According to an exclusive report by Reuters, a group of up to 400 Russian private contractors arrived in Venezuela last week. The mercenaries will provide protection for President Nicolas Maduro, who fears opposition sympathizers in his own security forces. Reuters claims that the contractors are employees of the infamous private military company (PMC) “Wagner group.” There are speculations that Wagner contractors active the Central African Republic and Sudan were airlifted on an Il-96-300 flight of Russia’s Special Flight Detachment from Dakar (Senegal) via Paraguay and Cuba.
#Venezuela Crisis—Possible Russian shuttle diplomacy in progress: Rossiya Special Flight Detachment Ilyushin Il96-300 flew from Moscow Vnukovo to Aśuncion Silvio Pettirossi, continued to Ciudad del Este Guarani (triple-frontier city with🇵🇾🇦🇷🇧🇷) & just arrived to Havana José Marti pic.twitter.com/M8ynVzaABC
— Yörük Işık (@YorukIsik) January 24, 2019
However, there is reason to doubt that Wagner is behind the deployment. Why?
1.The Source: Reuters only named source is Yevgeny Shabayev, the head of a Russian veterans’ organizations with close ties to the PMC scene. While a facebook post by Shabayev confirms that Russian contractors deployed to Venezuela via Cuba, he does not mention Wagner (facebook post not available anymore, see the Defense Post). Instead, he states that a group of security professionals, who specialize in VIP protection and recently returned from Gabon, received the order to put together a task force. In an interview with the Russian outlet Lenta.ru published two days ago, Shabayev explicitly states that the contractors do not belong to the Wagner group.
2. Mission Profile: Wagner is not the PMC of choice for politically sensitive VIP-protection jobs like the Venezuela operation. As Wagner’s operations in Ukraine and Syria have attracted intense media attention, the company is increasingly sidelined for more discreet competitors such as the elusive PMC “Patriot,” which reportedly specializes in VIP-protection. To avoid media attention, Patriot hires well-paid specialists for short-term contracts and changes names and local subsidiaries frequently. Reports suggest that the Russian Ministry of Defense in particular prefers Patriot’s incognito operating style over Wagner’s growing notoriety. Shabayev’s description of the group assembled for Venezuela fits the Patriot model (ad-hoc, VIP-protection, security specialists connected to the Ministry of Defense) better than Wagner.
3. The Reuter’s report has raised credibility questions. Yevgeny Shabayev is indeed a controversial figure, who has repeatedly sought media attention in the past month. His claim of 400 mercenaries in Venezuela is likely inflated. This does however not necessarily mean that the entire story is fabricated. Shabayev is currently the target of massive media campaign, spearheaded by the Federal News Agency (a pro-Kremlin outlet owned by Wagner-founder Prigozhin). Clearly, the Kremlin has a strong interest to discredit reports about Russian mercenaries as “fake news.”
This article has been updated
Photo credit: Edilzon Gamez/Getty Images
Call sign "Gecko" is the co-director and editor-in-chief of T-Intelligence. She leads the Russian Federation Task Force at T-intelligence and focuses on Russia's overseas operations. She has gained in-field experience in Belarus, the Caucasus and Central Asia.