“Private military companies” have been an essential part of Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict since Moscow’s widespread aerial and ground intervention in September 2015.
Even before that intervention, the PMCs were supporting pro-Assad forces on the battlefield. The most notorious is the “Wagner” Group, led by a former lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Spetznaz (Special Forces) Brigade of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). At the height of its deployment, Wagner had more than 2000 personnel on the ground to execute “sensitive operations”, augmenting Russian “advisors” and Assad regime detachments in reconnaissance and assault missions. The mercenaries also provided security for strategic sites and training of regime units. Other PMCs include the “ISIS Hunters” — who reportedly suffered losses when the US carried out airstrikes last week on pro-Assad forces attacking the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria — and the “Turan” battalion.
But the deployment of the PMCs poses a domestic problem for the Kremlin and its military, since Russian federal law strictly prohibits and heavily penalizes “mercenary activities”.
The usual reaction of Russian officials to claims of PMC involvement in Syria is to sweep the issue under the carpet, with ambiguous phrases avoiding any acknowledgement of their deployment. So what can be done when they can no longer deny the reports of casualties and quasi-obituaries, published via social networks, among PMC fighters?
Maybe a song will help.
With the official line still intact, unofficial recognition for the “mercenary heroes” is being offered by musical art.
A rap-style video titled, “To Our Heroes – PMC Wagner Who Defend Peace from Terrorists in Syria” («Нашим героям — ЧВК Вагнера — которые защищают мир от террористов в Сирии») was posted last October 23 on a YouTube channel Russian Sky that was registered eight days earlier.
When the video was released, there were only 300 subscribers to Russian Sky. But a month later, the video had been viewed more than 600,000 times.
The song opens “Ours in Syria” (“Наши в Сирии”) with images of battles and operations of Russian and non-Russian personnel and equipment. Beyond the intense visuals, the musical style is a partial replica of the legendary song “Cuckoo” by the late Soviet-era counter-culture rock band Kino and the iconic singer/songwriter Viktor Tsoi, whose records begun as underground Samizdat. The refrain is a copy of that of “Cuckoo”: “My Sun look at me/Look at me straight in the eyes/My palm has transformed into a fist/And my heart became a stone.”
That echo is far from coincidental. In difficult times, Soviet and Russian militaries have been supported by the creation and proliferation of popular, emblematic patriotic military songs. During and after World War II, the Alexadrov Ensemble — known outside the Soviet Union as the Red Army Choir — became both a domestic and international institution.
It remains to be seen if tunes devoted to the PMCs, with heroic depiction of “mercenaries”, will have the same psychological effect in consolidating the endorsement of Russian society. The process of “informal legitimization”, both of operations in Syria and of political and private economic interests in Moscow, through popular art is still be tested.
For the song’s refrain, as catchy as it is, needs more to carry the message of support. There are descriptions of the hardships and uncertainty of going to battle in foreign and unfamiliar settings, tributes to the might and bravery of the mercenaries as they “smash ISIS members in jihad mobiles” and as “under mortar fire falling nevertheless took Palmyra”, the ancient city in central Syria.
The intent is to reconcile the official denial of the PMCs, which may be unpopular with those who know of the losses among their ranks, with unofficial cultural tribute. The official detachment no longer has to render the “Wagner boys” less patriotic or loyal to the cause than the recognized Russian forces – they can now be a “more modern” and unconventional addition to Russia’s global military outreach.
There is another clue in the Wagner song. Reports on social media, defying the official blackout, said the PMCs were recruited and trained at the Russian Defense Ministry Facility near Molkino, home of the 10th Separate GRU Spetsnaz Brigade in Krasnodar Krai, alongside elite GRU personnel.
The rap can now acknowledge those ties: “From Krasnodar Krai we are airlifted/We are the ones who solve inconvenient questions” (“Из Краснодарского края поднимаемся в воздух. Мы те, кто решает неудобные вопросы”).
And so the Russian “hybrid” approach to gray zone conflicts — where the lines between state and private, official and informal are deliberately and consistently blurred — can be enshrined in a song.