Russian soldiers are calling the private military unit the "stream" battalion, or Potok in Russian. They are saying that state-owned energy giant Gazprom sent them to join the war in Ukraine.
One wounded man says he was trained in Tambov, in western Russia. We shared the location with Maxar Technologies, and they confirmed that satellites periodically pick up troops training at facilities and ranges there.
Scripps News has learned that major Russian state infrastructure organizations, including Gazprom, now have large forces, as private military groups grow rapidly in Russia. According to U.S. intelligence, some of these private armies have crossed the border into Ukraine to support Vladimir Putin's war, but also possibly to compete with the Wagner Group, the notorious paramilitary leading the bloody fight for Bakhmut.
Vladimir Milov, who served as Putin's Deputy Minister of Energy in his early days, tells Scripps News that such a move would require Putin's approval. "No one would be ever allowed to get involved competing with Wagner if this was not preliminarily discussed with Putin specifically." He says that Gazprom's security forces have historically been a mix of veterans and former police and security service officers.
"There is no comparable, at least comparable scale of mass recruitment, which means that if [Gazprom's Potok forces] are really involved in Ukraine, then the extent should be significantly smaller than that of Wagner because the drafting capabilities simply do not match each other," Milov says.
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The rivalry appears to have spilled over onto social media, where Wagner forces accuse Potok fighters of abandoning their positions, allowing Ukraine to recapture land. In turn, men from Potok say Wagner forces armed them poorly and threatened to shoot them if they withdrew.
Dmytro Zolotukhin, Ukraine's Former Deputy Minister of Information Policy, says these paramilitaries don't just provide cover for Moscow's official military operations; they are the brands of Russia's power players. "This is a permanent conflict, and this is the structure that is being used by Vladimir Putin of how to control these people, to make them conflict with each other," he tells Scripps News.
Zolotukhin says that despite Wagner's assistance on the battlefield, some in Russia want to weaken Wagner's increasingly vocal financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin. He poses "a serious danger," Zolotukhin says. "[Prigozhin] can criticize Minister of Defense Shoigu. He can even somehow criticize the administration of the president. And this is very dangerous for the existence of the empire in the Russian Federation, and for security bodies who are guarding this empire."
Analysts say that Prigozhin's unorthodox recruitment in prisons has angered Russia's domestic security service, the FSB, because they had worked to put these same convicts behind bars.
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