THE screens above the airport check-in desks showed no flight number or destination. Queuing up at the desks at Rostov airport in southern Russia were perhaps as many as 130 men, most of them carrying military style rucksacks.

When approached by a Reuters news agency reporter who asked them about their destination, the men instantly became defensive.

“We signed a piece of paper, we’re not allowed to say anything,” one of the men replied, before warning the reporter that he ran the risk of getting into trouble if he continued with his questions.

This was how the scene played out back in April last year when yet another contingent of Russian mercenaries, or private military contractors (PMC’s) as they prefer to be called, prepared to board a chartered Airbus A320 that would take them to their actual destination – the Syrian capital Damascus.

The flight was not the first and certainly not the last to shuttle between Rostov and Damascus, airlifting these shadowy fighters many of whom belonged to the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, a private military company.

Wagner was born out of the need for plausible deniability in Moscow’s military operations abroad, and the hugely controversial role they play has been compared to that of US military contractors in Iraq such as the group formerly known as Blackwater, who were deployed there on a large scale.

In one notorious episode, several employees of Blackwater, now renamed Academi, were accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.

Likewise Wagner, for such a shadowy outfit, also has an unfortunate tendency to make fairly lurid headlines. Last week the group was back in the news again after a grisly video appeared on social media.

In the clip apparently filmed in the summer of 2017, four Russian-speaking men dressed in camouflage clothing are seen beheading, dismembering and setting fire to a Syrian man. The men are seen exchanging jokes as they pour flammable liquid over a man’s mutilated corpse strung up on two wooden beams.

Before setting it alight and watching it burn as they pose for the camera, they scrawl a Russian phrase praising the country’s airborne forces on the dead man’s chest.

According to a new report by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the men in the video appear connected to the fighters-for-hire group Wagner. At least one of the men says the newspaper has been identified as a former police officer from the southern Russia region of Stavropol who promised to “represent the interests of Russia abroad” in a form he allegedly submitted to Wagner upon joining the mercenary group in 2016.

If recent history concerning Wagner is anything to go by, exposing this atrocity is not without its risks for the journalists at Novaya Gazeta.

Last year three Russian journalists were murdered in an ambush while investigating Wagner activities in the Central African Republic (CAR). Another young reporter, Maxim Borodin, died in Russia last April after falling from his fifth-floor balcony in Yekaterinburg.

Borodin wrote for a news website called Novy Den where he covered crime and corruption, and just before his death helped break the story about about the deaths of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries from Asbest who were killed in Syria during a fight with the US military in February.

That incident itself in Syria served in great part to draw international attention to the scale of Wagner’s operations in the war there. Armed with tanks and artillery roughly 600 Wagner mercenaries launched an assault on a position of the largely Kurdish militia force that worked closely with the US- led coalition.

With US advisers embedded within the ranks of the militia who promptly called in air support, the Wagner fighters were hammered by airstrikes that left 300 of the 600 Russians dead or wounded.

In the aftermath of this extraordinary incident many expected the diplomatic relationship between and the US and Russia to come apart after the first direct battle between Washington and Moscow’s forces since the Vietnam War.

But as ever Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and the rest of the country’s leadership sensitive about Wagner’s activities were careful to distance themselves from the group. Analysts say the Kremlin

benefits enormously by maintaining a fuzzy status for private military contractors that were referred to at a recent US Helsinki Commission hearing on mercenary activity as “Putin’s Shadow Warriors”.

Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security affairs, says that Wagner’s unique blend of proximity to the Kremlin and low costs make it attractive.

“They are cheap and come as part of a package of regime-support services, including political technologies,” Galeotti was quoted recently by the Moscow Times as saying.

So just who is it then behind the creation of these guns-for hire? The short answer would appear to be the man often referred to as “Putin’s chef.”

Yevgeny Prigozhin grew up in Putin’s home city of Leningrad and spent nine years in jail after being convicted by a Soviet court of robbery and other crimes. After emerging from prison, he opened hot dog stands with his stepfather before founding an elite restaurant, where he first personally served Putin and catered for many of the president’s high-flying associates, hence Prigozhin’s nickname.

“On good terms with Russia’s elite, Prigozhin branched out. He won lucrative state contracts to supply food to Russian schoolchildren and to its soldiers. With money came an oligarch lifestyle: a palace in St Petersburg, a yacht, a private plane, a helipad,” observed Luke Harding, The Guardian newspaper’s former Moscow correspondent in a detailed profile of Prigozhin.

Critics including the opposition leader Alexei Navalny have described Prigozhin’s rise as a “parable of Russia under Putin.” Today because of this

closeness to the president he has become immensely rich and notoriously influential and widely regarded as the “godfather” and money man behind the Wagner group.

Even before this association though Prigozhin was making his political presence felt.

Two months before those 300 Russian mercenaries died in Syria last year, US Special Counsel Robert S Mueller indicted Prigozhin for operating the Internet Research Agency, a disinformation “troll farm” that interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.

THIS however has done little to stop Prigozhin whose employees push Russia’s interests in a new era of hybrid warfare both through online manipulation and direct combat. Today the name Yevgeny Prigozhin has become synonymous with Russia’s informal presence in conflict zones where Russia has interests, from Syria to Central African Republic to Libya and beyond. Technically, mercenary activity is illegal in Russia but it’s generally recognised that the Wagner group functions as an undeclared branch of the Russian military.

Wagner first emerged in 2014 as part of the force that annexed Crimea from Ukraine and then as part of Russia’s undercover support for the separatist war in Ukraine’s Donbass region.

Mercenaries and private contractors of course are nothing new in conflicts, but sending private security services to fight for spoils on foreign land adds an insidious dimension to already ugly battle zones especially in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa where Wagner is particularly active.

Big money is at play here too.

According to the Russian news site Fontanka one company, Evro Polis – part of a network of companies owned by Prigozhin and working with Wagner – stood to profit by a 25% share of oil and natural gas produced on territory it recaptured from the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.

Apart from being involved in hard combat, Wagner also provides weapons training, supports police and civilian intelligence services and provides security protection for Russian personnel.

Wagner is reportedly named after its commander, Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer who used the nom de guerre “Vagner” during his service in Chechnya.

According to the online newspaper The Daily Maverick, Utkin allegedly chose the name due to his “affection for the attributes and ideology” of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime and its beloved composer Wagner.

Under Utkin it’s reported that the Wagner group and thousands of Russian mercenaries have been active in eastern Ukraine, Syria, Latin America and up to 20 African countries including, Mozambique, Libya, Sudan, the Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic.

In 2018, there were about 2500 Wagner mercenaries in Syria according to the BBC but the figures have varied. Elsewhere they are also been making their presence felt.

The Wagner mercenaries were sent to Sudan “in a conflict against the South Sudan” to back up now ousted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s government “militarily and hammer out beneficial conditions for the Russian companies,” Sergey Sukhankin, of the International Centre for Policy Studies in Kiev told Business Insider magazine.

The mercenaries are also protecting gold, uranium and diamond mines, Sukhankin said, adding that the latter is the “most essential commodity.” It’s a similar story in the Central African Republic (CAR) where Wagner mercenaries have the same general mission in protecting lucrative mines and propping up the government regime.

The CAR government is trying to combat violence being perpetrated by multiple armed groups along ethnic and religious lines.

“Russian instructors training our armed forces will greatly strengthen their effectiveness in combating plunderers,” CAR’s president Faustin-Archange Touadera was quoted by Russian state-owned media as saying in April 2018.

As the journalist Neil Hauer observed in a detailed account of Wagner’s activities in The Atlantic Magazine, Africa marks a natural next step for the Kremlin’s foreign policy.

“Add in the promise of lucrative gold and diamond resources and it’s easy to see why the country would be an attractive target for Moscow and a profitable one for Wagner,” added Hauer.

In his 2018 magazine account he outlines too that while the average Wagner pay cheque fell in 2017 by a third from its initial value of 240,000 rubles monthly, or roughly US$3550, the rate in 2018 of 160,00 rubles still far outpaced they typical wages in provincial Russia.

“Interviews with families of deceased Wagner fighters, many of them drawn from central Russia’s dilapidated Ural region, have confirmed the group’s monetary allure,” observed Hauer.

Some of course pay the ultimate price for such wages. Last month five Russian mercenaries were reported killed alongside 20 Mozambique servicemen in an ambush in the south-eastern African nation, the independent Carta de Mocambique news outlet reported.

In September, about 200 Russian Wagner mercenaries arrived in Mozambique’s capital Maputo. According to the Moscow Times, they have since been engaged in a fierce fight with an Islamic State-linked insurgency in the country’s gas-rich, Muslim-majority Cabo Delgado region, which has claimed over 200 deaths since 2017.

However some independent analysts, mercenaries and security experts working in the region who spoke with the Moscow Times say Wagner is struggling and some believe its mercenaries are in way over their heads in Mozambique

“You have to realise this is one of the toughest environments in the world,” said Al Venter, a veteran South Africa journalist who has written extensively about mercenaries on the continent.

“The consensus is that Wagner has almost no experience of the kind of primitive bush warfare being waged in there. They are going to come very badly unstuck,” Venter told the Moscow Times.

Some observers say this is just one example over the past few months of Wagner experiencing a reversal of fortune and that added to this other Russian private military contractors are apparently muscling in on Wagner’s turf. For the rapid success of the Wagner enterprise has opened the way for a second generation of Russian private military companies.

With a wealth of new competitors springing up, such as Vega, Shield and Patriot, the latter allegedly directly linked to the Russian defence ministry and its contractors reportedly potentially earning up to one million rubles a month, Wagner’s days as the top dog of Russian mercenary groups may be numbered.

What is very clear though is that the Wagner model is certainly being replicated.

“It remains to be seen exactly what role Patriot, Wagner, or any other imitators will play in Africa, Syria, and elsewhere going forward, but it appears as though the private military company as an instrument of Russian foreign and domestic policy is here to stay,” says Hauer.

In other words, now that Moscow has let slip its dogs of war, all the signs are they will continue making lurid headlines and their presence felt across the globe for a long time to come.