Western journalists recently peeked inside the life of a Wagner mercenary in Syria. How do their experiences compare to the ones American contractors forged in places like Iraq?
Most of the mercenaries interviewed insisted they did not fight for the money. They also said they did not fight for Assad, since “Only a tiny percentage of the population there supports him and the rest oppose him.” Instead, according to one mercenary, “If you are fighting under a Russian flag, with a Russian weapon, even if you are eating moldy food and are 10,000 kilometers from home, you are nonetheless fighting for Russia.”
This is not their first rodeo. Wagner Group mercenaries first appeared in the eastern Ukraine around 2014. There, they fought alongside Russian Army regulars in a local civil war. Russian military officer Dmitry Utkin assumed the nom-de-guerre Wagner, after composer Richard Wagner. He organized the mercenaries into company-sized tactical units. His men described Utkin as “a cruel fellow.” He reportedly has a swastika tattooed on his shoulder, wears a helmet with devil’s horns, and practices a crude form of paganism.
The mercenaries arrived in Syria in 2015 and now number between 2,000 and 4,000. There are about 8,000 Russian Army troops in-country. Mercenaries and Army elements coordinate very closely. Initially, the Wagner mercenaries were well-supplied and received about $2,700 a month. After a falling out with Russian President Vladimir Putin, conditions deteriorated. “They took away the tanks and the weapons,” said one commander. The Syrian government now pays what wages they receive, in a complicated and possibly illegal arrangements that sends money to St. Petersburg and then to the mercenaries. The fighting is “war without ceremony,” one remarked. Wagner mercenaries believe that capture by ISIS probably means torture and death, so they do not take many prisoners themselves.
The Syrian civil war may be winding down, but Wagner mercenaries will probably remain active. “There are many fights ahead,” one predicted. Indeed, Wagner mercenaries are already in Sudan and may soon be in Libya.
Some Similarities Between Russian Mercenaries and American Overseas Contractors
Almost all the Wagner mercenaries are former Russian Army soldiers, although how they transitioned from one to the other is uncertain. Likewise, many American overseas contractors are former servicemembers. That experience is what makes organizations like KBR so attractive financially to the Department of Defense. However, not all contractors are former “door-kickers.” Many are computer technicians, airplane mechanics, or even construction workers.
Russian claims that they do not fight for money is rather suspect. But American contractors definitely do not fight for money, even though they are well-paid. Just like Wagner mercenaries would not switch sides and fight for ISIS, American contractors would never switch sides and fight for America’s enemies.
The Many Dissimilarities Between the Two
One difference is mentioned above. All Wagner mercenaries carry whatever guns or weapons they can scavenge from the Syrians, since they no longer receive supplies. Some American contractors are armed, but many more are not.
Unlike Wagner mercenaries, armed American contractors never participate in offensive operations. One Russian mercenary talked about taking hills by force and other such acts. American contractors only fire if fired upon. Since they mostly escort convoys and man checkpoints, these incidents are rare.
Wagner mercenaries are warriors. They only go where the fighting is very bad and conditions are very poor. Many American overseas contractors do not even serve in violent war zones. Instead, they serve their country in places like Kuwait, Cuba, Japan, or Diego Garcia. Nevertheless, all the aforementioned places are “war zones” in terms of the Defense Base Act.
Unlike their Russian counterparts, American military contractors are normally very well supplied. The sponsoring companies are very well-capitalized, so contractors are very well compensated. Depending on the nature of the contract, some may earn as much in a day as a Russian mercenary earns in a month.
Finally, most American contractors are definitely not cruel fellows. Many simply miss the camaraderie they experienced while in the service and want to experience it again. Moreover, military contractor is not a long term-profession. When the Syria war ends, Wagner mercenaries will move onto the next one. When their contracts end, most American contractors go back home to their families.
Perhaps the biggest difference is the injury compensation available to American contractors. Russian mercenaries operate in a legal grey area. The treatment they receive basically depends on President Putin’s mood. But American contractors have the Defense Base Act. This 1941 law guarantees benefits if they are injured during the course of their overseas service. These benefits include:
- Lost Wages: Most injured contractors receive two-thirds of their Average Weekly Wage until they are able to return to work at full speed. Permanently disabled contractors receive a form of compensation for their lost wages as well.
- Medical Expenses: In addition to hospitalization, DBA insurance pays for follow-up care, physical rehabilitation, medical devices, and all other reasonable expenses. The insurance company usually pays these bills directly and contractors are not responsible for any unpaid charges.
Procedurally, some claims are resolved at a settlement conference. But most of these claims proceed to a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. This hearing is much like a trial without a jury. An attorney can introduce evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and make legal arguments. So, injury victims have an excellent chance to obtain the benefits they deserve.
To learn more about DBA eligibility, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen & Frankel, P.A.