Wagner Recruitment of Volunteers in the Region Neither Confirmed, nor Denied
Wagner Group is a private military group with obvious connections with the Russian Government whose owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin called “Putin’s chef” due to the numerous deals related to the preparation and sales of food in connection with Kremlin. The second important character from the Wagner Group is Dmitry Utkin, former member of the GRU Special Forces – Russian military intelligence service. Wagner is present where the Russian military is present, but acting silently and its involvement is always denied by the Russian Government. The mentioning of the Wagner Group in Serbia began in December 2022, when news on several Serbian volunteers training to fight in Ukraine surfaced. On 14th of January, in the centre of Belgrade a mural was unveiled celebrating Wagner. At the same time, media published unconfirmed information that a cultural centre of the Wagner Group was opened in the capital city of Serbia
The paramilitary group Wagner, by means of a paid announcement on 5th January on Russia Today Balkan in Serbian language, called for all potential volunteers from Serbia to join the war in Ukraine.
Under the title ”Wagner publishes a call for volunteers; conditions are more than appealing”, the announcement clarified the conditions for participating in the war, the earnings and the training. The public call which, according to the Serbian media, incited a series of responses disappeared from the website of RT Balkan soon after that.
Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic in an interview for the National Television “Happy”, fiercely commented the call.
Why do you from Wagner address people from Serbia when you know that that is opposed to our rules?!, asked Vucic, stressing the 2015 Law according to which the participation in a foreign army is deemed a criminal act.
Such a response followed a series of events that posed the questions – where exactly was the Wagner Group active in Serbia and in the region. The paramilitary feature of the Group was confirmed on the front in Ukraine, but also in Africa and in some other countries?
Wagner Group is a private military company with obvious connections with the Russian Government whose owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, called “Putin’s chef” due to the numerous deals related to the preparation and sales of food in connection with Kremlin. The second important character is Dmitry Utkin, former member of the GRU Special Forces – Russian military intelligence service. Wagner is present where the Russian military is present, but acting silently and its involvement is always denied by the Russian Government. The mentioning of the Wagner Group in Serbia began in September 2022. Wagner publicly declared that it was established for the purpose of ”defending Russian interests”.
In some African countries they had an unsuccessful attempt to organize political campaigns and advocacy initiatives.
Wagner Centre in Belgrade
Intensive mention of the Wagner Group in Serbia started in December 2022. That was news about several Serbian volunteers already being trained for combat in Ukraine was published. On 14th of January, in the centre of Belgrade a mural celebrating Wagner was unveiled. At the same time, the media published unconfirmed information that in the capital city of Serbia Wagner Group Cultural Centre was opened.
The Centre is a Russian-Serbian cultural and information spot for friendship and cooperation called “Orli” (Eagles). However, the alleged chief of the “Eagles”, Aleksandar Lisov, denied the information regarding the opening of the centre in Serbia. He stated that his centre was operational only in Saint Petersburg where the Wagner Group secured premises for this organization. Although the Russian-Serbian centre of the “Eagles” offered free of charge premises to Wagner, Lisov claims that Wagner ”is not helping whatsoever” in gathering information about Russian liberals in Serbia and that the “Eagles” is ”doing that on its own”.
Apart from using the premises, we have no other cooperation with them (Wagner) – neither financial, nor in general, Lisov claims, Lisov claims.
Serbian – Russian cooperation through Wagner
The news about the opening of the Centre in Belgrade surfaced once the leader of the Serbian ultra-right organization “People’s Patrol”, Damjan Knezevic, returned from his visit at the headquarters of the Wagner Army in Saint Petersburg.
Knezevic was seen in the information video about the visit of Wagner. He spoke about support and Russian aid.
We must express our support for Russia because that is largely expressing our support for Serbia. We must secure the biggest possible cooperation and aid from the Russian Federation. That is also aid from the Russian Army in case of conflict on Kosovo, Knezevic said.
Following his visit, tensions and barricades in Kosovo took place, while Knezevic organized a support protest calling upon the Serbs – not only from Serbia, but also from Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro – to get together on the Kosovo border crossing Jarinje on 18th of December. The protest was organized under the motto ”Pray to God and stick to Russia”. The media in Kosovo wrote that Wagner Group insignia was noted together with the Russian flag. The video from that protest was published by the Wagner Group on its Telegram channel with the comment:
Patriotic action in Belgrade when the situation in Kosovo is getting worse.
Kosovo President, Vjolsa Osmani, in an interview for London’s Telegraph warned that the mercenaries of the Russian Wagner Group are cooperating with the Serbian paramilitary forces and smuggling arms and military uniforms without Kosovo emblems. Osmani said that such an operation aimed to create an environment for an eventual hybrid attack from Serbia for taking over control of the territory of Kosovo.
Previously, the Security Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Selmo Cikotic, in a statement given for Radio Free Europe (RFE) from 9th January confirmed that intelligence data point to the presence of the Wagner Group in that area.
However, Vuk Vuksanovic, from the Belgrade Security Forum, answering the question posed by “Truthmeter” about the presence of the Wagner Group in the region saying that the Prime-minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, also spoke about the same thing.
Yet, we saw just a few right-winged people with Wagner caps. Pristina is only using this hoping to present Belgrade as Moscow’s intermediary for potentially winning the sympathy of the West in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. In Macedonia – for the time being – I cannot see evidence or indications of the presence of this Group, replied Vuksanovic.
Vuksanovic: There is no massive presence of Wagner
He believes that massive presence is out of the question. As he said, murals appeared in Belgrade, right-winged politicians who visited Wagner’s headquarters in Russia and a Call ”under the mask of a media text that had to be retracted, most probably due to the intervention behind closed doors of someone from the Serbian Presidency”.
Regarding the recruitment of individuals for the battlefield in Ukraine or any other place, he said that that was always the problem of the local security services, but also added that such mercenaries will always be around.
Up to date, it seems like Wagner wanted to potentially scare the Russian community in Serbia so that it will not be critical towards the Russian Government, but even more so to promote itself as a global relevant formation. It would be a great risk for countries like Serbia if they tried the same thing as they did Africa – organize political networks and campaigns – because public opinion is inclined towards Russia in Serbia, and it would be a problem for the Serbian Government to try to turn to the West too strongly. This is still within the scope of theory because there are no indications that such power exists at the moment and that local elites would allow that to happen. They would not allow that due to the threat imposed for them, nor do they want to attract pressure from the West, says Vuksanovic.
Is North Macedonia on Wagner’s map?
The presence of the Wagner Group in Macedonia is marginal – this is the position of Military Academy Professor, Metodi Hadji Janev. The same assessment is true for the eventual volunteer recruitment from Macedonia to fight on the side of Russia in Ukraine.
I think that there is no presence. Similar to the disinformation, Belgrade, Podgorica and Banja Luka are the basins where this kind of support is bigger. If there are Macedonian citizens who would be recruited for there, or they are already recruited (although Bulgaria or other countries are not excluded due to the overall liberalization and globalization issue), that most probably would happen from there, says Professor Hadji-Janev.
According to him, an important issue is the resilience of Macedonian society for such processes, which he assesses as very low.
We have much more serious problems where resilience – or pliability, I would say – of the system simply collapses. For this category of danger, I doubt that we have any lessons learnt from the ISIS case. Look at the cyber-attacks, the hybrid threats etc. the parallel wave of fighters who joined ISIS at the time, and you will see that a separate protocol in the entire system for crisis management cannot be identified to work in favour of prevention, or deterrence of such occurrences. If such a thing exists, then most probably, they are lone-wolves who are either recruited online or have been recruited online through some of the social media channels or portal echo-cells and fora, deems Hadji-Janev.
At a time of intensive geo-political changes in the region, the situation with Kosovo, and when Macedonian top officials call the everyday announcements of bomb-treats hybrid war, Prigozhin stated that they were not active in the region.
Wagner is not operational in Serbia and has no contacts in that country. The rumours about the cooperation of Wagner with Serbia are fully not confirmed, announced the office of Yevgeny Prigozhin on the social network Telegram.
A lawyer from Belgrade, Cedomir Stojkovic, part of the October Group and the partner associations of Ukrainians and Russians, accused the Wagner Group of recruiting Serbian citizens for participating in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They submitted criminal charges against the Russian ambassador in Serbia, the Director of the Security Information Agency (BIA) and against persons from the right-winged organization People’s Patrol that is supporting the Russian para-military Wagner Group.
So, things are quite clear. The Wagner Group was established to mobilize people from abroad, beyond the borders of Russia. That is the first fact, and the second is that the citizens of Serbia were recruited to fight. There is no doubt that the Wagner Group is active in Belgrade and Serbia and that citizens are being mobilized, but there is also no doubt that some members of the diplomatic corps have been involved in the process, stated Stojkovic.
The High Public Prosecution in Belgrade rejected the criminal charges assessing that ”the allegations are unsubstantiated claims based on a series of assumptions“.
This article was developed within the framework of the project Promoting Access to Reliable News to Counter Disinformation, implemented by the Metamorphosis Foundation. The article, that was previously published in Truthmeter, was enabled with the support of the American non-profit foundation NED (National Endowment for Democracy). The contents of the article is the responsibility of the author and do not always reflect the positions of Metamorphosis Foundation, NED or their partners.
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