Russian group Wagner behind new energy deal with Syrian government, documents say
May 17, 2021 at 2:03 PM
A Russian company that recently struck a deal with the Syrian government for offshore oil and gas exploration is part of a network of companies that make up the dark group of Russian mercenaries known as Wagner, who played a pivotal role in Moscow’s destabilizing activities around the world. , according to emails and company records consulted by Foreign police.
The deal with the hitherto unknown Russian company Kapital, which was ratified by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in March, will theoretically be see the Russian company exploring for oil and gas in an area of 2,250 square kilometers off the coast of southern Syria. He threatens to provoke a dispute with neighboring Lebanon, which argued that the region includes some of its waters.
The deal comes as Moscow seeks to consolidate its strategic foothold in Syria and, by extension, further extend its reach in the eastern Mediterranean. It also highlights how Moscow continues to outsource its more delicate foreign policy goals to private military contractors who offer a low-risk, versatile way to intervene around the world while retaining a thin veneer of plausible deniability. Best known for their mercenary activity, which spanned from Sudan to Ukraine to Venezuela, Wagner’s agents also sought to exploit lucrative natural resource reserves in fragile states.
“The challenge we have now is that Russian private military security contractors will be a permanent fixture in the oil and gas development landscape in the Middle East and Africa for a time to come,” said Candace Rondeaux, researcher. principal and practice teacher. at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University.
Russia’s most notorious private military contractor, an opaque set of companies collectively referred to as the Wagner Group, is said to be headed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close ally, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been sanctioned by the United States for trying to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election and the 2018 US midterm elections. Today, his network seems to be interfering in Syria’s future.
Leaked emails obtained by the Dossier Center, a London-based investigative unit funded by exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and analyzed by the non-profit Center for Advanced Defense Studies show an overlap in ownership structures between Kapital and other known Wagner affiliates operating in Syria. The managing director appointed in Kapital’s Contract with the Syrian government, Igor Viktorovich Khodyrev, is listed as the chief geologist in an internal work schedule used by Evropolis, another company affiliated with Wagner, which previously reached an agreement with the Syrian government which awarded him 25% of the shares of the oil and gas field. revenues released from the control of the Islamic State.
Internal Evropolis emails also include the company’s files regarding Kapital and its sole shareholder, which would indicate an overlap in operations. A spokesperson for Prigozhin did not respond to a request for comment, and the restaurant mogul has previously denied any connection to mercenary activity. Khodyrev could not be reached for comment.
Evropolis made headlines after a group of men working for the company were accused of being responsible for the brutal torture and murder of a Syrian, Hamdi Bouta, which was videotaped at the al-Shaer gas plant near Palmyra, Syria, in 2017. In the first such trial, the victim’s brother filed a lawsuit in Russian courts in March , accusing the Wagner group of war crimes. In Libya, the US Africa Command accused Wagner’s operatives of “indiscriminately placed traps and minefields,” and in the Central African Republic, they were accused torture, arbitrary detention and mass executions.
“The question is: how do you tackle a group of actors who have a clear tendency to violate human rights in many places, and what does that mean in the long run for the political stability of? countries like Syria, Libya, Sudan and Central African Republic? Rondeaux said.
At least two other companies would have Wagner-related have oil and gas deals with the Syrian government. At the end of 2019, the Syrian parliament approved contracts for the exploration and development of three blocks, each containing 250 billion cubic meters of gas. Russian investigative journal Novaya Gazeta later reported the Mercury and Velada companies had long-standing ties with Prigozhin. The press service of the Prigozhin catering company has refuse the tycoon has no connection with the companies.
These contracts serve as a reward for groups of mercenaries who fought in the dark alongside Syrian government forces in some of the war’s most grueling ground operations. Hundreds of Russian mercenaries were reportedly killed in clashes with US forces in 2018 after attacking an outpost in Deir al-Zour province, where a small contingent of Kurdish and US forces operated.
The apparent use of Wagner companies is indicative of the Kremlin’s strategy in Syria: Russian state-owned energy giants are not the ones being used to gain a foothold, said Anna Borshchevskaya, senior researcher at the Washington Institute and expert on Russian policy in the Middle East. “Small businesses are suggesting they are interested in a lighter footprint.”
The companies of Kapital, Mercury, and Velada don’t make much energy sense – but they could do it in a geopolitical sense. Before war broke out in 2011, Syria produced just under 400,000 barrels of oil per day, or less than half of 1 percent of global supply at the time. Since then, production has fallen by more than 90% and is now estimated at around 20,000 barrels per day, as most of the country’s most productive oil fields are in territories still controlled by the rebel Syrian Democratic Forces in the region. northeast of the country. Since Russia’s national oil companies pump more than 10 million barrels a day, the Syrian industry hardly seems worth the effort from a purely economic standpoint, said Karam Shaar, a non-resident Middle East researcher. Institute and expert on the Syrian economy.
But Moscow sees Syria and its oil industry as a way to maintain its influence as the country turns to reconstruction after a decade of conflict. “They have Assad’s loyalty, but they want to have it in writing,” Shaar said. “They know that whoever owns the oil in Syria will end up having… a very important negotiating card simply because of Syria’s tiny economy.”
Having a stronger foothold in Syria also helps Moscow achieve its long-standing goal of re-establishing its presence in the eastern Mediterranean. Russia has long had close ties with Syria, which is home to Russian air and naval bases. Russia’s decision to intervene in the Syrian conflict in 2015 marked its return to the Middle East after being largely absent since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Positioning itself as a staunch ally, Moscow strengthened its relations in the region as the United States sought to step back.
Syria was also used as a launching pad to support Wagner’s operations in Libya, where the group brought in Russian and Syrian mercenaries to fight in support of renegade Marshal Khalifa Haftar after launching an offensive in 2019 to overthrow internationally recognized government. In June 2020, fighters associated with Wagner took control of two of Libya’s largest oil facilities, the the Wall Street newspaper reported.
“If Russia has access to Syria with Libya, it creates a strategic arc, which allows Russia to expand into Africa and expand into Europe from its southern flank,” Borshchevskaya said.
Operating in a vacuum of responsibility in some of the world’s most fragile countries like Sudan, the Central African Republic and Libya, private entrepreneurs like the Wagner Group have served as hired soldiers and political strategists while simultaneously pursuing lucrative deals for resource exploitation. The US Treasury is engaged in an ongoing mole game as it has sought to sanction entities linked to the group’s sprawling and constantly evolving network of companies. Although Wagner is closely linked to the Russian state, the Kremlin has long denied any connection with the Wagner group.
Overtaken by the West both militarily and economically, Moscow has come to rely on so-called gray zone tactics, such cyber attacks and the use of the Wagner Group, as profitable measures to advance its interests. on the world stage.
“They are using tools that could potentially undermine our strategic position, but we won’t notice it because we aren’t aware of the full extent of their business,” Borshchevskaya said.