Russian military intelligence is using a fictitious private military company (PMC) as a front to recruit and deploy soldiers for the Kremlin's war in Ukraine, an RFE/RL investigation has found.
The pseudo PMC, Redut, takes its name from the Russian word for "redoubt," a defensive military fortification or stronghold. It is widely described as a mercenary company akin to the Wagner Group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin before his death in a plane crash in August, and Washington has even imposed sanctions on an eponymous Russian legal entity.
Since a short-lived mutiny by Wagner in June and Prigozhin's death two months later, analysts have pointed to Redut as Wagner's potential replacement as Russia's most prominent private fighting force.
But the Russian forces operating under the Redut label in Ukraine are not part of an actual corporate network of the kind that Prigozhin used to operate Wagner with what Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed was some $1 billion in state funding.
In reality, what is known as Redut is a recruitment system for combat units that is coordinated and funded by the Russian military, in particular its intelligence agency, known as the GRU, according to the investigative documentary released on October 10 by Schemes and Systema, RFE/RL's Ukrainian and Russian investigative teams, respectively.
Watch The Documentaries By Schemes And Systema
Ukrainian Version (now with English subtitles)
The combat units have been deployed in key Russian offensives in Ukraine following the full-scale invasion that Putin launched in February 2022.
The joint investigation by Schemes and Systema is based on a cache of exclusive battlefield records from one of these Redut units, as well as interviews with Redut fighters and their relatives, conversations with recruiters, and an analysis of Redut contracts, social media profiles of Redut mercenaries, and images and metadata from their mobile phones.
The records obtained by Schemes come from a Redut battalion called the Wolves, members of which were captured by Ukrainian forces in the eastern Kharkiv region in September 2022 and subsequently convicted of torturing Ukrainian civilians.
Following their January 2023 conviction, two of these fighters told Schemes in interviews from prison that they went to fight as part of the GRU's 16th Separate Guards Special Purpose Brigade.
The same two fighters -- Valentin Bych and Maksim Volvak -- said their battalion was directly led by a GRU officer with the call sign "Amur" who also gave the order to detain local residents for interrogations during which several were found by a Ukrainian court to have been tortured.
According to the convicted fighters, they were sent to Ukraine from a training facility in the Tambov region village of Trigulyai belonging to the GRU's 16th Separate Guards Special Purpose Brigade.
Internal records from the Wolves battalion obtained by Schemes also directly refer to the Wolves unit as part of the GRU, while two of the battalion members convicted of torture said they fought in Ukraine as part of Redut.
A handwritten note written by members of the Wolves battalion shortly before their capture by Ukrainian forces in September features the acronym GRU written in block letters.
The Wolves are just one of at least 20 formations fighting in Ukraine under the Redut brand, according to an RFE/RL analysis.
Systema reporters called numbers listed in recruiter advertisements to find out what ordinary Russians could learn about the ostensibly private Redut battalions fighting in Ukraine. Five of these recruiters stated clearly that the Russian Defense Ministry and the GRU are behind the financing and operation of the Redut system.
"The majority of those fighting for what journalists call ‘private military companies' are simply soldiers fighting under the control of the Defense Ministry," one source close to the GRU told Systema when asked about Redut.
The source spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he was not authorized to comment on the Russian military intelligence directorate.
Neither the Russian Defense Ministry nor Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded to written inquiries about Redut.
The Redut Units And An Award From Putin
Among the detachments fighting in Ukraine under the Redut umbrella are others associated with the the GRU's 16th Separate Guards Special Purpose Brigade, as well as Cossack formations and units linked to a group called the Union of Donbas Volunteers, a semiofficial Russian organization that recruits fighters for the war in Ukraine and has been sanctioned by the United States.
These units do not have a single unifying structure or ideology. Instead, what they have in common is a recruitment scheme in which fighters sign contracts with a nonexistent company, are assigned to a military unit -- often only on paper -- and receive payment from the Russian Defense Ministry.
Mikhail Ivanov, one of the Wolves battalion fighters convicted of torture in Ukraine, told Schemes that the counterparty on his contract was a limited-liability company (LLC) called Redut with a director named "either Shirokov or Shirokikh."
RFE/RL separately obtained copies of two Redut contracts for men signing up to fight in Ukraine. Both documents list the director of the supposed company as Igor Ivanovich Shirokov. Relatives of several other fighters told Systema that this same name featured on Redut contracts, though they declined to provide copies of the documents.
Systema found nearly 50 people in Russian public records named Igor Ivanovich Shirokov, none of whom had documented links to a registered legal entity that included the name Redut.
The companies listed in the contracts -- identified as "RLSPI Redut" and "OO Redut (RCPS)" -- do not exist as legally registered entities in Russia.
Reporters also obtained contracts indicating which military units the fighters in these formations are assigned to. One of these is military unit No. 35555, which is not listed in Russia's registry of legal entities. That unit, however, is referred to in multiple open sources as part of the GRU's secret 78th Intelligence Center based in Rostov-on-Don.
Other military units linked to Redut fighters include GRU unit No. 54607, also known as the 16th Separate Special Mission Brigade, whose training facility outside Tambov is used by Redut fighters; and military unit No. 06512, which Ukrainian intelligence has linked to the GRU's 3rd Separate Special Forces Brigade.
One of the Redut-affiliated recruiters with whom Systema spoke referred openly to Redut as a "fake company."
The Russian military and senior officials have never publicly mentioned the existence of a supposed PMC called Redut. Putin himself said on October 5 that no legal private military companies exist in Russia.
But exclusive documents obtained by reporters show that Putin granted a state award to a man who Russia military prosecutors stated was paid by Redut.
The documents concern the fate of Aleksandr Kopyltsov, a fighter with the Wolves battalion, which left the cache of records behind in Ukraine that was later obtained by Schemes. Kopyltsov, a sniper who used the call sign "Nemo," was killed in battle in late March 2022 near Kyiv.
During a subsequent Kafkaesque quest to obtain death benefits from the Russian government, Kopyltsov's relatives received at least five letters from the Russian Defense Ministry and military prosecutors saying there was no record that he had fought in Ukraine under the auspices of the Defense Ministry or "volunteer" groups. Curiously, four of these letters were dated after he was posthumously granted the Order of Courage, a state award, by Putin in November 2022.
Ultimately, in July of this year, Russian military prosecutors informed Kopyltsov's family that it had already received compensation weeks after his death from "the private military company Redut."
It is the only official mention by Russian authorities of a supposed private military group called Redut that RFE/RL was able to find. It's unclear precisely how the Russian government learned of a payout from Redut if it had no record of Kopyltsov as either a Russian soldier or volunteer.
The investigation by Schemes and Systema also found that Redut has something akin to political handlers among influential figures in Russian military intelligence.
Redut And The GRU Puppet Masters
On February 4, 2023, the Union of Donbas Volunteers held a "congress" in Russian-occupied Mariupol, on the Azov Sea coast. More than 450 fighters, many of whom came "straight from the front," participated in the event, according to Russian state media.
During the gathering, organizers announced that all the "volunteer" militias were being concentrated into a single group called the Russian Volunteer Corps, an apparent attempt to bring order to the loosely connected formations. Multiple recruiters told Systema that the Redut network became the nucleus of this new group.
Systema obtained a document issued to a Redut fighter to confirm his participation in what the Russian state calls the "special military operation" in Ukraine. That document states that the Russian Volunteer Corps was created on February 27 "by order of the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation." It bears the stamp of the Defense Ministry.
The document is signed by Colonel A. Kondratyev, who is identified as the "commander of the combat unit of the Volunteer Corps." The signature belongs to Aleksei Kondratyev, a retired GRU colonel and a former mayor of Tambov, which he also represented in the Russian parliament. The signature matches Kondratyev's signatures found on publicly available parliamentary documents.
Kondratyev was one of at least three senior figures linked to the Russian Defense Ministry who were present at the February 2023 gathering of the Union of Donbas Volunteers.
The other two were Colonel Sergei Drozdov, who has been involved in official recruitment for the Russian military and who worked for the military academy of the General Staff in Moscow as recently as 2021, and Lieutenant General Vladimir Alekseyev, deputy head of the GRU.
A Telegram channel linked to the late Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner forces has called Alekseyev "one of the founders" of Wagner, and during Prigozhin's murky mutiny in June 2023 Alekseyev released a video in which he called on the mercenaries to stop their "coup." He was also one of the high-ranking Defense Ministry officials who held talks with Prigozhin in southern Russia during the mutiny.
Alekseyev has not appeared in public since those negotiations with Prigozhin at the headquarters of Russia's Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don on June 24.
The idea of creating Redut belonged to Alekseyev, according to sources cited in a May 2023 joint report by The Insider, Germany's Der Spiegel, and the open-source investigative group Bellingcat.
Neither Alekseyev, nor Drozdov, nor Kondratyev responded to requests for comment, though Alekseyev marked the inquiry sent to his Telegram account with a heart emoji.
Sources -- including Redut fighters interviewed by Schemes -- indicate that recruitment under the Redut system began in the second half of 2021.
Ivanov, the Wolves battalion fighter who was convicted of torture after being captured in Ukraine, told Schemes that he signed up in December 2021 after hearing about the opportunity from a friend.
Since Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, media reports have linked Redut to a Moscow-based private security company that had previously guarded Russian energy facilities in Syria.
That company, called Redut-Security, was even targeted with sanctions by the U.S. government, which described it as a "private military company" that "is fighting in Ukraine" and is "linked to the GRU" as well as to the broader Russian Defense Ministry.
Redut-Security is owned by Yevgeny Sidorov, a former Russian mercenary in Syria and a business associate of Konstantin Mirzayants, a special forces officer with the Russian Air Force whom the newspaper Novaya gazeta previously reported was the leader of a private military group involved in guarding energy assets in Syria controlled by Kremlin-connected billionaire Gennady Timchenko.
RFE/RL, however, found nothing clearly linking Redut-Security or Timchenko to the Redut forces deployed in Ukraine under the auspices of the GRU and the Russian Defense Ministry.
Sidorov declined to comment when reached by telephone, while Mirzayants did not respond to a written inquiry.