Project VEGA: a new Russian PMC. The story of a hybrid PMC operating in the era of hybrid warfare

Unofficial Russian private military company (PMC) «Wagner», despite its outlaw status cannot keep a low profile and keeps drawing the attention of international intelligence, research institutions and all kinds of mass media. During the last few years the title «Wagner» obtained rather mercenary connotation. The term «Wagner» would surely ring a bell for an objective observer, the Russian mercenary troops were involved in operations in Syria, South African Republic, Venezuela, Sudan and now Libya.

Recently published shocking footage of a violent massacre in the province Homs happened 2 years ago provoked a massive outcry. On this video members of the PMC «Wagner» murdered a severely beaten before Syrian. According to human rights watch, this severe crime falls under the framework of application of the Geneva convention despite the fact that subjects were civilians, not directly linked with the Russian Armed Forces. Moreover, the claim should be found admissible and the case should be investigated by the competent legal authority.

Deriving from the reaction of Russian authorities to this situation, no one is interested in its investigation. How on earth criminals may not be behind the bars? Possibly the Government is behind the PMC «Wagner». Alternatively, if the case is not investigated, then the Government should come out with PMC affiliation and recruitment of mercenaries. The official Kremlin should otherwise recognize their unofficial troops operating in Syria and other states as the PMC «Wagner» soldiers are well-known not only on the continent.

March 2019 was marked with a notorious introduction of a brand new Russian PMC — Vega Strategic Services (VSS), aka Vegacy, Vega. According to reliable sources this PMC was involved in martial drilling of mercenaries of Liwa al-Quds, a pro — Assad group of Palestinian terrorists. Rumors about PMC`s presence in Syria have been around for a long time, but have only been confirmed in spring 2019.    

A massive PR for a small-scale company

When you type the title of the company «Vegacy Strategic Services» in the searching engine, the first piece of information will learns is that «it`s a new Ukrainian PMC functioning in Syria, its major is to drill gunmen and the military», «Ukrainian mercenaries are waging a war in Syria», etc. These news are made up by pro-Kremlin media.

Cyprus portal writing in Russian and trading property and news, announced this March that «militants of Cypriot PMC have been deployed to Syria in search of foreign money». Local Cypriot media dropped a message that «a security firm offers training for soldiers of fortune in Limassol».

Quality Russian media reported with a link to the research made by Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) that Syria now has a Ukrainian-Russian or vice versa private military company of a new type.

The starting point for the story was when CIT project investigators pointed at the footage from Syria captured by Oleg Blohin — the co-respondent of the pro-Kremlin ANNA News and web-site «Russkaya vesna».These pictures show Russian instructors with Vega Strategic Services badges on their uniform. With due regard to photo and video materials,  CIT journalists have reached a conclusion that the company is training the group of Palestinian assassins Liwa al-Quds and is in cooperation with Russian military.

There are following conclusions about the operation of PMC «VEGA» deriving from the CIT research:

  • «VEGA» is apparently the first «classic» private military company active in the international PMC services market which operates in Syria in the interests of President Assad.
  • Unlike PMC Wagner, it does not engage in front-line operations, but only drills local forces and guards various facilities, like various similar companies from Western countries.
  • «VEGA» is officially established in Cyprus, while Wagner mercenaries are often registered as employees of various shell companies.
  • Given the close relationship of Liwa al-Quds with the Russian troops in Syria, CIT suggests that VEGA works with de-minimis with indulgence of the Russian command. At the same time, there is still an issue who finances the activities of this PMC in Syria.

The CIT agency published an investigation on VEGA PMC on March 28, 2019, but the first references to a «new» PMC that provides training services to Syrian fighters appeared on various media at the end of January 2019. In those early reports, VEGA was recognized exclusively Russian.

The source highlights, «Military correspondent Oleg Blokhin made a report on how Russian PMC fighters train Syrians in new special training courses. Leaked information about this has already caused alarm among the militants. A large process of recruitment has begun in Syria under the guidance and with the participation of Russian instructors».

The name of the Russian PMC was not reported, but the photographs, which then scattered across the network, actually depict instructors with St. George ribbons, VEGA badges and the Russian flag.

On March 5, the website of «Serbia Today» reported that there was a video «demonstrating the training of the pro-Assad group Liwa al-Quds by Russian instructors in Aleppo province» and that the training was apparently «conducted by the private military company Vegacy Strategic Services Ltd which is registered in Cyprus.»

Thus, the forces of pro-Kremlin propaganda over a couple of months and Russian efforts turned from the «new» Russian PMC «VEGA» or «Vega Strategic Services» into Cypriot PMC, and then into Ukrainian.

Immediately after the publication of CIT report about «VEGA» operations, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) issued a refutation of «stuffing fake information about the alleged presence of some Ukrainian PMC in Syria».

The SBU continued, «in this way, Russia is trying to discredit Ukraine’s image in the international arena». The SBU claims that the PMC VEGA does not exist in Ukraine, and its alleged founders and managers are tightly connected with the Russian special services and Wagner PMC.

In the meantime, at the end of March, the DFRLab Digital Research Laboratory was able to confirm the presence of instructors of this PMC in Syria. The researchers also found that since October 2018, this company has been directly present in the SAT, but information on the scope of the group’s activities remains limited.

Are these «new» military companies all the same? Whether it should be called Ukrainian, Cypriot or Russian? Why do the blatantly pro-Kremlin media and bloggers pay so much attention to this PMC, while other Russian companies of this kind remain in the shadows? Is it correct that «VEGA» is only a disguise for Russian special services and how is it connected with Wagner PMC?

We encourage you to find answers for these questions with us.

The investigation materials concerning PMC «VEGA» functions outline that a company called Vega Strategic Services «was founded in April 2011 in Ukrainian Nikolaev by former members of the international elite and special units from Russia and Ukraine». The company offered security services to individuals and enterprises in high-risk areas and was involved in marine security. It was reported that «in 2012, the company was re-registered in Cyprus under the name Vegacy Strategic Services Ltd». The founder of both companies is the same person — Anatoly Smolin.

In this statement, apparently, the wording «re-registered» creates some confusion, since a new company with a similar name confusion was registered in Cyprus. In addition, the Ukrainian security company was not liquidated at the time of registration.

According to the SBU, Vega Strategic Services LLC was really created in Nikolaev in 2011 by A. Smolin, a citizen of Ukraine, but «had nothing to do with PMC`s [it`s illegal to register any kind of PMC under Ukrainian domestic law), and engaged in security business and related services».  In 2012 Smolin, according to the SBU, sold his own real estate and left with his family for the Russian Federation. «Since then, he has not carried out any commercial activities in Ukraine,» the service reiterated.

Smolin’s former partner is Andriy Kebkalo, the founder of the Ukrainian Omega Consulting Group, which has the attributes of PMCs, confirmed to CIT investigators that he created the company together with Smolin, but in 2012 he left due to disagreements on doing business.

Vegacy Strategic Services LLC. was registered in Cyprus on June 12, 2012. To the original name Vega — two letters CY (Cyprus) were added, which later mysteriously disappear from its name. The founders of the company were a citizen of Ukraine Anatoly Smolin and the company Draugas Consulting Ltd., which, in turn, was owned by Lexpro Shareholding Services Ltd., which are nominee directors.

It may be a coincidence, but in April 2012, then-Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin supported the idea of ​​creating private military companies in Russia, «which could provide services for the protection of facilities and training of foreign military personnel abroad without the involvement of the Government.»

Eventually in 2012, Smolin, who left for permanent residence in Russia, appeared in Cyprus and created the EU company that «provides comprehensive security, armed security at sea, special training services, as well as services to identify and prevent potential security threats in regions with high risk».

Vegacy Strategic Services Ltd. rapidly and successfully developed the business in Cyprus. According to her leader, in just five months the legal entity received all the necessary approvals, certifications and licenses from the Department of Merchant Shipping. The authorisation was given for rendering private security functions and protection of ships under the flag of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

The company also quickly received accreditation and work permits in Egypt, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and South Africa, passed Interpol checks, received export-import licenses for the transport of weapons and special equipment, and purchases and places small arms in the police departments of these countries.

As indicated on the company’s website, in parallel with the headquarters in Limassol, official representative offices were created in Russia, Ukraine, Malta and Panama. The company also hired official agents in Greece, Germany, Egypt, the Czech Republic, Thailand, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Madagascar, Great Britain and many other countries of Southeast Asia, the regions of the Indian Ocean, Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea.

Obiter dictum, STASO GmbH is the German partner of Vegacy Strategic Services, which specializes in servicing ships. The German company in its response to CIT answered that it didn`t conclude any contracts with Vegacy and did not collaborate with them. A representative of the company in Thailand was accused of stealing money from bank accounts.

Public face

Anatoly Smolin, the founder of Vegacy Strategic Services, has a pretty revealing biography. As stated in his resume, he is from Ukrainian Nikolaev, graduated in 1988 from the M.V. Frunze Higher Naval School with a degree in electrical engineer and armament. His diploma thesis addressed «The tactics of the combat use of underwater sabotage forces and weapons».

After graduating from a military school, he served in the KGB of the USSR, and then in the Navy. From 1994 to 1997, he served in officer posts in the operational units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine: in the «Berkut» and «Sokol» units. He was also involved in the Department for Combating Organized Crime (UBOP). In 1997, with the rank of police captain, he retired.

To be on the safe side, according to the SBU Smolin was dismissed from the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the loss of firearms.

After the dismissal, he worked in commercial structures of Nikolaev related to the security business. He was the director and co-founder of security companies «YurExpertiza», «Alpha-Shield», organized training courses for the staff of private security companies.

In 2002, he received the specialty of «instructor in the Russian style of hand-to-hand combat» under the Kadochnikov system in Russian Krasnodar. From 2008 to 2010, Smolin studied at the «KROK» Private University of Economics and Law in Kiev at the Faculty of Financial and Economic Security Management.

In his resume, Anatoly Smolin indicated that he has background and is competent in the following areas: light diving, subversive, assault, shooting, climbing, medical and legal training. He has expertise in small arms and blades, special equipment and special means, tactics and equipment of hand-to-hand combat. Mr. Smolin is able to manage small vessels and boats, submarine carriers and transporters.

It is curious that Smolin’s resume was revealed to public in 2010. It seems that the affairs of the owner of the security companies did not go well, and at that time he was desperately looking for work or partners. By 2011, a partner was found.

However, six months after the creation of the company, Smolin began actively searching on various Internet forums for a new Russian-speaking business partner in other countries like Cyprus, Malta, the UAE, Oman, Sri Lanka. «I`m tired of lazy and optional partners in Ukraine, interested in promising cooperation and expanding the scope of the company’s work abroad,» complained Smolin.

What kind of partner Smolin found then — one can speculate. But in 2012 he sold property in Nikolaev and moved with his family to Russia. In June the same year, he became a co-founder of the PMC at issue in Cyprus.

Recruitment Centers

Despite the loads of work in Vegacy Strategic Services in Cyprus,
with due regard to the organization of representative offices in other countries,
taking into account the implementation of contracts for the protection of ships and training courses,  Smolin managed to conduct active operations in Russia.

As the director of the private security company «Corpus Bezopasnosti Legat», registered in 2015, which protects pharmacies, shops and warehouses in Moscow, and also provides security services in other countries. Smolin fired at all cylinders to develop integrated security system in areas and regions of increased risk. 

The company is constantly in search of new staff. Russian recruitment sites have posted a lot of job advertisements at Legate. According to CIT investigators, Legat is the Russian branch of the Cypriot Vegacy Strategic Services as the companies have the same address.

According to the SBU, Anatoly Smolin since the spring of 2014 «remotely tried to restore his contacts in Nikolaev, offering his acquaintances employment in a Russian private military company». «For this purpose, I sent (by email) questionnaires in which a significant number of questions were related to the attitude of respondents to the annexation of Crimea and their readiness to participate in the hostilities in the Donbass as part of Russian illegal armed groups.»

The SBU also shared information that the Moscow branch of Vega, headed by a citizen of Ukraine Dmitry Dzhinikashvili, «was actively used by Russian special services as a cover structure in early 2014 to recruit Russian mercenaries to participate in hostilities in Ukraine».

Communication between Smolin and Dzhinikashvili is traced since 2012. In his resume, Dzhinikashvili pointed out that from 2012 to 2014 had worked in the Cyprus Vegacy Strategic Services as a tactical and special training instructor and recruitment manager. However, in another resume, he pointed out that in 2013 he had worked in the private military company Slavic Corps, where he «ensured the security of VIP clients and oil and gas plants in Syria».

In 2013, Dzhinikashvili, together with future commander Utkin-«Wagner» participated in the hostilities in Syria as part of the Slavic Corps PMC. At the end of 2014 as a part of the freshly created Wagner group, Dzhinikashvili was fighting in eastern Ukraine, formally working in the Cyprus Vegacy Strategic Services. In 2016-2017, Smolin’s colleague in the Wagner PMC reconnaissance and assault company ends up in Syria and the Central African Republic.

The Security Service of Ukraine also released information that «since 2016, Smolin, through the Russian security structures controlled by him, has been recruiting mercenaries to special forces of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation under the brand «PMC Wagner».

Investigators working for DFRLab highly praised the creativity of the founder of «VEGA» to recruit staff through dating sites. They found the profile of Anatoly Smolin on the Ukrainian website, where he did not meet potential «friends», but looked for employees for his company in Cyprus aged 20-35 with free English and higher education.

Commercial activities in Cyprus

As stated above, Vegacy Strategic Services Ltd. was registered in Cyprus and belonged in equal shares to Draugas Consulting and Anatoly Smolin.

The director of the company was the Cyprus WCD WORLD CORPORATE DIRECTORS LTD, and the secretary functions were performed by WCS-WORLDWIDE CORPORATE SECRETARIAL LIMITED, which are subsidiaries of the largest WCS-WORLDWIDE CORPORATE SERVICES LIMITED, which provides trust and corporate services.

Note that the Cyprus WCS-WORLDWIDE CORPORATE SERVICES LIMITED «lit up2 in the Panama archives. In addition, it is tightly connected through a network of subsidiaries with large Russian businesses, for example, Viktor Vekselberg’s group of companies RENOVA. This Cyprus trust also appeared in several litigations in Russian jurisdiction (lawsuit filed by the Federal Antimonopoly Service of the Russian Federation against the «Solikamsk Magnesium» Plant and the «Uraltechnokabel case)».

By the time VSS was closed, Anatoly Smolin and Yana Smolina were listed as the director and secretary of the company, but the indicated address coincided with the address of WORLDWIDE CORPORATE SERVICES LIMITED.

Those who have ever independently opened their own business in Cyprus know that it is very difficult to obtain various approvals, licenses, certificates and permits, especially for third-country nationals and especially in the security business. But with good assistance and legal support from solvent clients, all processes may be accelerated. So, apparently, it was the case with Vegacy.

At the end of May 2018, Anatoly Smolin participated in the Transport Security International Forum in St. Petersburg, where he was represented as the founder and CEO of PMC Vegacy Strategic Services Ltd (Cyprus) and the director of Legat LLC (Moscow). At the forum, he said that getting accreditation for his company as maritime security officers took him not more than a month. For some purpose he clarified that the employees are citizens of Russia, Ukraine, Greece, France, the Baltic states and Belarus.

This is really a record time for getting work permits for non-EU employees.

Additionally to registration fees, obtaining licenses, paying attorneys, renting an apartment and office, developing a corporate identity and other security companies, it was necessary to purchase uniforms, communication systems and weapons. That was done, and according to Smolin, not only in Cyprus, but also in four other countries.

A reasonable question arises: where does the money come from? We will assume that in 2012 Smolin nevertheless found a partner on the Internet, and gained the personal funds for starting a business in Cyprus from the sale of property in Nikolaev. But this happens once in a blue moon and only in movies. It is highly likely that another major «investor» was found.

Alternatively, it is utterly unclear why the director of a serious international security company with ambitious projects around the world needed to recruit mercenaries in 2014 to participate in the hostilities in the Donbass? There can only be one reason — the recruitment, apparently, was carried out in the interests of a large «investor», or rather, the real owner of Vegacy.

Syrian roots

What exactly happened and why the Cyprus Vegacy Strategic Services was officially liquidated in May 2018 remains still a question. We can only assume that some tasks were completed and the need for the company disappeared. In addition, the Legat, registered in 2015, was already strong and alternatively, Cyprus Vegacy could be closed, but was used rather as a brand.

We kindly note that immediately after the legal liquidation of Vegacy Strategic Services, public references to the company and its founder began to appear in Russian sources.

At the above-mentioned forum in St. Petersburg in May 2018, Smolin was represented as the head of the VSS company closed two weeks ago and the director of the active Legat.

Two months after the liquidation of the company, on July 30, 2018, Anatoly Smolin went to an exhibition in Damascus. The propaganda agency FAN, associated with Putin’s «cook» Evgeny Prigozhin, who, in turn, is associated with the Wagner PMC, made a report from Syria.

During the Syrian exhibition for the first time the letters CY disappeared from the brand of the company — it began to be called just «VEGA». According the letters disappeared from the logo on the uniform of the mercenaries. Russian company VEGA, which appeared to be the name of the already liquidated Cyprus Vegacy Strategic Services, was hired to guard the business forum in Damascus.

DFRLab researchers found evidence of the presence of Anatoly Smolin and his instructors from the PMC «Vega» in Syria in October 2018. It was also found that Vega hired local staff in Syria to carry out administrative duties, as well as instructors from Russia and other Eastern European countries, as evidenced by the account of one Smolin`s employee who indicated VSS on his Facebook profile and posted photo from Damascus.

There is a though that liquidated Cypriot Vegacy is still used to recruit personnel. Although the website of the Cypriot VSS has not been updated for several years, it is still active.

The Cyprus Daily News correspondent called the local number listed on the VSS website and tried to get a job at the company. The call was answered by a man who introduced himself as Oleg. During the conversation, he said that all the management of the company is now in Damascus. He also said that they are not hiring armed security officers now, as the business has become unprofitable (and it is very difficult to compete with the British business). The manager also wondered whether the applicant was ready to go to Syria.

Made in Russia

Who and why needed to take out the disguise from a company that unstoppable worked in the market of specialized services under the EU cover?

As we see it, the Russian propaganda resources, at the Kremlin’s suggestion, passionately wanted to introduce the world to an exemplary legalized PMC of a new type: with the EU backgrounds, partners around the world, with professional, well-equipped instructors who did not directly participate in hostilities in «regions of high risk», and are exclusively engaged in training fighters and armed guards.

The «new» PMC was created on the basis of a civilized company and presented in Syria as alternative to bloody «Wagner PMC».

The essence of this hybrid operation with re-registration was also to manipulate the facts of the company’s origin for different tasks: when necessary, the company was Russian, when it was not necessary — Ukrainian, but actually it was Cyprus.

In addition to the propaganda tasks, this hybrid project, apparently, also solved real challenges.

In order to avoid formal accusations of recruiting mercenaries through a Cypriot company and its foreign representative offices, Russia — freely hires personnel in Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. At the same time, selection of «guards» is ongoing through the Russian representative office.

The VGG, having licenses for carrying and transporting weapons, could buy and transport weapons to countries where its official branches are open. In addition to weapons, probably under the guise of a marine guard, it would be possible to transport mercenaries to countries where the military interests of Russia are present. In Syria, you can safely dress up the Wagner PMC fighters in the form of Vega instructors and vice versa — the range of use of the Vega brand is wide, and its activities are not controlled by Cyprus in any way.

The presence of VSS in Syria also proves its direct relationship with the Russian military and the nature of its activities is far from the declared services for ensuring maritime security.

In our opinion, the Cypriot special departments should check (if such a check has not yet been initiated) a company that was liquidated a year and a half ago for any advertisement of its services and supposedly illegally functioning «manager».

It probably makes sense to check the banking accounts of Vegacy Strategic Services Ltd. in the period from 2012 to 2018 for any involvement or financing of terrorism

Such verifications are crucial both for the State and its taxpayers to be confident that there is no a Cypriot company that trains mercenaries in Syria. There is no Cypriot business killing people in Africa and in Libya. High-profile scandals are unnecessary since the Government has nothing to do with a bloody PMC business.

We will come back as soon as possible with the results of the inspection. Stay tuned.


PHOTOS are from open sources and the official website of Vegacy Strategic Services.