Russian paramilitary units providing security for the World Cup this month include fighters who have served in Syria and Ukraine, Reuters has reported.
More than 800 members of at least six local Cossack organisations will patrol the streets, fan zones and team bases during the five-week tournament starting today, according to Cossack leaders and regional officials. They will also work on match days as stewards.
At least 19 members have been identified as having spent time fighting with Russian backed forces in Ukraine or in support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Working as an armed mercenary abroad is illegal under Russian law, but the Kremlin has denied any connection between the government and Russian private military contractors in Syria. Whilst Cossack groups say also that any members taking part in armed conflicts do so as private individuals, there is evidence of their support of such deployments in the decorated burial ceremonies organised for those who are killed.
“For FIFA [International Federation of Association Football], these groups’ involvement represents an outrageous betrayal of the organisation’s charter,” US Congressman Eliot L. Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters.
However, when asked about the Cossack’s role, a FIFA spokesperson said the organisation has “complete trust in the security arrangements and comprehensive security concept” developed by the Russian authorities and organisers of the tournament.
Russian mercenaries are known to have been participating in the Syrian conflict since 2015, when local media reported that former Special Forces officer Dmitry Utkin had been recruiting ex-soldiers to participate in the shadowy “Wagner” group that experts estimate includes some 2,500 people. Family members of foreign fighters have also confirmed the existence of such groups, which attracted former soldiers with promises of high pay.
While the Russian army does not recognise the Wagner unit, Utkin appeared in 2016 in a photograph with President Vladimir Putin at a Kremlin reception for military officers in honour of Defender of the Fatherland Day.
Russia has also utilised its presence in Syria to train its national troops with President Vladimir Putin remarking in a television interview last week that attacking opposition groups in Syria was better than dealing with alleged extremists at home. He also stressed that he was not currently planning to withdraw Russian forces from Syria, amid conflicting statements on the issue.