Reuters is reporting that Russian military veterans will ask the International Criminal Court to investigate Russia's alleged secret deployment of civilian contractors to fight in Syria, Ukraine, and Africa.
Reuters quoted Russian paramilitary leader Yevgeny Shabayev as saying on November 9 that more than a dozen Russian veterans organizations plan to write to Fatou Bensouda, prosecutor at The Hague-based court, which investigates war crimes, about Russia's alleged illegal recruitment of civilians to fight in the Kremlin's wars abroad.
Russia has repeatedly denied reports that thousands of Russian private contractors have fought alongside government forces in Syria, eastern Ukraine, and elsewhere. But contractor sources maintain that more than 100 Russian civilians have been killed in Syria alone.
One of the most prominent Russian mercenary companies, ChVK Vagner, is owned by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has close personal ties to President Vladimir Putin.
On November 9, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on a video that was posted by the Libyan Defense Ministry of a November 7 meeting in Moscow between top military officials of the two countries, including Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
Although Russian media did not report it, the Libyan video clearly shows Prigozhin participating prominently in the talks.
The Reuters report said the ICC has no jurisdiction over the Syrian war and has never handled cases like the one Shabayev's groups intend to present.
Reuters said Moscow recruits mercenaries mostly from among the hundreds of thousands of combat veterans it has from its interventions in Syria and Ukraine, as well as earlier wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and elsewhere.
"The Russians fight abroad as 'volunteers' and without an official recognition from the Russian government," Shabayev told Reuters. He once served as a representative of one of the self-proclaimed, Russia-backed separatist formations in eastern Ukraine.
The veterans say in their letter they are unhappy with the fact that private contractors operate illegally and enjoy no social benefits or protection afterward, Reuters said. Mercenary activity is illegal under Russian law.
The Kremlin and the Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately reply to Reuters' requests for comments. Bensouda's office declined to comment.
Shabayev told Reuters that several hundred delegates plan to discuss the letter at a forum on November 18 in Moscow and mail it to The Hague court the next day.
The involvement of Russian mercenaries in Kremlin-backed conflicts has been widely reported, but is usually denied by the Kremlin.
Russian citizens have been seen in large numbers taking part in the fighting in eastern Ukraine on the side of Russia-backed separatists. Moscow has insisted they went there of their own volition as volunteers.
Last year, a Russian private security company called RSB-Group Oleg Krinitsyn claimed it carried out a demining mission in Libya.
This year, the Kremlin has officially deployed 170 civilian instructors in the Central African Republic and plans to send 60 more to reinforce them -- a mission that Moscow says has been approved by the UN Security Council.
The veterans organizations claim that Russian contractors have also worked in Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, and Gabon.
Shabayev told Reuters that some former Russian private military contractors who have fought abroad would be ready to testify if The Hague court offered them protection.
"It will depend on whether the West is really interested in examining the situation," Shabayev said.
It was not immediately clear whether or how the ICC would respond to the groups' petition.
The ICC has jurisdiction only when a country’s own government is unwilling or unable to prosecute an extremely grave crime, and only over crimes committed on the territory of its member states.
Russia is not a member.