“Bears” – on Stage. Russian Soldiers Trained in Crimea for the War in Ukraine and Africa

Collage: investigator.org.ua

The 81st Russian special purpose brigade “Bears”, fighting Ukraine in Oleshki near Kherson, has been assembled and trained on training ground near Perevalne village in occupied Crimea.

Separate “expeditionary corps” of “Bears” is being recruited for the “work” of Russian mercenaries abroad, in Africa. 

“Bears” are closely connected with quasi-private military company “Redut”, controlled by the Main External Intelligence Department of the General Staff of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (“GRU”). Russia replaces “Wagner” mercenaries with “Bears” and other units of “Redut” in African countries. 

Under the umbrella of private military company “Redut”

The first announcement about recruitment into voluntary special purpose unit of “Bears” has been published by its social media on March 17, 2023. Men from 22 to 50 years old of various military professions were invited to sign half a year contract. The salary started from 220 thousand Rubles per month plus reimbursements. 

“Come to Crimea, Simferopol. We provide uniform and training. Travel expenses will be reimbursed upon tickets provided”. “Bagira” was named as the person answering calls to the phone number registered in Moscow and region. 

Russian central TV channels started covering these first voluntary units when they appeared on the training ground in Crimea and before their dispatch to the frontline. Yevgenii Rybin, administrator of social media of “Bears”, has been the main driver of Russian media focus on “Bears”. For 18 years, he has worked as the reporter at Russian propagandist TV channel “TV Center”. He used his media connections to promote “Bears” and its recruitement campaign.

Then, newly created “voluntary battalion” quickly gained support of the senior management of the Russian Ministry of Defense and “the Head of Crimea”. 

At the end of March 2023, instructors of “Bears” initiated training of so-called “volunteers of Crimea”. “Head of Crimea” Sergii Aksyonov visited the training ground and tested bulletproof vests supplied by the Russian occupation authorities of Crimea to so-called Crimean volunteers. As we revealed earlier, their majority are mercenaries from Russia and not Crimean residents. 

Their training has been conducted on the training ground near military town in Perevalne village, not far from Simferopol. Before the Russian occupation, the ground has been used by troops of seashore defense of the Ukrainian Navy. Since 2014, it has been occupied by the 126th seashore defense brigade of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. 

Colonel Vladyslav Seleznyov, military expert and former head of the media center of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense in Crimea, tells that “Bears” have been trained on the part of the training ground, close to Perevalne village. 

Vladyslav Seleznyov, military expert. Photo: Facebook

“There is wonderful base there. It has been fully equipped before the Russian annexation of Cromea. It allows training machine gunners, snipers etc. Its infrastructure is convenient as it is close to the base of the 126th brigade of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and necessary communications. The Ukrainian Army invested a lot of resources to renew the base after the collapse of the Soviet Union”, as recalls Seleznyov. 

As he says, training ground near Perevalne is immense and consists of three training grounds for different training tasks.

“There are base near Zarichne village, the base near Perevalne village and the base and training ground on Dolgorukivska mountain range (Subotkan range). Photos of training demonstrate the lower part of the latter ground. The training of artillery and mortarmen and battalion level training can be conducted on the upper part of the ground”, as says Vladyslav Seleznyov.

On the 1st of April, Sergii Aksyonov attended the training of 400 “his volunteers” for the second time. His visit revealed the name and photo of the commander of battalion “Bears” with call sign “Jedi”, wearing very strange clothes for the officer. 

Sergii Aksyonov and Viktor Yermolaev-“Jedi” at the training ground in Perevalne village, temporarily occupied Crimea, March 2023. Photo: social media 

After Aksyonov’s visit, the supply of battalion has significantly improved. On the 4th of April, “Bears received a lot of ammunitions and secret new weapons from “limited series”. 

Next day Deputy Minister of Defense of Russia Yunus-Bek Yevkurov attended the training ground near Perevalne village. It has been reported that he has been satisfied and promised any support to “Bears”. 

As it is known, Yevkurov has supervised the removal of PMC “Wagner” from Africa and its replacement with mercenaries from PMC “Redut”, acting under the umbrella of GRU. 

Yunus-Bek Yuvkurov at the training of battalion “Bears” near Perevalne village, April 2023. Photo: social media 

In less than two months, on May 30, 2023, “Jedy” reported that his “volunteer battalion” has been turned “the 81st special purpose brigade”. He did not disclose its affiliation with any Russian Army. We assume that “Bears” are subordinated to quazi-private military company “Redut”. 

In accordance with investigation of Radio Liberty and project “Idel.Realii”, volunteer units, created under umbrella of GRU, have been refistered as military unit # 35 555 in Aksay, the satellite of the Russian city of Rostov-na-Donu (Sadovaya street, 22). PMC “Redut” has been among them. 

However, the evidence is scarce and nine years old. First, it is publication in Wikimapia, indicating coordinates of military unit # 35 555. But those coordinates do not coincide with address in Aksay and lead to another military unit # 01 957

In November 2015, Ukrainian media Censor.Net published data of the Ukrainian intelligence services about structure and location of the Russian occupation troops in Donbas, Crimea and Rostov oblast of the Russian Federation. 

This publication mentions the 78th intelligence center of GRU with familiar number of military unit and address in Aksay. It indicates that the center acts under cover of the 175th brigade of the Russian Southern Military District. The number is 01 957, address – Sadovaya street, 22. 

Letters of commanders of “Bears” to heads of Russian regions and organizations of war veterans confirm that “Bears” belong to the intelligence center of GRU and its secret military unit 35 555. Letters ask for the assistance with equipment and medicines.

The stamp of “Separate special purpose battalion “Bears”, indicating military unit # 35 555 of GRU, on the letter asking for assistance. Photo: social media 

For example, let us look at the letter to the Deputy Head of the Association of War Veterans of Perm krai. Its authors ask for the humanitarian aid to separate special purpose battalion “Bears”. The letter indicates that “Bears” belong to military unit # 35 555 in Perevalne village. The same number is seen on the stamp of the battalion. 

Ukrainian military expert Kostyantyn Mashovets has mentioned the 81st brigade “Bears” in his regular overviews since October 2023. He calls this unit “Crimean office of PMC “Redut”. Journalist investigation of Radio Liberty and “Schemes” project also includes “Bears” into “Redut”.

Valeria Yegoshyna, the author of investigation and journalist of “Schemes”, says that “Redut” is not private military company; it is a network of mercenaries, including over 20 units. That is to say, “Redut” is so-called umbrella company, without the single command and status of legal entity. 

Valeria Yegoshyna, journalist of “Schemes” project (Radio Liberty), author of investigation about PMC “Redut”. Photo: investigator.org.ua

“We found out that there is no single person, like Prigozhyn, behind various commanders of this organization because “Redut” does not have concise organizational structure and legal entity. It is a system of recruitment of Russians for the war against Ukraine”, as says Valeria Yegoshyna. 

Journalists of “Schemes” project estimated that there were around 25 thousand mercenaries, calling themselves “volunteers”, under umbrella of “Redut”. “Bears” has not associated itself with PMC “Redut” by the time of investigation. Structural scheme of “Redut” indicates “Bears” as separate unit. 

However, as Valeria Yegoshyna tells, found documents confirm the connection between “Bears” and “Redut”: “We collected all documents we could about units within “Redut”, including documents about “Bears”. We were able to receive copy of its stamp with military unit # 35 555 indicated on it. We link this unit to “Veterans”, another unit of “Redut”. “Veterans” lead us to the 78th intellifence center of GRU under Russian General Staff”.

Though commander of “Bears” Yermolaev-“Jedi” calls it “brigade”, number of mercenaries within “Bears” has not been confirmed. He stated in the chat of telegram channel that there were over one thousand of “Bears” and they formed a “brigade”. He also proudly mentioned that his “brigade” had its own artillery, armored vehicles, aviation and even fleet! 

However, video in social media demonstrated only one battalion with self-name “Praga”. It includes 5 companies with different number of soldiers. After leakage of information about their poor supply with ammunitions and food, all companies of “Bears” posted their videos with rebuttal. These videos show insufficient number of soldiers.

The first intelligence assault battalion “Praga” of the 81st special purpose brigade “Bears”, 2023. Photo: social media

Military expert Kostyantyn Mashovets identified “Bears” at the frontline near Oleshki. On October 23, 2023, he wrote in his regular overview: “It is likely that the enemy forms tactical reserve group near Oleshki to counteract raids of the Ukrainian Armed Forces across Dnipro between Oleshki and Nova Kakhovka. The enemy concentrated to the east of Oleshki during last three days the following troops: units of the 95th motorised rifle regiment and not less than a battalion of PMC “81st special purpose brigade “Bears (it is so-called Crimean office of PMC “Redut”. Though they call themselves a “brigade”, their size is around 1,5 battalion).

Thus, there is no doubt that “Bears” belongs to umbrella PMC “Redut”, controlled by GRU. 

Let us now look at its key persons and plans of the Russian Ministry of Defense to use “Bears” in Africa. 

Commanders, recruiters and PR people 

43 years old Yermolaev Vitalii Nikolayevich is the commander of brigade with call sign “Jedi”. His reputation is surrounded by public scandals in Russia. In Saint Petersburg, he is known as soldier of fortune, fraudster and biker “Yeryoma Piterskii”, with collection of expensive cars and motorcycles. 

“Commander of brigade “Jedi” – Yeryoma Piterskii – Vitalii Yermolayev. Photo: motobratan.ru

Before the war against Ukraine, Yermolayev has served in the airborne troops and participated in conflicts in Syria and Chechnya. He guarded golden mines and even extracted the gold in Africa. He has stolen over one billion Rubles from “Gazprom” through his father’s company and was involved into public shooting with policemen in the center of Saint Petersburg. 

Yermolayev has been detained by police several times but never indicted. Policemen whom he shot asked the court to close the case because he apologized. It seems that “Yeryoma” enjoys strong informal support of Russian intelligence services. It is also obvious that he has beneficial “connections” among senior managers of “Gazprom” because the scandal over “disappearance” of 125 km long gas pipe has not lead to any official investigations. 

“Commander of brigade “Jedi” – Yeryoma Piterskii – Vitalii Yermolayev in Syria. Photo: motobratan.ru

Yermolayev-“Jedi” has participated in the war against Ukraine almost since the beginning of the Russian full scale invasion. We found an interesting photo signed “Jedi” in internal chat of telegram channel of “Bears”. Yermolayev stands in front of destroyed bridge near the Ukrainian city of Gorokhovatka in Kharkiv region. 

We should recall that Russian troops, smashed by the Armed Forces of Ukraine in September 2022, have included so-called Russian 3rd Army Corps, formed from Russian regional “volunteer battalions”. The imprint of bear paw in circle has been the sign of the Corps. It reminds one of the first versions of logo of “Bears” which would appear later, in half a year.

Commander of brigade “Jedi” in front of destroyed bridge in Gorokhovatka. Photo: telegram channel of the 81st brigade “Bears”, 2023 

Above mentioned letter to the Association of war veterans in Perm krai indicates the surname and initials of the chief of staff of the special purpose battalion “Bears” – Gashin A.A. Internal chat of “Bears” also mentions the call sign of the second after “Jedi” person in battalion – “Morok”.

The Center of Journalist Investigations identified the chief of staff of “Bears”. It is Gashin Andrei Andreyevich from Russian city of Volzhskii in Volgograd region. Before the Russian full scale invasion into Ukraine, Gashin has been an individual entrepreneur, focused on additional education of children and consultations in the sphere of security. At the end of September 2022, he stopped his business and went to kill Ukrainians. His wife with name “Helen” is a photographer. Their three children study in the Russian military school. We could not find the photo of Gashin-“Morok”.

40 years old Rybin Yevgenii Yevgenjevich is the speaker and administrator of social media of “Bears”. His call sign is “Knyaz” (“King”).

He has worked as reporter of Russian TV channel “TV Center” for almost 20 years. He ran for Moscow and Russian State Duma from the Liberal Democratic Party but failed. In 2022, Rybin has visited several times the frontline in Donbas. In March 2023, Rybin-“Knyaz” launched telegram channel of “Bears” and actively promoted the unit in mass media, in order to get an assistance. 

Yevgenii Rybin, the speaker and combatant of “brigade of “Bears” with journalists of “TV Center”, 2023, Crimea. Photo: social media 

Rybin is not an ordinary speaker of “Bears”. The only legal entity, related to “Bears”, has been registered by Rybin. It is charitable fund of war veterans “Bear” registered in Moscow. 

Is Rybin-“Knyaz” combatant or non-combatant? As the speaker of fund “Bear”, he could be treated as non-combatant, i.e. as the person not fighting, just helping one side of the armed conflict. 

We found the List of personnel of the 3rd company of “Bears” to be encouraged in the internal chat of “Bears”. Number five of the List says: “Merkel plus team of Naiv and Knyaz. They should be encouraged and promoted as they organized protection by fire and suppressed fire points of the enemy”.

The Rybin’s account in Facebook demonstrates his photo with automatic rifle during his first “field trip somewhere to Svatovo”. Thus, Rybin has been directly involved into the fighting and should be treated as “combatant”.

Yevgenii Rybin, participant of the Russian invasion in Eastern Ukraine, December 2022. Photo: Facebook Евгений Рыбин

representative of “Bears” called Putin Vyacheslav Viktorovich, call sign “Temnitsa”. 

Vyacheslav Putin served in the airborne troops. He is the head of the Associatin of veterans of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs in the Russian city of Chusove and the judge of international class of oriental martial arts. Since the beginning of the Russian full scale invasion, he has fought against Ukraine. 

We found the video titling him as a participant of the “special military operation” in Kharkiv region and a veteran of special unit of GRU. He complained about poor supply of medicaments: “There are not medicaments. When I prepared myself for the war, I bought them for 10-15 thousand Rubles. We should have trained doctors. Now we have a few of them”. 

Vyacheslav Putin (“Temnitsa”), veteran of the special unit of the Main External Intelligence Department (“GRU”) of the Russian General Staff, member of “Bears”

Ukrainian citizen Guts Roman Vyacheslavovych, call sign “Belaz”, is the head of the medical unit of the brigade “Bears”. He served in the Ukrainian Ministry of Emergency Situations. In 2014, he betrayed Ukraine and entered the “guard of DNR” as the captain and commander of the infantry company. 

Since 2015, Roman Guts has been wanted by the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs under suspicion of participation in illegal military activity. But in 2023 he has been removed from “the wanted list”. We hope this decision will be reversed and new facts of his crimes will be added to his case. 

Collaborator Roman Guts (“Belaz”), the head of medical unit of the 81st special purpose brigade “Bears”. Photo: social media 

The Center of Journalist Investigations identified “personnel” of the brigade who have recruited Russians for the war against Ukraine. 

As it has been mentioned before, announcements in spring-summer 2023 indicated Simferopol as the meeting point for new recruits. Soldier with call sign “Colleague” met and brought them to the training ground. We identified him by his phone number. 

His name is Panov Aleksandr Aleksandrovich from Russian city of Krymsk in Krasnodar krai. In 1991, Panov entered Simferopol High Military Construction School. It happened after Ukraine approved the Act of Independence. As an official biography of Panov states, he refused to take an oath of allegiance towards Ukraine and he has been expelled from the military school. 

Aleksandr Panov (“Colleague”), bringing recruits to the location of “Bears”. Photo: Bloknotanapa.ru , 2018

Panov conducted his business. Later he has been sentenced for the abuse of power. After Russian occupation of Crimea and Donbas, he has become “volunteer” and helped “refugees from Ukraine”, i.e. people from the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. In 2018, Panov has headed the office of Russian political party “Fair Russia” in Crimean city of Anapa and ran for the city council of Anapa. Now Panov brings Russian reqruits to the base of the 81st brigade “Bears”. 

We identified several people who handle phone calls from potential mercenaries. 

Zorina Ludmila Yurjevna, call sign “Belka”, is the resident of Saint Petersburg. Her main job is local realty agency. She also answers phone calls of those who would like to join “Bears”. Her telegram channel posts her photos from 2019. She participated in shooting training. 

Ludmila Zorina, “member of HR department of “Bears”, 2019. Photo: social media 

Karpachova Ekaterina Vladimirovna is more professional recruiter. Before the work for “the 81st brigade”, she has recruited so-called “volunteers” for BARS-13 “Russian world”, controlled by the “Union of Volunteers of Donbas” (this “Union” is also a part of umbrella PMC “Redut”).

Ludmila Zorina, “member of HR department of “Bears”, 2019. Photo: social media 

Ukrainian citizen and resident of Kirovsk near Luhansk Maksym Afanasiev (Dankov) is the prominent media figure, used by Russian TV channels to promote “Bears”. 

His media story is as follows. 15 years Maksym joined illegal military unit “Prizrak” [Ghost] and started fighting Ukrainian troops because, as he said, his relatives were killed by Ukrainian shell. He lost his wrist in one year. Later he joined “people’s militia of Luhansk People’s Republic”. In 2021, he moved to Moscow. After the Russian invasion into Ukraine, he decided to return and “Bears” has been the only Russian military unit which agreed to accept a person without a wrist. 

Ekaterina Karpachova (first left), recruiter of mercenaries into the Russian Army, 2022. Photo: Миротворець 

Ukrainian citizen and resident of Kirovsk near Luhansk Maksym Afanasiev (Dankov) is the prominent media figure, used by Russian TV channels to promote “Bears”. 

His media story is as follows. 15 years Maksym joined illegal military unit “Prizrak” [Ghost] and started fighting Ukrainian troops because, as he said, his relatives were killed by Ukrainian shell. He lost his wrist in one year. Later he joined “people’s militia of Luhansk People’s Republic”. In 2021, he moved to Moscow. After the Russian invasion into Ukraine, he decided to return and “Bears” has been the only Russian military unit which agreed to accept a person without a wrist. 

Maksym Afanasiev (Dankov), underage combatant of illegal military unit “Prizrak”, 2015. Photo: social media 

All Russian propagandist channels tell his story and collect contributions for the prosthesis of his wrist. 

Bears” and Africa 

Announcements about “expeditionary corps for work in remote areas” first appeared in internal chat of “Bears” in August 2023 and then were published in usual telegram channel of “the 81st brigade”. “Remote areas” refer mostly to Africa. 

“Jedi” consults personally about necessary vaccination in the chat of telegram channel of “Bears”. Specific requirement is the proficiency in English. All candidates must complete the training in Crimea. 

Yermolaev-“Jedi” in front of logo “Expeditionary corps of “Bears” brigade”, 2023. Photo: social media 

In August 2023, “Bears” opened recruitment centers in Moscow and Donetsk, in addition to the center in Crimea. At the end of November 2023, Yermolayev started posting photos and videos taken, presumably, in Africa. He pretended that “Russian specialists” participated in counteracting attacks of Muslims in Burkina Faso. He referred to events on November 28, 2023 when several hundreds militants attacked the city of Djibo. It has been reported that defendants successfully applied attack drones “Bayraktar TV2” (there are three “Bayraktars” in Burkina Faso) and dropped high precision bombs MAM-L on militants. There has been no grounded evidence on the origins of mercenaries (“Bears” or other units within “Redut”). 

Meanwhile, in November 2023, Wall Street Journal published its investigation stating that Russia replaced PMC “Wagner” in Africa with two other companies “Redut” and “Convoy”. The first has been financed by Russian oligarch Gennadii Tymchenko whereas the second – by oligarch Arkadii Rotenberg. 

“The role of Prigozhyn has been replaced by people close to Putin”, as says WSJ. Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the Deputy Minister of Defense of Russia, is reported as the supervisor of Kremlin’s shadow operations in Africa whereas Andrei Averyanov, senior officer of GRU, is reported as operational coordinator. 

Military town near Perevalne village, with training ground. Photo: “Крим.Реалії”, 2018

As soon as the “81st special purpose brigade “Bears” is part of “Redut” network controlled by GRU, it is possible that mercenaries from “Bears” fight in Africa. There is an interesting “coincidence”: “Convoy” conducts its training near Perevalne village and military town in Crimea as “Bears” does. 

As the Center of Journalist Investigations found out earlier, “Convoy” is part of the 30th unit BARS “Livadia”. Its commander is Konstantin Pikalov, call sign “Mazai”, former colleague of Yevgenii Prigozhyn. Based in Saint Petersburg, Pikalov’s security company with the same name “Convoy” registered its office called “the 165th training center”. The center with the same number has been created by the Main Intelligence Department of Soviet General Staff to train foreign “participants of national and liberation movements” of Africa. 

It is an interesting turn of history. Now Russia trains its mercenaries in Perevalne village to promote its interests and support friendly regimes in African countries.