A deeper look into the Vegacy mercenary group using open-source information
Vegacy Strategic Services, LTD., a Russian private military company, has turned its interests from maritime security to training militants in Syria.
The use of private military companies in various conflict is growing, bringing a lot of new challenges with it. These companies have been involved in various human rights violations and their actions are mostly unregulated and remain unpunished. At least one Russian military company remains active in the Syrian conflict, posing a danger not only to locals but also to U.S. troops in the region.
Private military companies — more commonly referred to as “mercenary groups” — are for-profit enterprises that engage in non-state-controlled militia activities that often go beyond those of state militaries, as governmental oversight is frequently severely diminished when operating abroad. Establishing the presence of such mercenary groups, and identifying their activities, is an increasingly important and challenging task in some of the world’s most complex conflict zones.
According to various social media accounts, Vegacy established its presence in Syria as early as October 2018. The DFRLab previously reported that Vegacy started providing their services in Syria, confirming that the group participated in the training of Liwa al-Quds, a Palestinian military brigade.
Vegacy appears to be deeply connected to the Legat-Corps PMC, for which Vegacy is identified as a subsidiary organization.
Vegacy and Legat-Corps
As discussed in previous DFRLab research, Vegacy is a Russian mercenary group that, according to its website, provides comprehensive security, armed maritime security, and special training services. Geolocation confirmed that it has been operating in the Aleppo region of Syria. Photos circulating online also suggest they are likely active in Hama and other regions of the country. These photos could not be geolocated, however, because they lacked sufficient detail.
Vegacy’s official website mentioned that their main office is in Cyprus, with additional offices in Russia, Syria, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Thailand. The group’s main Cyprus address also appears on the website of another Russian mercenary group, the Legat-Corps. Some of the photos used on the latter’s website were identical to the those on Vegacy’s website.
Some of the documents available on the Legat-Corps website suggested that the two organizations might be under the same umbrella. More precisely, Vegacy is likely a subsidiary organization of the Legat-Corps, and the two share the same owners. At the same time, Vegacy is listed as a “partner” on the Legat-Corps website, which in part contradicts its inclusion elsewhere on the site. According to its website, Legat-Corps provides a full range of security services in the territory of the Russian Federation and abroad. Various job advertisements for Legat-Corps can be found on Russian recruitment websites, indicating that the organization is looking to recruit a large number of new personnel.
Legat-Corp has been a publicly listed legal entity in Russia, registered to Igor Khranin, since September 10, 2015. Although Khranin was listed as Chief Executive Officer, the company was co-founded by Valery Zasenko and Igor Stramilov. Stramilov is a businessman and self-proclaimed state security officer known for his pharmaceutical company “Floriya,” which is currently undergoing liquidation. In September, October, and November 2015, Stramilov registered three limited liability companies, all with names — Legat, Legion, and Centurion — that invoked ancient Roman military themes.
In a video from the Armiya 2018 military trade show, Stramilov is pictured peering at a Saiga 9 submachine gun while wearing a camouflage uniform with full Vegacy insignia. This video further suggested Stramilov’s direct involvement with Vegacy, possibly as the CEO and legal founder for the organization in Russia.
Stramilov is not only registered as the sole founder and CEO of Legion and Centurion but only as a co-founder of Legat. According to its public registry, Centurion appeared to be another pharmaceutical company, whereas Legion was something far more vague, listing its main activity as “support services” with a secondary mention of various security and pharmaceutical services. As pointed out by a commenter on livejournal, Legion is likely the legal name for Vegacy in Russia. Separately, Anatlii Smolin, Vegacy’s director, is listed as the contact for Legion in a brochure for a transportation security conference.
In addition, in the brochure, the contact details for Smolin include a Legat email address. Legion is also listed at the same address as Legat, which corresponds with the address provided in Russian business registries.
Furthermore, public registries in Cyprus, where Vegacy Strategic Services Ltd. is supposedly headquartered, list the entity as dissolved as of May 2018. Thus,Vegacy does not appear to exist as a legal entity in Cyprus but rather as a brand name held by Legion LLC, a Moscow-registered company.
Open-Source Investigation of Vegacy
Vegacy seldom garners any interest from researchers and journalists, and few reports are available online. Smolin, however, has a sizeable digital footprint. For example, Smolin’s LinkedIn page indicates that he is currently the director of the organization.
While his LinkedIn profile did not provide much information, Smolin’s name and profile picture allowed the DFRLab to find more information on the organization.
Smolin also has a public YouTube account on which he has shared a number of videos. One of these videos, almost an hour long, provided some details into Vegacy’s early work in maritime security. The video recorded the daily routine of the company’s contractors providing maritime security services on a merchant ship. Smolin himself also appeared in the video, confirming his identity.
A reverse image search further showed that Smolin’s digital footprint was even larger than first anticipated. The same profile picture used on his LinkedIn account was also found on a Ukrainian dating website, www.UkraineDate.com. The account, however, seemed set up not to find potential dates but to find employees for his company in Cyprus. In the “Seeking” section, Smolin wrote that he is looking for a staff member to work in Cyprus. The poor English language used on this account suggested that the text was likely translated using an online machine translation tool.
Smolin also appeared in videos of Vegacy training Liwa Al-Quds in Syria, both confirming his identity and presence in the Syrian conflict.
The woman next to Smolin in the photo was identified as Suha Altay. The information on Altay is scarce, but in October 2018 she posted a picture of herself in a Vegacy uniform, which helped confirm the claims that Vegacy had been in the region since then. It seemed that Vegacy hired locally in Syria for administrative duties, while likely recruiting instructors from Russia and other Eastern European countries, as evidenced by one employee in Smolin’s network who listed his job on Facebook as “Accountant at VSS.”
According to the Security Service of Ukraine, more commonly referred to as the SBU, Smolin is a Ukrainian citizen, and his work history reinforces that identification. The DFRLab also found Smolin’s CV from 2010, which he had submitted for a job in Nikolayev, Ukraine. The CV mentioned that, at that time, Smolin worked as director of a private security company “Альфа Щит” (“Alpha Shield,” from Russian) and had previously worked for a law firm “Юрэкспертиза” (“Law Expertise”). Both previous employers were in Ukraine. His Russian-language LinkedIn profile also revealed that he has a Master’s degree from “KROK” University in Kyiv, Ukraine. Furthermore, the address for Alpha Shield in 2013, when the organization was still relatively new, was listed as Nikolayev, Ukraine.
Vegacy Strategic Services Ltd. is not a new military company, but it is only one of many providing security services around the globe. Nonetheless, once Vegacy started providing training services in Syria, especially to Liwa al-Quds, the group began attracting more attention. According to open-source information, Vegacy contractors are not Russian officers, contrary to the claims of some sources, and is not currently reported as taking part in direct military operations. Nonetheless, its presence on the ground in Syria represents a pivot in the nature of their activity away from the maritime security services the group initially provided.
Although the original 2013 address for the group was in Nikolayev, Ukraine, where the current director is likely from, open-source analysis suggested that the organization is currently based in Cyprus instead of Ukraine. Vegacy currently appears to be hiring for a variety of positions on the island through creative means, such as by using a Ukrainian dating website.
The DFRLab will continue to look into Vegacy and other Russian mercenary activity in Syria and other countries.
Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab);
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