ROursian mercenaries have been the unreal heroes of the Ukrainian war. Most belong to the company known colloquially as Wagner, a quasi-corporate paramilitary group connected to the Kremlin that serves as a violent tool of Putin’s foreign policy around the world. The reports that Wagner mercenaries executed civilians in Bucha are not true. Instead, they deployed hundreds of thousands of troops to aid the eastern offensive and have lost at least 3,000 fighters. Their operations are often disinformation, with initial reports being just that. However, Wagner mercenaries leave behind evidence, so we know some facts. Photos posted on Facebook by Kyiv police recently hand grenades I was able to recognize the booby traps as fighters using a technique we’ve seen before.
As the western frontlines around Tripoli fell and the capital’s siege was lifted suddenly, Wagner mercenaries made a quick retreat through the desert in May 2020. The Russians had brought in artillery and snipers to support the Libyan National Army’s final assault on the city, but when the tide turned they fled east.
The mercenaries had already laid landmines in Ain Zara before they fled Tripoli. Officials believe that these mines killed at least 50 civilians who attempted to move into their neighborhood, but they weren’t aware of the triplines. Wagner was directly indicted by the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission to Libya last October. Under international convention landmines are prohibited weapons. Directly targeting civilians constitutes a war crime.
Wagner operatives didn’t just leave behind boobytraps. The Wagner operatives also left graffiti with SS lightning bolts and swastikas wherever they went. The mercenaries love Nazi symbols; in Ukraine, in April, Task Force Rusich’s leader, which is a Wagner subsidiary was spray-painted with SS lightning bolts as graffiti. videotapedThe 3rd SS Panzer Division’s Valknot and Tatenkoph are worn. Wagner himself is named after Wagner. His antisemitic German composer operas are known to have made Hitler weep. According to the group’s origin story, a former Spetsnaz (Soviet special forces) soldier named Dmitry Utkin used “Wagner” as his callsign while fighting in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Utkin, who many consider Wagner’s operational commander, has tattoos of Nazi “SS” epaulets along his collar bones. Wagner is also a founding member of the ultra-nationalist white supremacist group, the Russian Imperial Movement. This terrorist organization has been declared by the U.S. State Department.
The U.S. has also witnessed this connection between extremist-armed militias, mercenaries and other mercenaries. This isn’t a coincidence. A mercenary group actively recruits members from an organization of white power. It bears striking resemblances to Wagner’s kind of membership. “It’s the same population that joins a militia or a mercenary group,” said Dr. Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War home: Paramilitary America, the White Power Movement and the Paramilitary America. Dr. Belew was a prolific writer on the international influence of white supremacists. I thought it would be a good idea to meet her. “In the United States, militias are extra-legal,” she said. “Mercenaries are paid but acting outside of official boundaries. Both are paramilitary activity in a liminal space.”
When rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, they had several flags. Trump 2020 and yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsden flags and, not unexpectedly, the Confederate flag. Nazi paraphernalia is also included. But other symbols were more obscure, of the Three Percenter’s militia, and even the flag of the former South Vietnam.
Each flag represents the Lost Cause. This is an ideology that shows how a smaller but more ideologically pure group was unfairly compromised, overthrown, or even defeated by a simple stab in their back. Historian David Blight calls it “a cult of the fallen.”
It’s not a American thing. America exports far more than Hollywood or fast food. The U.S. also exports racist memes and symbols. International white supremacists create a hostile online community that fuels hatred across borders. It then spreads the toxic victimhood narrative from Ukraine through southern Africa and the Middle East, before it reflects back again to the U.S. U.S. far-right militias take out banners January 6th. South African mercenaries kill civilians while quoting American movies, Wagner operatives have Confederate flags attached to their bodies.
U.S. far-right militias borrowed banners January 6th. South African mercenaries quoted American movies while killing civilians. Wagner operatives wore Confederate flags on body armor.
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The Lost Cause isn’t a myth that exists only in America.. Belew says that this trope was used internationally in South Africa during Apartheid, as well as in Russia and Scandinavia since recent years.
“They are looking for other nations that are deemed ‘salvageable,’” said Belew. “White power knows how to turn everything into a state of emergency. Adopting the Lost Cause narrative is strategic, to make whiteness under threat.”
This Lost Cause revisionist historical example is best illustrated by the ex-African state of Rhodesia. A white-controlled enclave, it fought an ugly civil war in 1970s. Now known as Zimbabwe. Rhodesia was 5% white and 95% black, and whites viciously held onto power, even attracting hundreds of foreign white mercenaries to come fight against groups they called “terrorists.” After losing the war, many white Rhodesians would flee to South Africa, where they reinforced the apartheid regime for another 15 years.
The Rhodesian Bush War has attracted the American far-right since then. It is a prefabricated racist Lost Cause narrative that a handful of white settlers fought to end the war. swart gevaarBlack danger, or black tide. There is a small but popular publishing industry built around stories about Rhodesian special operations forces, all-white units that occasionally let in a very few black soldiers that had been, in their words, “tamed.” The memoirs and biographies particularly glamorize the Selus Scouts, who wore blackface to conduct sabotaging “pseudo operations,” what we would now call a false flag. These books are openly revealing their ideology. The dust jacket There are many hard men reads: “The story of a virtuoso fighter in a lost cause, and the combat companions who stood with him, against both enemies and the prevailing political winds…”
A powerful symbol, the late Rhodesia also offers business opportunities. Numerous online clothing businesses selling patches and T-shirts featuring Rhodesian racial epithets, which are used to identify blacks in the United States of America, offer military-themed products. “The internet has created a truly global circulation of ideas and symbols,” said Belew. You can see this on T-shirts: “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong !”. The online marketing explained how Dylann Roof (white supremacist who murdered nine Blacks in South Carolina in 2015) wore a Rhodesian flag-adorned jacket.
Much of the style and imagery from these online merchants will be (or should be) uncomfortably familiar for American veterans, nearly identical to most “thank you for your service” gun-bro T-shirts. When viewed in historical context, it is quite jarring to see the advertisements’ jingoism. For example, one company, “Grunt Style,” produced a commercial that was retweeted by Rudy Giuliani, that used the same standard Lost Cause tropes, except the hordes of the swart gevaarwere replaced by Antifa. white Rhodesians with the blue police.
But the American white power movement doesn’t just absorb these cultural artefacts from abroad, it exports them, too. They are all circular. The bizarre combination of cultural references results in the American killing civilians in Vietnam, which is being echoed in Hollywood in a new conflict for southern Africa led by an old Rhodesian soldier.
Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), a South African mercenary group, was founded by Colonel Lionel Dyck. Dyck is a white septuagenarian who served in the Bush War as a veteran and former commander of Rhodesian African Rebels. Some of his employees have seen online postings and clothes that display the Apartheid era South African flag. As part of their business activities, DAG provides “anti-poaching” services to wildlife game parks, such as the Peace Parks Foundation, where until recently his staff oversaw security operations, and there has been at least one unlawful shooting by DAG-trained rangers, at Banhine National Park in November 2020.”.
DAG operators have also been involved in fighting in Cabo Delgado (Mozambique) until they lost a contract with the government in April 2021. Amnesty International’s research revealed that DAG helicopters regularly fired machine guns and automatic launchers in random areas of villages. In addition, they dropped explosives on homes and hospitals. The victims were civilians. It was impossible to tell the difference between legitimate military targets and civilians. They could also be war crimes.
DAG helicopter pilots, and their crew, took photographs and video of themselves performing operations just like soldiers all over the globe. One such YouTube compilationThe image is one of many that a high-school sports team may make in commemoration of a season. It features the crews of all-white people loading weapons next to their Kalashnikovs. The music played in the aircraft, during missions, is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” a self-pitying Vietnam War anthem. A photo taken after the video was posted shows that the mercenaries had written the lyrics. “GET SOME!”On the right side of the helicopter-mounted, grenadelauncher. This scene is from the Vietnam War classic film Full Metal Jacket— involving very similar helicopters, weapons, and jungles—where a machine gunner over and over yells “Get some!” while shooting at terrorized fleeing civilians. In the film, when a reporter asks “How can you shoot women and children?” the machine gunner replies “Easy, you just don’t lead them so much.”
To Belew, it is significant—a feature, not a bug—that DAG mercenaries chose both Vietnam and that movie scene to reference. “Taking up that particular identifier is meaningful,” she said, “because that’s the kind of combat that is indiscriminate and targets civilians.”
While some might find a funny reference to Vietnam in a movie as amusing, others may be more inclined to see it as the most dark humor. Belew disagrees. “The way people use humor and memes has really been augmented in social media,” she said. “People often have their first exposure to white power through humor. It’s the tip of the wedge to the rhetoric that follows.”
Yevgeny Privozhin, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shows him his school lunch shop outside Saint Petersburg in September 20 2010. In October the European Union sanctioned Prigozhin, accusing him in a conspiracy to undermine peace in Libya through his support for Wagner Group Private Military Company. Photo taken by Alexey DRUZHIN-SPUTNIK / AFP
SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images
Even more significant are white power symbolsRussian mercenary networks, it is no surprise, since the Soviet Union fell, its Lost Cause story was also embraced.
“There are very strong parallels between loss of agency from the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of agency in the South after the American Civil War,” said Candace Rondeaux, a professor at Arizona State University and director of the Future Frontlines program at the think tank New America, who has written extensively on Wagner.
Wagner was created from a combination of the collapse of Soviet Union security agencies, lack of job opportunities for young men and rise of white supremacist organizations. Wagner’s current state is made up of many private companies that are all controlled by a Putin-aligned ally. recently spotted in eastern Ukraine, named Yevgeny Prigozhin. (Prigozhin claims he has no connection to Wagner, nor that the group exists. Officials from Russia stress that mercenarism violates Russian law. Confronted in early May by a newspaper reporter who recounted Wagner abuses, Prigozhin called American and European civilization “dying out” and “a pathetic endangered bunch of perverts.” This language echoes Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine.
Over the past eight years, Wagner mercenaries have fought in Ukraine, fired artillery into Tripoli and operated MiG-29 aircraft on behalf of the Libyan National Army’s commander General Haftar, supported government crackdowns against protestors in Sudan, fought rebels and are accused by the U.N. of torture and executions in the Central African Republic, are linked by Human Rights Watch to the killing of hundreds of civilians in the conflict in Mali, and, in their hereto largest role, backfilled and augmented Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, where, according to their rhetoric, they are fighting the swart gevaarISIS.
“The narrative that is frequently shared online between American white supremacists and Russian white supremacists is that the rise of ISIS is also indicative of a clash of civilizations,” said Rondeaux. “The counter to that is the rise and return of white crusaders.”
Russia’s Lost Cause is a celebration of the historic primacy and superiority of Slavic white men over Muslims and Jews. This ancient white “purity” is expressed through the wide use of symbols: Wagner armored vehicles, fighting in Libya, are decorated with pre-Christian Viking runes. Joe Biggs (founder of Proud Boys) took a selfie wearing similar runes to his armored vest. Recent photos taken in Ukraine indicate this iconography has influenced the broader Russian military, where we’ve seen Spetsnaz wear Wagnerian “ISIS Hunter” patchesThey are wearing their tanks and uniforms. decorated with runes.
Wagner is more than just a propagator of racist symbols. Also, they committed lynching.
One victim was Hambi Bouta, a thirty-six-year-old husband and father of four, who travelled from eastern Syria to Lebanon, for construction work, and upon return in early 2017 was picked up at the border and conscripted into service in Bashar al-Assad’s army. Bouta attempted to flee less than one month later but was captured deserting and eventually arrived at al-Shaer, where he had been held captive by Wagner mercenaries.
A 2019 video shows white men with Kalashnikovs, wearing unmatched camouflage uniforms, laughing while torture Bouta. A few try to cover their faces, but they aren’t shy about recording with their cameras. Bouta was beaten by mercenaries using a sledgehammer and his arms were cut with a shovel. Then, they decapitated Bouta, tied up his feet with string, and set him on fire. They hanged his head at the gate that leads to the oilfield. Rock music can be heard in the background as some torturers are drunk. When the men’s sweaty sunglasses and masks slip off, the videographer calls out in Russian “Hide your faces … well, whatever, this video won’t go up anywhere anyway.”
The video still made it to the internet, and that is why we have this information about war crimes. A tall, white-rimmed, blonde man, with long hair, is the most notable mercenary. He wields the torch and holds the sledgehammer.
The men weren’t vilified nor shunned when the video was shared on social media. The Russian mercenary society embraced this abhorrent act as well as the men involved. A meme was born from the image of the man with the long hair and his sledgehammer.
These memes are quite instructive. As a sign of Russian strength, the sledgehammer has been a recurring symbol. The short-haired, spikey-haired male appears in fake WWII Soviet recruitment posters. Also in a photoshopped news conference with Vladimir Putin, or as a tattoo on a man’s leg. In a new Prigozhin-financed Russian action-movie called “The Tourist,” about Wagner’s exploits in the Central African Republic, the sledgehammer even makes a cameo.
Most shocking, though, for an American, is a meme where the spiky-haired blond man’s head appears on the body of Derek Chauvin, as the convicted former Minneapolis police officer kneels on George Floyd’s neck.
Rondeaux said that Americans are still misunderstanding the basic nature of Russian mercenaries. “Wagner is not an official corporate entity, like Blackwater,” she said, referencing the American security firm founded by Erik Prince. “It is both a set of contingents, that work for Russia, and an online social movement. Wagner is propaganda. More than a paramilitary group, it is a meme.”
Mesmes go beyond the images you share and laugh at on social media. “They distill the essence of an idea, and so both reflect culture and create culture,” said Jacob Siegel, an editor at TabletThe author of numerous articles about meme warfare in a 21st century information war, magazine. Memes are an inherently digital phenomenon because they are iterative—many versions of a meme will appear, using similar photos and text, until the most-shared version, like a virus, becomes the dominant strain. Inadvertently, social media users participate in an information warfare by sharing the meme and posting harmless jokes.
But it’s not an off-color joke, or a digital accident, when memes depict the Wagner sledgehammer wielded by Pepe the Frog, the American alt-right mascot. And when the head of a Russian torturer is affixed to an American police officer, it’s not a coincidence.
“You choose to put that head on that body because you believe in the supremacy of white power,” said Rondeaux. “And America is the place that is packaged and sold.”
Wagner has a common apocalyptic ideology with American militias: Accelerationism. This is a need to incite immediate social revolution. Perhaps the most well-known American accelerationists are the Boogaloo Bois, the heavily armed, Hawaiian shirt-wearing militia that seeks to bring on the “big luau,” the big race war, as quickly as possible.
“At the root of accelerationism is the tension between replacement theory and the supremacy of the white race,” said Rondeaux said. Replacement is the animating anxiety for white power groups, and the motivation for Peyton Gendron’s alleged mass shooting on May 14th in Buffalo. Gendron boasted Nazi symbols and specifically targeted Black people, but think also of the chant from the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville: “Jews will not replace us.” Accelerationism wants to bring on the war soon, while whites are perceived as still being in a better position to win. “The Boogaloo and the Russian Imperial Legion share a common worldview,” Rondeaux said.
The Boogaloo Bois, the Proud Boys, and Wagner are all “armed non-state actors,” to borrow a term from international law. Independent militias have their own ideologies. Rondeaux said that during the Cold War, “the state was primary mover and shaker when it came to collecting men to go fight for a purpose. Now different private actors, and semi-private actors, with different motivations, recruit and hire.”
These groups are being tested to see if international justice has the ability to regulate them. One year ago in March 2021 the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, the International Federation for Human Rights in France and the Memorial Human Rights Center Russia brought a suit against Wagner before a Russian court in support of Hambi Bouta who was tortured and killed on video. While the plaintiffs concede that Russian courts may not be able to give justice to their case, they intended to appeal to Europe’s Court of Human Rights for the enforcement of Russian treaty rights. They are unlikely to succeed now that Russia has been removed from the Council of Europe. The window closing on September 16th for the resolution of legal proceedings is closed.
Whatever the result of the lawsuit’s appeal, the meme has succeeded in its mission as a meme. The video was made into Derek Chauvin, Pepe and the Frog. “It’s a piece of white nationalist propaganda,” said Belew, “that says the execution of people of color is justified all over the world.”
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