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Born in Crimea in 2022, the private militia Convoy is increasingly publicized and recruits new fighters. According to British intelligence, the Kremlin would seek to encourage the emergence of other groups of mercenaries to compete with Wagner, who had become too powerful in the eyes of certain Russian officials.
Is this the emergence of a new actor in the Ukrainian conflict? While the Wagner group has played a central role in the Russian military apparatus since the beginning of the Russian invasion, another militia dubbed “Convoy” has been gaining visibility in recent weeks and could become a new subcontractor in the Kremlin’s war against Kiev.
At the origin of this private army created at the end of 2022: Sergei Axionov. Born in Modalvie, this former businessman suspected of links with organized crime, experienced a rapid political rise to the point of being appointed Prime Minister of Crimea by Vladimir Putin in 2014. A great architect of the attachment of this Ukrainian territory to Russia, this faithful among the faithful now rules the occupied peninsula.
“In Russia, private militias are nothing new. Apart from Evgueni Prigojine at the origin of Wagner in 2014, we can mention the militia of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader. It is for these ‘entrepreneurs of influence’, politicians or oligarchs to support the regime and spread their influence and that of Russia internationally”, recalls Lukas Aubin, research director at IRIS and author of “Geopolitics of Russia” (Ed. La Découverte).
For the moment, little information has filtered on the operation and organization of “Convoy”. On its Telegram profile, created in November 2022, the group recently launched several recruitment campaigns to swell its ranks. According to an investigation by the Russian independent media, Important storiesthe militia has 300 fighters who operate in Crimea and in southern Ukraine, in the Kherson region.
A new private group of Russian mercenaries has been created in Crimea: Convoy.
If Wagner occupies all the media space, Convoy is also interesting in its structure. 1/6 pic.twitter.com/o0a4X2Dhad
— Thomas Eydoux (@EydouxT) April 4, 2023
According to a former member of the mercenary unit interviewed by Important stories, the recruits sign two contracts: one with Convoy and another with the Russian Ministry of Defense. Each fighter would earn around $2,500 per month. Those serving for a full year would also be promised land in Crimea or Abkhazia.
A rival for Wagner?
It is difficult to know today what role Convoy could play in Ukraine when Wagner monopolizes all available resources and media attention. Its emergence, however, is part of a context of strong tensions between the boss of Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defense. For several months, the political ambitions of Evgueni Prigojine and his thundering outings on the supposed incompetence of the command of the regular army have exasperated in Moscow.
While Wagner’s mercenaries are struggling to overcome Ukrainian resistance in Bakhmout, some Russian officials would like to sideline Putin’s former cook for good. According to British intelligence, the Kremlin would therefore aim to reduce “the preponderant role” of the Prigojine militia in Ukraine by favoring other private armies.
>> To read on France24.com: Bakhmout, key city where the ambitions of Yevgueni Prigojine hide to die?
“The military command is probably looking for an alternative militia over which they have more control. However, no private army can currently compete with Wagner in terms of manpower or combat power”, specifies this note published on April 4.
With approximately 50,000 active men in Ukraine in mid-December, the majority of whom were ex-convicts recruited from Russian prisons, Wagner’s men indeed appear to be essential auxiliaries to the Russian army which desperately needs new recruits. as Kiev prepares to launch a major counter-offensive.
An “opportunistic” power
Other elements tend to qualify the idea of a budding rivalry between the two groups. First of all, relations between Axionov and Prigozhin seem excellent. Axionov notably threatened to apply the death penalty to Russian officials who balked at sending ammunition to Wagner’s militiamen. An initiative that Prigojine had warmly welcomed.
Moreover, the commander of Convoy is close to Prigojine, according to a survey conducted by Bellingcat and Insider. Konstantin Pikalov, alias Mazai, is none other than the former right-hand man of Wagner’s boss and a former key figure in the group’s activities in the Central African Republic.
>> To read also: “From death squads” to “cannon fodder”, the bloody year of the mercenaries of the Wagner group
“We do not know today if the two men are in conflict. Nevertheless, this multiplication of private armed groups shows that there are dissensions within the Russian power”, notes Lukas Aubin. “The Russian government doesn’t really have a choice any more. The army is in trouble and these militias appear as alternatives.”
These two militias could, however, perfectly coexist as long as they serve the interests of the Kremlin. “Putin’s power is an opportunistic power where all means are good,” says Lukas Aubin. “Having powerful militiamen on your side is an asset even if it is a construction that may seem unstable”.
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