Russia’s state sponsor of terrorism and Wagner and Killnet’s mercenaries.

Politics - December 12, 2022

To think that there is still any margin to negotiate with Vladimir Putin’s government and thus put an end to the conflict in Ukraine is useless, it is a mere illusion. This is the motivation behind the initiative of the ECR Group of European Conservatives and Reformists, which argues that Russia uses ‘terror’ as an integral part of its war strategy. The debate in the European Parliament took place on 18 October at the request of ECR MEP Charlie Weimers. ‘Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism’ is the content of the resolution, which was then voted overwhelmingly by the plenary of the Eurochamber in Strasbourg on 23 November. The resolution passed with the support of 494 votes in favour, 58 against and 44 abstentions out of the 596 MEPs present.

Emphasis was placed on the serious violations of international law in Ukraine, with attacks often targeting civilians or in any case essential infrastructure for the population who are unable to use electricity or obtain water and basic necessities.

The MEPs recognised the atrocities committed by the Russian military as the means used by terrorism, so many of these actions are to be equated with acts of terror and classified as war crimes.

The Parliament therefore called on the EU and its Member States to put in place the necessary legal acts to officially designate Russia as a sponsor of terrorism. At the same time, the Strasbourg plenary asked the Council to include the ‘Wagner Group’, the notorious Russian private military formation, in the EU list of terrorist groups.

The Wagner Group: real mercenaries or assets of the Russian government?

Above all, the Wagner troops, in recent months stationed in the Donbass, are allegedly responsible for targeting civilians, conducting mass executions and looting private property in the conflict zones. First coming to light in 2014, during Russia’s annexation of Crimea, this private military company is financed by someone called Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and considered very close to President Putin. The New York Times reports that he has been called ‘Putin’s chef’ because one of his catering businesses has often organised state lunches and dinners for the Russian leader. Officially, the company does not exist. There are no company details explicitly linked to the group in any country in the world and in Russia, mercenary activity is also illegal. Yet they operate by likely committing those criminal acts of war for which the Russian military cannot officially take responsibility. And perhaps it does not want to.

Prigozhin’s closeness to Putin has repeatedly led to suspicions that Wagner’s role as a group of private mercenaries is just a cover for having a free hand in the Russian Federation’s thorniest theatres of war, while in reality these cruel soldiers ready to commit unspeakable atrocities would be a real asset at the disposal and under the orders of the Russian Ministry of Defence.

The means of terrorism used by Wagner have counterbalanced where the regular army has often failed in Ukraine; Mr. Prigozhin’s private force has occasionally fought harder, notably around Bakhmut in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk with some successes. At great cost to their victims it seems.

Prigozhin came under the axe of US sanctions accusing him of meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. Another ‘line of business’ of the financier is said to be setting up real internet ‘troll’ factories he ran in St Petersburg – despite the fact that for years he insisted he was just a businessman running a catering business. In reality, his catering business also saw him involved in supplying meals for the military complex and through this exprience he established a network of contacts and collaborations that earned him a reputation as a fixer for the Kremlin, then began recruiting mercenaries to serve Russian interests first in the Middle East and Africa, now in Ukraine.

The hacker attack against the EU Parliament a few hours before the vote.

From trolls to hackers, the step is probably a short one. As in all cyber-warfare operations it is difficult to accuse anyone with certainty, but the facts say that in the hours before the EU Parliament vote in which Russia was declared a state sponsor of terrorism, a cyber attack hit the European institutions. We were only a few hours away from the vote in the plenary session in Strasbourg when the European Parliament’s website became unreachable following an attack defined as ‘Ddos’ – (Distributed Denial of Service) which aims to bombard a server with fictitious accesses in order to overload it and send it ‘down’, making it unreachable with the website or websites it hosts. On Twitter, the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, intervened:” The European Parliament is under a sophisticated cyber attack. A pro-Kremlin group has claimed responsibility’.

In fact, shortly after the Director General for Communication of the EU legislative body, Jaume Duch, had broken the news, came the claim of the Killnet group, Russian, or at least, pro-Russian hackers who in recent months have been targeting European institutions and states because of their support for the Ukrainian cause.

Killnet has in common with Wagner that it acts in the shadows and that it appeared as if from nowhere in even more recent times than the mercenary company. On Telegram, the first traces of these hackers are to be found in a communication dated 23 January this year, and the ‘baptism of fire’ took place against Anonymous, the fearsome hacktivist organisation, after it had openly sided with Ukraine in the wake of Russian aggression.

The conflict between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian hackers took place at the end of February 2022. Killnet, which at its inception appeared to be a cyber gang set up for profit, has grown so much in a short time, that it is now able to frame and strike institutional targets belonging to sovereign states and NATO interests with military logic.

From a collective of decentralised cyber-criminal skills, the group then progressed towards an avowedly para-military organisation by setting up ‘Legion’, a sort of coalition based on several divisions to engage in coordinated attacks. The cyber-guerrillas also started recruiting volunteers by putting them under the command of ‘generals’ in charge of leading operations. 

A pro-Russian criminal cyber group, organised in a paramilitary manner and engaged in campaigns with unrestricted engagements against targets and countries of the Atlantic Alliance, will certainly strike again in the coming months.

According to Anonymous, Killnet is just one of the hacker formations recruited by Russia to support its military strategies also in cyberspace scenarios.

Anonymous has assured that it is aware of numerous calls to arms on the network that can be traced back to the Russian government.

The Russians are allegedly relentlessly recruiting mercenary hackers around the web, supporting and foraging them as they did with Killnet, which enabled their rapid transformation from a cybercriminal collective into a cyber attack organisation capable of striking prestigious targets in the Western arena.

Here, as well as in the case of the Wagner Group, the Russian strategy is to catch up through targeted recruitment of fighters, in this case virtual ones, some gaps in the cyber field as in the military one. Until now, those responsible for Russia’s cyber warfare had not realised their limitations, which stemmed from the hierarchy they had imposed on their hackers that does not allow them to hit targets in an organised manner, but now mercenaries are doing the dirty work, in cyberspace as well as on the ground in the attacked Ukraine.