A Russian paramilitary group fighting in Ukraine on behalf of Vladimir Putin attempted to buy weapons and equipment from an unlikely source: NATO member Turkey, according to a leaked US intelligence document that was obtained by CNN.
The leaked document appears to show the lengths the Russian private military group Wagner has gone to try to further strengthen its capabilities as the war in Ukraine – in which it is playing a key role – continues on with no signs of abating.
As a NATO member, Turkey is broadly considered a partner nation to the US and other countries providing direct military support to Ukraine and it has publicly expressed opposition to Russia’s invasion.
It is also home to a major US military base where nuclear weapons are stored and act as an obvious warning sign to deter Russian aggression against NATO members.
According to the US signals intelligence reporting cited in the document, personnel from the Wagner Group met with “Turkish contacts” in early February with the intent “to purchase weapons and equipment from Turkey” that could then be used by Wagner mercenaries who are fighting alongside Russian forces in Ukraine.
It is unclear who those “contacts” were or if the Turkish government was aware of the meetings. There is no evidence that shows that Turkey has moved forward with any arms sales to the Wagner Group.
Still, the potential of a NATO ally selling weapons to Russian mercenary forces would likely raise serious concerns in Washington and complicate Ankara’s relationship with other NATO members.
The details about the February meeting, which were outlined in a section of the leaked document titled, “Mali, Russia, Turkey: Vagner seeks weapons from Ankara,” suggest US officials believe the Russian mercenary outfit has at least tested the waters.
According to the leaked document, Wagner also planned to use the weapons and equipment from Turkey in Mali, where the group maintains a significant presence.
Not only does the document reference intelligence about Wagner seeking to purchase weapons from Turkey, it also states that the paramilitary group planned to resume recruitment of prisoners from Russia’s jails.
CNN has not independently confirmed the veracity of the document, but US officials have indicated that most of the leaked tranche are authentic. A State Department spokesperson said the “the Department of Defense and the intelligence community are actively reviewing and assessing the validity” of the leaked documents, adding “we are not in a position to confirm or comment on any specific information they contain.”
CNN has reached out to the US National Security Council, the office of the Turkish president and Turkey’s Embassy in Washington for comment on the document.
Turkey’s unique relationship with Russia
US officials have long grappled with the complicated reality of Turkey’s unique relationship with Moscow compared to that of other NATO members despite all being part of the same alliance designed to protect bordering nations from the potential threat of Russian expansion.
The Turkish government has expressed its opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, unlike many NATO allies, it has maintained close ties to the government in Moscow.
At times, the Turkish government has used those ties to push the Russian government to end the war, including last week, when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavasoglu met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Ankara.
The Turkish government served as one of the brokers of a deal to allow Ukrainian grain to transit safely through the Black Sea without Russian threat.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has previously positioned himself as a broker in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In January, Erdogan held separate calls with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
He told Zelensky that Turkey was ready to undertake a mediator and facilitator role for lasting peace between the countries and that it could facilitate diplomatic efforts regarding the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, a Turkish government readout of the call said.
In his call with Putin, Erdogan told him that calls for peace and negotiations should be supported by a unilateral declaration of ceasefire and a vision of “a fair solution.”
Putin, however, told Erdogan that Moscow is open to “serious dialogue,” but Kyiv must accept the “new territorial realities,” according to a Kremlin statement.
Representatives from the Wagner Group appear to have met with their Turkish contacts just one month after Erdogan’s calls with Putin and Zelensky took place, according to the leaked Pentagon document.
CIA Director Bill Burns said on Tuesday that his intelligence agency assesses that Putin is “not serious about negotiations at this stage” of the war in Ukraine and it is “Ukrainian progress on the battlefield that is most likely to shape prospects for diplomacy” to end the ongoing conflict.
Speaking publicly for the first time since leaked classified US military documents appeared online – including assessments that cast a pessimistic viewpoint about the state of the war and predict a stalemate for the foreseeable future – Burns stressed the importance Ukraine’s planned offensive, saying “a great deal is at stake in the coming months.”
Another document obtained by CNN cites signals intelligence that Turkish companies were aiding in sanctions evasion for another key Putin ally: Belarus.
The US has sought to crack down on such efforts to evade sanctions, even by companies based in US-allied countries. On Wednesday, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions of two Turkish companies which it said are supporting Russia’s military industrial complex in defiance of existing sanctions.