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Wagner Group Mutiny Against Moscow Traces Back to Oil and Gas Profits
Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin had a list of grievances against Russia’s military leadership. But it may have begun with a battle for a Syrian gas field in 2018.
A lust for oil and gas profits and a brutal, hours-long battle in Syria may have been the catalysts for the mercenary Wagner Group’s bizarre “mutiny” in Russia late last month, according to five-year-old news reports that have resurfaced over the last couple of days.
The accounts of the deadly firefight for a major Conoco gas field and processing plant that pitted 500 Russian mercenaries and Syrian forces against a smaller group of U.S. ground troops underscore a constant, grim reality: that the real cost of the fossil fuels we still depend on every day is measured in blood and lives.
Invariably civilian lives, and in this case, dozens or hundreds of military ones.
There’s some speculation now that that past battle, amped up by more recent frustrations with Kremlin military leadership, motivated Wagner leader, apparent culinary genius, and now-fallen Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin to march his troops out of Ukraine and toward Moscow, before calling off an attack that riveted and confounded western observers while it was under way.
And in the end, it all traces back to oil and gas.
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U.S.-backed forces captured the big gas field in Syria’s Deir al-Zour province from Islamic State militants in September, 2017, Reuters wrote at the time. The site, originally developed by U.S. oil and gas giant Conoco (now ConocoPhillips), supplied power plant gas before the Islamic State war.
Wagner’s unsuccessful attempt to grab the gas field five months later “offered an early indication of the tensions to come between Prigozhin and Russia’s military leadership,” reports Washington Post columnist Ishaan Tharoor. “The apparent loss of dozens of Wagner fighters in a single night in Syria allegedly infuriated Prigozhin, who earlier this month put out his account of the 2018 events on the social media platform Telegram.”
Prigozhin’s side of the story, the Post writes, is that the Wagner contingent “was supposed to be the advance force of an ‘anti-ISIS’ operation that would secure control over the plant and its environs with air support from the Russian military. But that support never came, and Prigozhin was left fuming at Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov for allowing his fighters to become U.S. cannon fodder.”
But Prigozhin wasn’t going after ISIS to win a good citizenship medal.
He was piling on in exchange for a share of the take from the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“American intelligence officials say the Wagner Group, known by the nickname of the retired Russian officer who leads it, is in Syria to seize oil and gas fields and protect them on behalf of the Assad government,” the New York Times reported in May, 2018. “The mercenaries earn a share of the production proceeds from the oil fields they reclaim.”
Five years later, “Wagner is still deployed in resource-rich areas where Assad’s forces are nominally in control but rely on help from Russian military and police units,” add Anna Borshchevskaya, Ben Fishman and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an analysis published this week. “These include Syria’s largest natural gas and oil fields (Shaer, al-Mahr, Jazal, and Hayan), where some reports [the link takes you to a Wall Street Journal documentary] indicate that Wagner has used a shell company called Evro Polis to receive up to a quarter of the production profits.”
The news archive traces a sequence of three-way battles between ISIS, the U.S., and Russians fighting for Assad, with the two global superpowers making frequent use of “deconfliction” phone lines to keep their troops out of direct conflict. This time, contrary to the assurances Prigozhin maintains he received from Moscow, Wagner troops were the big losers, the Times reported.
U.S. surveillance picked up a growing mass of troops speaking Russian on monitored radio transmissions. But “the Russian high command in Syria assured us it was not their people,” then-U.S. defense secretary James Mattis (don’t call him “Mad Dog”) said in Senate testimony earlier that year. So Mattis issued instructions “for the force, then, to be annihilated,” he continued, “and it was.”
The Times and The War Horse, an award-winning non-profit newsroom in North Carolina that styles itself “the most trusted source for bulletproof reporting on the human impact of military service,” have detailed accounts of the battle.
Sacrificing Lives to Protect Oil
So chalk up yet another connection between Russia’s war in Ukraine and the world’s continuing dependence on fossil fuels.
Putin calculated that he could get away with his horrific invasion because western powers were so heavily dependent on Russian gas.
In response, the EU’s resounding pivot to energy efficiency and renewable energy became one of the most important gains for climate action so far this decade.
The massive Nord Stream 2 pipeline megaproject was one of the first economic casualties of the war.
Now, Putin could lose it all to a series of accumulated grievances that began with a battle for oil and gas profits.
And this isn’t a new story. After America’s war in Iraq, U.S. military veteran Joe Kopser came home to a country that was idling away 11 billion litres per year of gasoline in stalled traffic, and almost literally saw his friends’ lives and limbs going up in smoke.
In an October, 2014 blog for The Huffington Post, Kopser said nothing had prepared him for the assignment to protect Iraqi oil fields, refineries, depots, and pipelines.
U.S. troops “were escorting fuel conveys through some of the most hostile territory in the country, in what came to be known as one of the most dangerous assignments of the war, full of roadside IEDs [improvised explosive devices],” he wrote. “Back in the States, I saw millions of dollars’ worth of fuel being wasted by inefficient generators and vehicles—the very fuel we were there to protect.”
Kopser came to define those staggering human impacts as the “fully burdened cost of transportation”. A few years later, Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) tallied up U.S. military operations to a fossil fuel subsidy worth at least $81 billion per year.
A Feature, Not a Bug
The battlefield costs of defending oil and gas are just one part of the overwhelming human and societal impacts of fossil fuel development. Those impacts are a feature, not a bug, for any country that has had the misfortune of discovering coal, oil, or gas beneath its lands.
The term “petro-state” was coined by Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, the Venezuelan economist considered the father of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), who famously referred to oil as the “devil’s excrement”. Alfonzo eventually concluded that the “natural resource curse” and its corrupting, distorting effects on local economies inevitably bring more hardship and pain to producing countries than the short-term gains it can deliver.
Let’s acknowledge right up front that many of us have taken away huge benefits from the fossil fuel era. I know I’m not the only one who can point to moments when timely access to fossil fuel products saved the lives of the people I love the most. But those moments came at a great cost to other people and communities, to the atmosphere and the planet, and there are other, better ways to get the energy services we need.
Especially because the costs of petro-state development are baked in. A decade ago, when U.S. politics were already imploding and about to be hijacked by an alleged Putin asset, there was a theory of convenience that more “developed”, sophisticated democracies like Canada, Norway, and the United Kingdom could reap the benefits of fossil fuel development while holding off its most pernicious impacts. Not too many years later, the record is more chaotic than encouraging.
• Independent analysis shows a post-Brexit UK government dominated by the fossil fuel lobby and falling far behind in its decarbonization effort.
• And Canada has spent most of the last 10 years hamstrung by a political imperative that is also a practical impossibility: to deliver dramatic climate pollution reductions without inconveniencing a fossil fuel industry that accounts for nearly one-third of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
There are no shining heroes in this story, but there’s one obvious super-villain that enables all the rest. And the good news is that oil and gas is moving into its final decline. It still isn’t happening fast enough. The policies to deliver on politicians’ net-zero pledges are too often watered down by the time the fossil lobby has had its say. The investments needed to get things moving still aren’t where we need them to be, and the work force challenges in the energy transition are immense.
But we know what to do, and the momentum is ever in our favour. The “fully-burdened cost” of oil and gas is just one more reason to get on with it.
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Mitchell Beer traces his background in renewable energy and energy efficiency back to 1977, in climate change to 1997. Now he and the rest of the Energy Mix team scan 1,200 news headlines a week to pull together The Energy Mix, The Energy Mix Weekender, and our newest weekly e-digest, Cities & Communities.
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