BALKAN INSIGHT: the role of Serb fighters in Putin's Ukraine and Syria campaigns

Mercenary relationships stretching back to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s have been reactivated over the past two years as Putin's Russia has gone to war in Ukraine and Syria

Marija Ristic
Sunday, 24 April 2016 22:17

When Syrian government forces seized the historic city of Palmyra back from Islamic State last month, President Bashar al-Assad took the glory, but according to several international media reports, Russian forces were also involved in the battle - aided by mercenaries who once fought in the Balkan wars.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper claimed that an analysis of photos, social media posts and Iranian, Russian and Syrian media showed that the assault on the city was led by Moscow’s troops.

Russian independent newspaper Fontanka also published an investigation last month claiming that in the battle for Palmyra, the Syrian army was backed by fighters supplied by a private military contract company called Wagner, whose mercenaries already had conflict experience in Ukraine.

Fontanka interviewed a number of the mercenaries hired by Wagner, but also obtained documents and photos showing that its fighters were in Syria, including its so-called Serb platoon, which it said was led by a Bosnian Serb called Davor Dragolobovic Savicic.

Savicic, a 42-year-old citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, says he lives in the Russian town of Khimki, where he works on a construction site.

He told Fontanka that he did not take part in the fighting in Ukraine and Syria, and did not respond to messages from BIRN asking him to comment on the claims.

But Fontanka said it had evidence that Savicic was seen several times at a training camp in the Russian village of Molkino, from where a number of Wagner-contracted fighters were deployed to Syria.

The fighters who spoke to Fontanka said that Savicic was highly appreciated by his superiors at Wagner due to his extensive battlefield experience, and was given the code name Wolf to reflect his strength and courage in combat.

These claims could not be independently verified, but coincidentally or not, Savicic’s Facebook profile picture is also a wolf.

Fontanka alleged that Savicic was recognised as a rising star among mercenaries during the conflict in eastern Ukraine, when according to the Bosnian security services, he was one of many Bosnian Serbs who decided to join pro-Russian rebels.

The Bosnian police told BIRN that they believe that the mercenaries have a meeting point in Moscow, and most of them are registered as temporary workers in Russia in order to avoid prosecution at home as foreign fighters.

Under Bosnian law, people can be jailed for taking part in foreign conflicts, but so far the Sarajevo authorities have not prosecuted anyone for fighting in Ukraine.

Unlike Muslim fighters from Bosnia who often go to Syria to join Islamic State or Al Nusra without any combat experience, Bosnian Serbs joining pro-Russian forces mostly have a record of fighting in the Yugoslav wars and can charge up to $2,000 a week for their services.

Davor Savicic got his first battlefield nickname, Elvis, during the 1990s conflicts. The Bosnian prosecution says he was given this popular Bosniak name as his nom de guerre because of his enthusiasm for fighting Bosniaks.

Bosnian police records suggest that Savicic was a member of various Bosnian Serb units, but he spent the longest period of time fighting alongside Arkan’s Tigers, the notorious militia led by criminal Zeljko Raznatovic, alias Arkan, who was killed in 2000 before he could be tried for war crimes by the international tribunal in the Hague.

The Tigers, who on paper were paramilitaries, had strong links with the Serbian state security service - for whom Savicic also worked at one point.

In 1998, when the conflict in Kosovo started to escalate, he joined the official Serbian state security unit known as the ‘Frenkijevci’, meaning ‘Frenki’s Men’. Their boss Franko Simatovic, known as Frenki, is now on trial in The Hague for alleged war crimes.

Many witnesses described the unit as one of the most notorious, tasked with the most difficult assignments which often resulted in large-scale casualties.

State documents and witness testimonies also link the ‘Frenkijevci’ to the cover-up of crimes and the removal of victims’ bodies from Kosovo to Serbia, but its members have so far never faced trial, as in most of the cases they either destroyed or removed the evidence, while most of the witnesses ended up dead.

There is no evidence that Savicic was involved in any criminal activities in Kosovo, Serbia or Bosnia, however.

When NATO forced the Serbian military and police out of Kosovo in July 1999, most of the unit’s members started to live between the Montenegrin capital Podgorica and Belgrade, using their influence to gain wealth through criminal activities.

In 2001, the Montenegrin prosecution accused Savicic and three other men of planting a bomb in the house of a man called Dusko Martinovic in the town of Berane, which killed six people. It was that alleged Martinovic owed them around 15,000 euros.

Savicic was initially sentenced to 20 years in absentia in Montenegro, but it was ruled on appeal that there was not enough evidence to prove that he was responsible for the bombing.

From 2001 until his acquittal in 2014, Montenegrin police tracked him from Bosnia to France, Spain and Russia, but never managed to arrest him.

The year Savicic was cleared, photographs of him on the front-line in Lugansk appeared, after he and an estimated 50 other Serb fighters brought their battlefield skills to the pro-Russian uprising against the Ukrainian government, according to the Bosnian prosecution.

They were deployed using similar methods to those used in the Bosnian war, when Serbia denied any direct involvement in the fighting and insisted all the Serbian citizens who took part in it were volunteers, as Russia has in Ukraine.

The idea of forming special armed units that would defend the interests of Serbs outside the country, in areas of the former Yugoslavia that were already on the brink of war, came from President Slobodan Milosevic.

Milosevic said in March 1991: “The government has an assignment to prepare additional groups which will make us safe and enable us to defend the interests of our republic, but also the interests of Serbs outside Serbia.”

Although never officially employed by Serbian state security, Arkan and his men had close affiliations to the Belgrade leadership, and military experts later claimed many of his fighters were paid by the state and that their arms were provided by Serbian officials.

In the international arena, Milosevic never wanted to admit that Serbia was playing an active role in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, but a number of witnesses, mainly insiders from Arkan’s unit, confirmed that they were part of state security and were on its payroll.

“Salaries in the [Red] Berets [another unit linked to Serbian state security] and the Tigers were paid in cash, in special envelopes, while in the Berets people received twice as much as the Tigers,” a former member of the Tigers told a trial at the Hague Tribunal in 2010.

Members of the unit have also told BIRN that they were well-paid for their work.

“We had the best uniforms, the best arms and the biggest money,” one fighter said.

“But we were also efficient and the best when it comes to the toughest assignments,” he added.

These skills appear to have been recognised by the Wagner private military company. According to media reports, Wagner’s fighters played an important role in battles fought by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Fontanka reported that Wagner has around 1,000 fighters, paid from $500 dollars to $2,000 a week depending on their position and duties.

Wagner however is not officially registered in Russia since the country’s legislation forbids private military companies.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Wagner is registered in Argentina but has a training camp in the Russian village of Molkino - the same village in which there is a training centre for the 10th special forces brigade of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, the GRU - the country’s main foreign military intelligence agency.

The Russian authorities have never admitted any links to Wagner, although President Vladimir Putin is reported to have honoured several of its fighters for their activities in Ukraine and Syria.

Fontanka published photographs of the honours in its investigation, all signed by Putin, while the men who were given the medals were confirmed as Wagner fighters by other members of their unit.

Like Milosevic, Putin had no direct affiliation with such private forces, but according to the Daily Telegraph, he has publicly spoken of how private military companies could be used by the Kremlin to conduct deniable operations.

In 2012, he called for the legalisation of such companies, describing them as a “tool for the implementation of national interests without direct participation of the state”, according to the British newspaper.

As well as implementing national interests in foreign countries, Arkan’s fighters also have proved to be good at evading prosecution.

Although accused of numerous atrocities committed all over the former Yugoslavia, none of them has ever been found guilty of war crimes.

The Ukrainian prosecution has also tried to investigate some of the Serb fighters who are believed to be former Tigers, but the result has so far been the same - none of them has yet spent a day in court.

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