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Wagner Mercenaries With GRU-issued Passports: Validating SBU’s Allegation

January 30, 2019

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Translations: Русский

At a Monday press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, the Ukrainian Security Agency (SBU) announced that it had intercepted passenger manifests from Russian MoD-chartered airliners transporting mercenaries working for Wagner, a Russian private military company (PMC). The manifests, involving flights from Russia to several African and Middle-East destinations in the latter half of 2018, allegedly transported a total of 1012 mercenaries to Sudan, CAR and other African destinations.

The most explosive allegation made at the press conference by the SBU was that PMC Wagner’s mercenaries were issued Russian international travel passports in sequential batches by — and this is crucial — a single Moscow-based passport desk that had issued fake identity papers to undercover GRU officers Mishkin/Petrov and Chepiga/Boshirov.

Bellingcat first reported in September 2018 that this passport desk, known as Central Migration Office Unit 770-001 (“Unit 770001”), is routinely used to issue domestic passports to GRU undercover officers, such as the Salisbury poisoning suspects and two unrelated GRU undercover officers indicted by Montenegro over the alleged 2016 coup attempt in that country. Bellingcat and other organizations later established that this passport desk also issued Russian passports to a handful of foreign VIPs freshly bestowed with Russian citizenship, people such as French actor Gerard Depardieu.

Bellingcat has subsequently discovered that this same office had also issued passports to Russian civilians with links to the Russian Ministry of Defense — either through direct employment or via a close family member.

French actor Gerard Depardieu boasting a freshly issued Russian passport; issuing authority 770001 highlighted

The SBU’s allegations are significant in that, if proven true, they would implicate the Russian government in not simply tolerating Wagner’s overseas military operations (which are actually illegal under Russian law), but in being actively involved in the facilitation of such black ops.

Furthermore, the fact that (apart from a handful of foreign VIPs), Unit 770001 has only been known to issue passports to people linked to the Ministry of Defense, the mass issuance of passports to PMC mercenaries by this same office would provide the strongest documentary linkage so far between Russia’s MoD and the illegal private army.

Given the high stakes raised by the SBU’s allegations, Bellingcat set out to independently verify these explosive claims.

Following the press conference, the SBU published three sets of lists of alleged PMC Wagner mercenaries. The first two lists included names, dates, and places of birth, as well as domestic and international passport numbers of sixteen alleged Wagner mercenaries, seven of whom were said to hold international passports issued in one “series” in 2015, and another nine with such issued in 2017. Notably, the lists included names with birth places from all over Russia, while the passport issuing authority — in all cases, SBU claimed — was the Moscow-based Unit 770001.

The third list, which was the longest, included only the names and birth dates of 149 alleged PMC Wagner mercenaries, who, the SBU claimed, had been deployed in Sudan in late 2018 and early 2019. SBU specified that the first two lists were subsets of the larger list of 149 people.

Passports allegedly issued by Unit 770001 in a series during 2015


Passports allegedly issued by Unit 770001 in 2017



As Bellingcat does not have access to the database of international passports issued by passport unit 770001, it was impossible to immediately validate the SBU’s claim that these alleged mercenaries had received passports from this agency. The passport numbers were consistent with those identified by us in a number of confirmed GRU undercover officers’ passports, and the sequence of numbers for the two years fit into the timeline of other passports issued before and after 2015 as previously reviewed by Bellingcat.

The SBU’s allegations could be substantially confirmed via indirect means. We started by taking a random sample of names from the first and second SBU list, which included both international and domestic passport numbers of alleged PMC mercenaries.

As part of our investigation into the Salisbury poisoning suspects, we had acquired a copy of a leaked database of domestic air travel bookings in Russia dating from 2014 to 2016. This database, which can be acquired from a number of torrent sites and database vendors in Russia, has proven to be accurate but not comprehensive, as it does not necessarily include all air-travel in this period.

We attempted to locate several randomly selected domestic passport numbers from the SBU’s list in the air-travel database. We also tried to find names from the long list of 149 names that did not contain passport data; in this case we searched for full name and birthdate matches.

Out of eleven attempts, we were successful in finding seven of the names from the SBU’s list in the domestic air-travel data.  Of these, three were matched by (domestic) passport numbers, and four by full name and birth date.

A startling observation from the resulting dataset was one destination that overlapped in all of the domestic air-travel records for the seven individuals involved. All seven had a very limited air-travel history, but each had taken at least one flight with the destination being Pashkovsy airport.

In many cases, Pashkovsky was the only destination they had traveled to. Typically, the travel pattern included travel from Moscow or St. Petersburg to Pashkovsky, preceded by a flight to Moscow or St. Petersburg from a different Russian region, typically overlapping with the person’s home area.

Pashkovsky is the main airport serving Russia’s southern city of Krasnodar. Notably, PMC Wagner’s main training camp is based at the village of Molkino, as reported by Russian investigative media. Molkino is approximately a 30-minute drive from Pashkovsky.

Wagner PMC training camp near Molkino, DigitalGlobe satellite photo

Notably, we were able to identify flights on which several of the persons identified by the SBU had traveled to or from Pashkovsky airport in a group.

As Russians traveling on domestic flights typically use their internal passports, rather than their international travel passports, we could not directly verify the SBU’s claim that the listed mercenaries were issued international passport numbers from the 770001 Unit in Moscow.

However, this allegation was indirectly confirmed when we checked if any travelers having international passports from the same number series as those on the SBU lists had made domestic trips using such documents. Indeed, we identified two such travelers. Notably, they had both travelled (only) between St. Petersburg and Pashkovsky on such passports. St. Petersburg is the home base of U.S.-sanctioned Yevgeny Prigozhin, commonly known in media parlance as “Putin’s Chef.” Prigozhin is a catering provider to Russia’s Ministry of Defense and other government bodies and is widely believed to be the financial sponsor of PMC Wagner.

Our finding indirectly validates the SBU’s allegation that the names identified at the press conference belong to PMC Wagner staff, and that at least some people among PMC Wagner operatives have passports from the same office that issued GRU undercover identity papers.

Previous links between PMC Wagner and GRU were evidenced by an intercepted phone call between a high-ranking GRU officer and the chief executive and nom-de-guerre-namesake of the PMC, Dmitry Utkin, a.k.a. “Wagner”. The GRU officer on the call had previously been identified conclusively by Bellingcat as Col. Oleg Ivannikov, a staff GRU officer who was deployed in 2014 to Eastern Ukraine and was involved with procuring the Russian Buk missile launcher that downed MH17. The call’s content strongly suggests that Wagner’s CEO Utkin takes direct orders and reports to Col. Ivannikov.

Using the same 2014-2016 database, we checked domestic travel records for both Col. Ivannikov and Dmitry Utkin. Both of them made trips almost exclusively to/from Pashkovsky airport.

Col. Ivannikov travelled from Moscow to Pashkovskiy at least three times in 2014. No other domestic air travel records exist for him in this period among the public leaked records we reviewed.

Wagner CEO Dmitriy Uktin took at least 7 flights between St. Petersburg and Pashkovskiy airport in 2014 and 2015. The only other destination he flew to was Rostov, one of the largest Russian cities near the Ukraine border.

The limited analysis and verification conducted by Bellingcat on the data presented by SBU with publicly available leaked records is sufficient to conclude that the persons listed are indeed mercenaries contracted by, or otherwise associated with, PMC Wagner. Our limited-scope audit of names and passport numbers confirm that the referenced persons do exist, and that many of them had travel patterns that can be plausibly explained with traveling from their home regions, via either Moscow or St. Petersburg, to the main training camp of Wagner near Krasnodar.

While we cannot unequivocally endorse SBU’s assertion that the issuance of the sequential international passports to these mercenaries proves their linkage to GRU, it is certain that no such mass issuance of passports from the central passport issuance agency at the federal level (which is not routinely used for issuance of civilian passports) could take place without the active endorsement of the state apparatus, if not necessarily the GRU. However, the rest of the available evidence, including the audio intercepts and the multiple travel of a senior GRU officer known to be in a commanding position to Wagner’s commander and the location of the PMC’s training camp, strongly supports the hypothesis that PMC Wagner is indeed a proxy and serves at the command of the Ministry of Defense, and in particular the GRU.

Bellingcat Investigation Team

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  1. concerned citizen

    This mysterious ‘leaked database’ just keeps giving and giving, doesn’t it?

    So much for open source.

    • Bob

      You can freely download the database if you like. It’s opensource. Quit your distraction bullshit, that only works on retrogressive fools.

      • concerned citizen

        open source doesnt mean illegally hacked files downloaded on torrent sites, my friend.

          • concerned citizen

            No it doesn’t. That’s criminal behaviour and there is no way to know if data received by such methods is genuine or has been tampered with.

            Moreoever there is no way for bellingcat readers to even check if bellingcat’s claims about what is in the data are correct.

            Open source means sources like google, youtube. facebook and the like. That everyone has and can check.

          • Black Star

            This is funny 🙂 Comrade “concerned citizen” tries to make us believe that somebody forged a database containing information about millions of people, then put it on sale on some shop in Moscow just so somebody connected to Bellingcat would accidentally find it. They also knew months beforehand what kind of information people from Bellingcat would `want to find from it.

            So many miraculous coincidendes… or could it just be that it is the real database?

          • Servus

            ” That’s criminal behaviour and there is no way to know if data received by such methods is genuine or has been tampered with.”

            in a summary:
            Using the travel database is not a criminal offence and the gathered information can be independently verified with different versions of it or variants of the database. In some case, the concerned countries authorities confirmed the travels.

            Criminal according to laws of which country?
            Theoretically, just downloading the data base may be a breach of copyright/ownership laws and bring civil charges, not criminal ones. But if the db is used for some other activities, like extortion, identity theft, fraud, then these activities lead to a prosecution and not just db download. Using a massive stolen copyright protected material or just private one is very common, think about sharing photos, articles, films. There is even an “for free” academic paper distribution site. Searching in some of the more popular stolen database can be “legal” via sites set up for such searches (Ashley-Medison db).
            Wiki leaks and the nebula of the “leaks” sites is another example, here the stolen and published material is often classified and thus explicitly protected by the owner country’s secrecy law .
            BUT a Russian db of car’s license plates, traffic offences, travel movements etc. are not (maybe until recently) protected by any specific laws and most likely would result in civil suit or, in the country of unlimited possibilities, just an out of court agreement (we call it a bribe).

            The meaning of the “open source” has changed a lot in the last 20 years, it meant material (mostly software) provided under the “open source license”. Today it means any information publicly available and even Assange says that Wikileaks, publishing classified material, is “an open source intelligence agency”.

            The integrity of the stolen databases is another important aspect.
            I would say that if the theft of the db or rather a publication of it serves some specific purpose, then there is a high risk of data manipulation, so I would be very cautions to use it without external corroboration. The example would be stolen mails from the University of East Anglia in 2009, stolen US Democratic election committee’s emails (Podesta, Clinton, etc); these mails were tampered with. The key aspects are : the amount of the data needing modification is relatively small, external verifications rather difficult and the operation is focused.

            On the other hand, Russian huge car registration, traffic offences, passport, residency, air travel databases have been readily sold and easy available for years without any specific purpose other then just making some money by the office workers or contractors with accesses. The risk for any systematic modifications with some purpose that arrived years after the db was stolen seems completely unrealistic. Some measure of independent verification exists as well, different dbs will have similar entries for the same person, confirming address, phone, passport number etc….. not to talk about babushka that recognises hers beloved grandson…

            Nice try “concerned” , you need to bring up to date your ready-made answers.

  2. David Steeper

    Oh trolls please dry your eyes and stop bleating. I’m sure the boss won’t blame you for this ! Thanks Bellingcat.

  3. concerned citizen

    bellingcat doesnt even provide the name of the file they allegedly used. Moreover downloading it would be illegal. Moreover there’s no way of knowing that the original file, if it exists, hasn’t itself been altered.

    there’s simply no way to validate bellingcat’s claims and this is anything but open source.

  4. kraaiii

    what’s next parroting MI6 of CIA/NSA,, integrity suicide

    keep up the good work Bellingcat

    in case you’re wondering i am being sarcastic here

  5. muchandr

    Au contraire. You should stop regurgitating junk that has long expired, like a mindless propaganda zombie. Note the goal of this outlet here is obviously to frame Russia instead of conducting “open source” investigation, but at least they are getting paid for it. What’s in for you?

    This office ought to be the same. If you bothered to feed the article to say Yandex translate (will give you most meaningful Russian-2-English translation) or a robot translator of your own choice, you can follow the discussion on the Russian site.

    There is not really a Unit 770001 anywhere in Russia, but there is (was) a Unit 77001 and it is indeed in Moscow. It is possible that they removed an excess zero since Depardieu’s passport was issued in 2013, but I figure it is more likely his is special. All the other passports have the issuing office taking up but a single line in the laminated area where the photos are. This includes a sample from 2012. Depardieu’s passport seems to be the only one where the issuing office seal takes up a whole centerfold. You are also welcome to interpret the whole thing as SBU’s fake, I don’t care.

    Starting July 2018? Those “central migration offices” have been folded into regular police, likely effecting there being a lot more issuing authorities, which are just regular police precincts or something.

    • Black Star

      So they created a whole new passport licensing authority just for Depardieu? Why, when perfectly good offices already exist? Russia must have a pretty massive bureaucracy if they do this every time a famous westerner wants a Russian passport.

  6. muchandr

    Of course it is the same. 770001 does not exist anywhere in Russia, only 77001 existed and was in Moscow (till that whole migration department was folded into regular police mid 2018) It is possible, but unlikely that they threw out one excess zero since 2013 since Depardieu’s passport was made, but I think his is simply special (or fake) because other people’s had 77001 in 2012 already.

    Do I need to point out that having a passport issued by a secret organization kinda defeats a purpose of a passport? 77001 was a regular passport office, no apparent connection to the military.

  7. Jeroen

    When O.V. Ivannikov was working as a Russian Officer with 33 Fighterregiment in Eastern Germany 1991-1994 his pasport might have been collected by his Regiment or higher level admin organisation At least this was usage in the eighties to prevent Soviet officers from travelling or illegal border crossings. Their pasport were given back when posted back in USSR. In Germany they were using their military id only.

  8. John

    Bellingcat is sure being targeted by Russian trolls and bots
    That must mean Bellingcat is accurate

    • concerned citizen

      It’s being targeted by Westerners who know unfounded bollocks when they see it.

      And probably some Russians too.


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