The Kontraktniki : Russian mercenaries at war in the Balkans

Author: Ali M. Koknar
Uploaded: Monday, 14 July, 2003

Study of a little known dimension of the Bosnian war by a Washington-based political analyst

While most war crimes committed by Serb forces during the Balkan wars are being investigated and made public knowledge, the role played by Russian mercenaries kontraktniki [contract soldiers] deserves more attention. Many Russian citizens voluntarily fought in the Balkans for the government of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, committing a range of crimes along the way including mass murder, assault and battery, rape, robbery, and theft. Most, if not all, of these Russian kontraktniki war criminals have gone unidentified by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague – hence, so far,  unpunished. As the Milošević trial continues  to hear witness accounts of atrocities in Kosova, Croatia and Bosnia, the little known part that Russians played in assisting Milošević with these crimes is explained below.


Bosnia 1991-1995

Enrique Bernales Ballesteros, Special Rapporteur of the UN Secretary General, discovered in 1994 that Russians started serving in the Serbian army (then called JNA) in 1991. Between 1991 and 1995, JNA’s Russians, along with Ukrainian and Rumanian kontraktniki, fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina (B-H) against the mainly Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croat Bosnian forces. At the beginning of the conflict in Bosnia, the Serbs did not have enough pilots and hired Russians to fill the gap. In Pale, Republika Srpska (RS) within Bosnia, there is a registered association of kontraktniki, which keeps track of the Russian mercenaries who served with the JNA in Bosnia. In the beginning of 1994, near the village of Gomolje, Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Aleksandar Skrabov, a member of the Russian naval infantry, was killed in battle. After the end of his mandate in the forces of UNPROFOR, Skrabov had taken command of the Russian kontraktniki force in the so-called ‘Army of Republika Srpska’ (VRS). In April 1995, the commander of the UNPROFOR Sector East forces, the Russian General Pereljakin, who had been replaced for dereliction of duty, was appointed as an adviser to the commander of the Baranja division of the Army of the ‘Krajina’ (RSK) - Serb-occupied Croatia.

During May 1995, a group of Russian and Greek kontraktniki arrived in the Gacko-Avtovac region from the town of Užice in Serbia, at the invitation of  the command of the Herzegovina Corps of the VRS, which intended to organize an international brigade. The members of this ‘brigade’ (which actually numbered around 150 troops) wore one-piece, overall type black Russian uniforms with black berets or flight caps. They operated in eastern B-H, including Bijeljina county. Most of their members were officers above the rank of captain from the special units of the Russian Ministry of Defense, who had deserted the Russian military when Boris Yeltsin came to power. The Russians received 200 German Marks monthly. They were mostly veterans of the war in Afghanistan, and were paid based on the territory they captured. Five of those kontraktniki wounded in action in and around Žepa, were treated at the Užice hospital. The Russians worked with the Serb mobster Željko Ražnatović Arkan's Serb Volunteer Guard (the so-called ‘Tigers’), as well as with Vojislav Šešelj’s White Eagles in Kalinovik county. They protected and escorted fuel delivery convoys to the VRS from Arkan's smuggling operation in Belgrade.

A contingent of Greek kontraktniki was formed in March 1995 at Serb General Ratko Mladić's request. The Greek Volunteer Guard (GVG) rapidly became a regular fighting unit with its own insignia - a white double-headed eagle on a black background. In September 1995, four of its members received the White Eagle medal of honour from Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić. The GVG had around 100 soldiers and was based in Vlasenica near Tuzla. The GVG unit was fully integrated into the Drina Corps of the Serb Army and was led by Serb officers. Towards the end of the war in B-H, when the Bosnian Serbs attacked the UN ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica in August 1995, Greek kontraktniki participated in the attack and  raised the blue and white Greek flag triumphantly when the enclave fell. Over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica, and General Mladić has been indicted by the ICTY on charges related to the killings.


Kosova 1998-9: recruitment and organization

During the Serb ethnic cleansing of the Albanians in Kosova in 1998 and 1999, and even during the NATO campaign against Serbia in 1999, the Russian Federation supported the Milošević regime in Belgrade, both politically and materially. Russian and Belorussian relief convoys openly travelled to Serbia, carrying vital military aid such as electronic components for Serbia’s Russian-made air defense systems, disguised as humanitarian aid. Russian help was not limited to military technology but also included actual manpower. In 1998, Milošević decided to hire Russian kontraktniki and ordered Serb minister of internal affairs and fellow indicted war criminal Vlajko Stojiljković to recruit volunteers for this purpose. The ministry of internal affairs (MUP), with the help of the Serbian foreign ministry, recruited kontraktniki through construction and international trade companies such as Yugoimport (run by Major General Jovan Čeković), working on building and restoration projects in Russia, and sent them to Serbia. Milošević ’s brother Borislav, in his capacity as Serbian ambassador in Moscow, acted as the overall coordinator for Russian mercenary recruitment, as well as trafficking of other Russian war materiel sent to Serbia during the conflict. Yugoslav ABK Bank, which operates a branch office in Moscow, was also instrumental in sending Russian kontraktniki to fight in Kosova. Many Russian kontraktniki of Cossack origin were recruited by ABK’s Moscow office.

Following the beginning of NATO's 78-day campaign in Yugoslavia in March 1999, a number of Russian political and civic organizations signed up volunteers to fight against Kosovar Albanians. For example, the extreme nationalist Russian politician and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky recruited kontraktniki to fight in Kosova via his militant youth organization the ‘Falcons’. General Viktor Filatov, an LDP organizer signed up Russian volunteers in March 1999, but by then those were too late to join the fight. Russian volunteers were also recruited by the neo-Nazi Aleksandr Barkashov’s Russian National Unity Movement’s branches. In early April a group of Russian kontraktniki arrived in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad. They had been recruited by the Russian-Yugoslav Fraternity Fund and were organized by Vlado Mičunović, chairman of the Yugoslav branch of the fund.

According to Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Vladimir Mukhin, Russian reservists and military retirees took part in fighting in Kosova. The commander of the Russian Army’s Far Eastern military district, Victor Chechevatov, filed an official request with the Russian general staff to send kontraktniki to Serbia. It is plausible that some Russian kontraktniki who fought in Kosova may have been actual Russian servicemen, members of OMON and SOBR elite paramilitary police units, Russian military intelligence (GRU) com

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