Australian SAS soldiers in Russian PR stunt for Wagner Group

A pair of Australian elite SAS soldiers stand with their service weapons and an imposing military dog in front of a US Black Hawk helicopter in the mountainous Uruzgan province in Afghanistan.

Behind the lens, US military photographer Gagan Dhiman instructs the pilot in the chopper to manoeuvre it into position.

The image, captured in 2013, is “bad a**,” Dhiman tells from his home in Sacramento.

He says it was taken at the request of the Aussies.

“It was a way to capture two heroes,” he says. “It was a small token – something that I could do. Because they were the ones doing all the hard work.”

But unknown to Dhiman, the photograph would take on a life of its own.

Initially, it was simply shared on the photographer’s social media.

But within years it resurfaced on Russian military forums. Then, in February, after Russia invaded Ukraine, it was plastered all over billboards and posters on power poles in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

Russian paramilitary organisation Wagner Group, whose boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is wanted by the FBI, had co-opted the image for its propaganda war.

Posters and billboards featuring the image included the words: “Homeland. Honour. Courage.”

Dhiman says the two soldiers in the photograph contacted him recently to say “how crazy it is” that Russia is using an image of Australians to recruit soldiers to a war condemned by the Western world.

“It’s really mind-boggling,” Dhiman says. “It feels surreal the way that images are being used.”

He says he found out about the Wagner Group ads when a journalist contacted him a few months ago.

“It was just really strange to see my photograph on a billboard in Russia. It was very frustrating for many reasons. One, it’s my intellectual property that is being abused. And so yeah, it’s really strange.

“I think what upsets me the most is to see how the image is being used. And me knowing how amazing these two soldiers are. That upsets me more than the fact that it’s being used the way it’s being used.”

On Wednesday, the EU officially called Russia a “state sponsor” of terrorism over its actions in Ukraine, but the move was denounced by Prigozhin.

“Today I held a meeting of the commanders of the Wagner PMC and told them this sad news.

“I don’t know what law governs the European parliament, but according to our legislation, from today we declare the European parliament dissolved.

“But before this procedure takes legal effect, I am entrusted to submit an information case to the European parliament. If you have their contact, I suggest that we do it together – prepare and send it.”

The Wagner Group’s motto is: “Death is our business and business is good.”

Pictures in April showed Wagner Group soldiers outside the Park Inn hotel in Donetsk carrying an AK-15 assault rifle preferred by Russian special forces.

One soldier had a patch on his right sleeve that carried the grinning skull insignia of the Wagner Group.

At the time, the UK’s Ministry of Defence said in a tweet: “Russia’s private military company the Wagner Group has been deployed to eastern Ukraine.

“They are expected to deploy more than 1000 mercenaries, including senior leaders of the organisation, to undertake combat operations.”

While members of the Wagner Group are being ordered to carry out military operations against Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, one ex-member has called the war a mistake.

Speaking to The Guardian in the lead-up to the invasion in February this year, former mercenary Marat Gabidullin said Russia denies the Wagner Group exists – but it shouldn’t.

“Mercenary groups are nothing to be ashamed of, they exist everywhere, but we lie about them,” he said. “We have specialised skills that a normal army lacks.”

On the mission in Ukraine, he was blunt.

“I believe that war between Ukraine and Russia will be a complete disaster for Russia. Under no circumstances should this be allowed. Ukraine is our brother.”

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