteer Battalion.” The Aidar battalion is one of the neo-Nazi or ultranationalist militias which has also been accused of torture and killing of citizens of Donbass in the war that has raged there since 2014.
But this article mentioned Petrovsky because of his alleged Nazi salute in Syria (see photo) and his “posing for numerous photos with hate symbols.” The photos from Syria are very vague but the article assures as they “show exactly where he was, but also his identity was verified despite the blurred faces in the photos.” Context is left to the readers, even if we assume the identity was correct. Is he pointing to something, lecturing to other soldiers or making a Nazi salute to some unidentified person or object?
Runes and symbols
Neither of these vague bits of evidence refers to any specific crimes – only to the use of particular symbols. We have no indication if they are associated with real neo-Nazi ideology and actions, represent indiscretions of youth or are used for ideological reasons.
The Vaknut has a “variety of purposes in modern popular culture.” It is a national symbol of Norway but has been used by some white supremacists. “Nonracist pagans may also use this symbol, so one should carefully examine it in context rather than assume that a particular use of the symbol is racist.” (See Valknot).
The Tyr rune is an ancient European symbol commonly used by Germanic neopagans to symbolize the veneration of the god Týr. But it has also been used by Nazis and neo-Nazis today. “Because today the Tyr rune continues to be used by non-racists as well, including members of various neo-pagan religions, one should not assume that use of the symbol is racist but instead should judge the symbol carefully in its specific context.” (See Tyr rune).
So, the symbols portrayed in these photos(and other photos in the article where they appear in graffiti and on a military vehicle) may result from far-right ideology or the views of members of the Wagner group. Or they may be more innocent. But these very few instance are nothing compared with the evidence for the far-right ideology of the ultranationalist groups in Ukraine.
Comparing Ukraine and Russia
Nothing in this article compares with the reported incidents of war crimes or the treatment of Russian and Roma ethnic minorities in Ukraine and videos of them torturing and killing Russian POWs.
Street names and monuments
There is no evidence that members of the Wagner group treat Nazi collaborators who committed massacres in WWII as heroes in the way that Ukrainian ultranationalists do. Hell, the growth of ultranationalism in Ukraine since independence has lead to moments to these “heroes” and naming streets aftyet them.
Let’s just consider Roman Shukhevych and Stepan Bandera who were associated with the massacre of thousands of Poles and Jews in west Ukraine and with similar atrocities in Belorus (for example the massacre in Khatyn, see Don’t put all the blame on the Germans – a lesson from World War II).
Of course, the Ukrainian President is not a neo-Nazi, but prominent members of ultranationalist groups such as The Right Sector commonly in government and local government positions. That is not the case in the Russian Federation. Nor has there been a coup in Moscow led by ultranationalist or neo-Nazis as there was in Kiev in February 2014 when the democratically elected government of Ukraine was overthrown.
And consider this. Ultranationalist or neo-Nazi rallies have been common in Ukraine over the last decade – but not in Russia.
“The strong despise towards anything Nazi and Fascist, which in Russia often come as synonyms, is deeply rooted in the society.”
That is why the equivalent street demonstration in Russia are more likely to be those of the Immortal regiment.
The ‘Immortal Regiment’ march is an annual event held throughout Russia and in other countries. The event is dedicated to the victory in the Great Patriotic War (or WWII) that claimed lives of about 28 million Soviet people, both soldiers and civilians. During the march, people carry portraits of their relatives who fought or died during the war.
Finally, the Immortal Regiment marches held on Victory Day underline the difference between Ukraine and the Russian Federation when it comes to the attitude towards neo-Nazis. Whereas these demonstrations are annual events throughout Russia that have only become possible again in eastern Ukraine after the defeat of the Ukrainian ultranationalist like the Azov Battalion.