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A white powder hovers in the empty street and so straight it seems drawn with a ruler. Despite the night, the heat crushes everything and it feels like being in a western movie. It is actually a small town in the Donetsk region, in the Ukrainian Donbass, not far from the front line of the war against Russian troops.

In the middle of the low-rise buildings is a hotel, the kind of family-run establishment with wavy awnings, to which war gives a bizarre and
inappropriate. A bombing nearby, just before midnight, brings out the few customers: international humanitarian personnel, special envoys or soldiers on leave. Among them, a small team decides to provide first aid: it is the Mozart group, a US private military company (CMP) made up of about thirty volunteers. All veterans of elite troops.

“We do the work here that Washington cannot do. The Pentagon excuses itself by saying it has nothing to do with us. And he’s right, it’s the truth, ”explains Andy Milburn, a retired US colonel after 31 years in the marines, and founder of the group. After 2001, private military companies multiplied in risk countries, from Iran to Mali. But in Ukraine, Mozart’s game could prove even more risky.

Mozart contro Wagner
The day after the alarm, Andy Milburn and his team set off on a mission to Zaitseve, a village in the middle of the fighting, where some inhabitants still persist in living. At each checkpoint, Mozart’s men hand out two cans of fizzy drinks. He fits their style. This time there are six of them, aboard two off-road vehicles, “so as not to put everyone in the same car if it were hit”.

Mostly of Anglo-Saxon origin, Mozart’s men are between thirty and 45 years old. Desbs is the only Frenchman: a Breton who spent three years with the special forces. He initially decided to join the international brigade after an appeal from the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskii. Once there, he had some hesitation: many novices among the recruits and a mandatory six-month commitment. Eventually Debs joined Mozart, by virtue of more flexible contracts and colleagues who resemble him. “I have the health and the skills: I would never have been able to look in the mirror if I had stayed on the sofa watching,” he says. Another volunteer explained that he wanted to “help people who have the same enemy as me: the Russians”. None of them want to reveal their identity.

So far Mozart seems to be the classic example of a security company. There are 1,500 in the world, according to a 2012 French parliamentary report. It is the choice of name, perhaps, that unintentionally reveals the dangerous ambiguity of the situation in Ukraine. Mozart wanted to be an ironic reference to Wagner,
the Russian private battalion with a bad reputation. The wink was tempting, Mozart versus Wagner, in prospect it would get a lot of people talking. Today, however, Milburn regrets the choice of the name.

None of Mozart’s men carry a weapon and if they take part in the fighting they are forced to leave the group

Under the generic label of CMP very different realities coexist. On the one hand, there is the Russian group dubbed “Putin’s secret army” with its ultraviolent mercenaries participating in the fighting; as the US firm Blackwater did in Iraq. Mozart, on the other hand, claims to carry out missions
strictly humanitarian and training. “If any of our men were personally involved in the fighting, he would have to leave Mozart,” says Milburn. None of the group members carry a weapon.

First stop: Bakhmut, a city under fire that the Russians are gnawing more every day. On the street a woman drags a bottle of water in a stroller, a young man asks for food. Near the market, which was also bombed, a dozen soldiers of the 72nd Ukrainian regiment stand guard. They are in their twenties or so, and have already seen most of their friends and comrades die.

A Mozart man comes forward: “Would you be interested in military training?”. The tone is captivating, halfway between the regimental mate and the peddler. The course is free, ten intensive days on how to handle weapons and tactics, in a private facility, with “spectacular” results. The registrations are made on the spot, directly, without going through the ministry of
Ukrainian defense. In general, each session brings together about forty soldiers: they should be at least double, but no Ukrainian commander can afford to remove so many from the front at the same time.

“Here things work the other way around: we often train people after they’ve already fought, not before,” says a Mozart volunteer in amazement. This training is the main mission claimed by the group in Ukraine: according to Andy Milburn, 2,500 soldiers have gone through it in four months. At the start of the Russian invasion in March 2022, the former colonel was stunned by the lack of troop training. At the time, Milburn had come to breathe the air of war as a “freelance journalist,” he says. Under the pen, the old soldier soon emerged. Milburn created his CMP “thanks to private donations collected on the internet”, mostly American, from people who wish to remain anonymous.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Washington quickly evacuated the country’s approximately 100 military advisers. Although US assistance continues through the supply of weapons and logistics, the White House is doing everything possible to avoid a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia. US citizens are encouraged to leave Ukraine and the Pentagon denies any ties to CMP, Mozart or similar groups.

But the prospect of a Vietnamese spiral worries the United States. During the Cold War, Washington gradually got involved in the conflict, even though her initial ambition was only to “advise” and “arm” South Vietnam. At the time, US instructors intervened in military uniform, unlike today’s CMPs in Ukraine.

Stop the war
Taking advantage of their presence, Moscow reiterates that NATO – contrary to what it claims – has actually sent men to the field, and Putin accuses the United States of prolonging the conflict. “I am 250 percent sure that the Americans and the British are firing American Himars rocket launchers,” said reserve captain Vladimir Yeranosyan on Ukraina.ru (a subsidiary of the official Russian channel Rossiya Segodnya), as if he were looking for a way to further inflame the conflict.

The two off-road vehicles of the Mozart group have just arrived in the village of Zaitseve.
When they hear the noise of the engines, the last inhabitants come out of the cellars and shelters – there are a handful in all – to gather around the bags of provisions unloaded by the volunteers. Humanitarian mission, this time. Here it is no more
water, there is no more electricity, there are no more supplies. “Why don’t you leave?” Says Yuri, Mozart’s translator. A woman in a Star Wars T-shirt finally replies, “I’m still in debt to my in-laws.”

What if the Mozarts suddenly found themselves face to face with the Wagners or other pro-Russian fighters? The idea that their presence, even if unarmed, could precipitate the war into another dimension upsets them. On the contrary, they see themselves as an embankment: the training of Ukrainian soldiers would help, from their point of view, to appease Moscow’s aggression. And rather than Vietnam, some of them mention World War II. “In the future we will be reproached for our prudence. They will tell us: ‘Why haven’t you done more?’. History will judge us, ”says one of them.

In the distance, the black silhouette of a ruined factory cuts the horizon in two. On the way back, the cars riddled with gunshots in front of which we pass are as many as there are vehicles in circulation. At one of the checkpoints, the Mozarts don’t stop. It was just bombed.

(Translation by Federico Ferrone)
This article was published by the French newspaper Le Monde.

August 26, 2022

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