16:02 Mar. 31, 2016
Independent investigation finds forces from private military company were on secret missions in Ukraine and Syria
President Vladimir Putin sent Russian mercenaries to fight in Syria and Ukraine, decorating them for their service and concealing their casualties, according to a new report.
An investigation published by "Fontanka", an independent Russian newspaper, found that the Kremlin had hired members of a private military company called Wagner to go to Syria and Ukraine.
The use of contractors gives Mr Putin a deniable way of sending trained personnel to both countries.
Wagner is believed to have a membership of around 1,000 mercenaries, but officially the group does not exist since Russian law forbids private military companies. But Wagner is registered in Argentina and has a training camp in the Russian village of Molkino – the same village that hosts a training site of the 10th special forces brigade of the GRU military intelligence.
The Russian defence ministry has announced the deaths of six servicemen in Syria. But former members of Wagner interviewed by Fontanka claim there were several dozen fatalities in the unit last year alone.
A high-ranking member of Russia's intelligence services then distributed posthumous military honours, signed by Mr Putin.