Russian expert Vladimir Neelov, 28, who has written extensively about Russian private military contractors, including Wagner, has been arrested. He was accused of treason, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison under Russia’s Criminal Code.
He is the third military expert arrested in Russia since the beginning of the summer.
Neelov was detained in St. Petersburg when he left his office for lunch on October 25. He was then taken to the local Federal Security Service (FSB) office and later transferred to Moscow, where on October 26 he was placed in Lefortovo prison where he will be remanded for two months.
On the day he was detained, FSB officers searched his parents’ apartment.
“It was seven o’clock in the evening, my husband and I were having dinner,” Neelov’s mother Marina Belogolovtseva recalled.
“You can say they broke in, all in black. They said they had a search warrant. I asked: ‘What are you looking for?’ They replied: ‘You will find out later.’ Well, I told them: ‘Search, maybe you can find gold and diamonds.'”
“Then I learned about the detention of my son. This is absurd, he was brought up in a different way, he has no one to take after in being a spy.”
Neelov’s case has reportedly been labeled “secret.” According to authorities, he passed abroad information deemed a state secret.
An Interfax agency source claimed that Neelov did not admit guilt.
“Initially, when he was interrogated, he did not admit guilt and did not understand at all why he was accused of high treason,” the source said.
“Oprichniks shackled my friend just because he did his job. Vladimir Neelov is a publicist, not a criminal,” Timur Groshev wrote on Facebook, using the term given to members of the Oprichnina, the personal force of Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible.
Iulia Rybakova, another friend of Neelov’s, described the arrest as “some kind of madness.”
“My classmate, Vladimir Neelov, was arrested. I would rather believe that Petersburg was founded by aliens than this accusation. We categorically disagree with him on most ideological issues, argued repeatedly until blue in the face. It is a fact that Neelov and treason are two incompatible things,” she wrote in a social media post.
“Either this is a mistake, or someone for some reason decided to settle accounts with him. Why is that whenever the abbreviation ‘PMCs’ pops up, immediately some kind of darkness descends? Let’s hope that everything will be okay and Volodya will be released.”
Who is Vladimir Neelov?
Neelov is married to a woman from Crimea. She gave birth there in 2016, and the couple later returned to St. Petersburg.
The expert graduated from the Faculty of International Relations at St. Petersburg State University. He also took a course on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament at the Central Institute for Advanced Studies “Rosatom.”
Neelov specializes in the features of modern warfare, private military contractors, military doctrine and strategy. He has written several papers on strategic research and military-political analysis.
Some of his articles were devoted to PMC Wagner. Novaya Gazeta reported that Neelov published several papers in collaboration with a Wagner sapper, who wrote under the pseudonym Oleg Valetsky.
PMC Wager is a Russian paramilitary organization reportedly founded by former foreign military intelligence agency (GRU) officer Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Utkin. However, there is no definitive information available on its structure.
According to media reports, Wagner is controlled by Evgeny Prigozhin, whose nickname is “Putin’s Cook” because one of his companies provided food services to the Kremlin.
The company’s operations in Syria came under the spotlight in February, when over 200 PMC Wagner personnel were killed by the U.S.-led Coalition against Islamic State and Syrian Democratic Forces in Deir Ezzor.
Apart from his focus on PMCs, Neelov has also been tracking conflicts in Ukraine, Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia.
“I have long been planning to move away from the topic of PMCs and focus on other, more important and global issues, but [I keep] returning to the ‘mercenaries’ time after time,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
Neelov authored articles for the Center for Strategic Conjuncture. The center declined to comment on the case, and after Neelov’s arrest, its website shut down, even though it was functioning normally the day before.
The expert also wrote for Russian online newspaper Vzglyad, but in the aftermath of his arrest his articles were deleted.
In addition, Neelov is listed as a team member of the Russian Center for Strategic Assessment and Forecasts. The head of the center, Sergey Grinyaev, told The Defense Post that he learned of the arrest from media reports, and added that he didn’t know Neelov personally.
Neelov provided comments to a number of news outlets, including state-sponsored ones, such as Sputnik.
According to Fontanka, he lectured on PMCs abroad at the invitation of foreign non-governmental organizations.
Human rights activists want to visit Neelov in the detention center, “because there are fears that not everything is well with him,” Moscow’s deputy head of the Public Observation Commission Eva Merkacheva told RIA Novosti.
She noted, however, that she did not know what exactly could have happened. According to her, on November 2, representatives of the POC unsuccessfully tried to visit Neelov in Lefortovo.
POC member Evgeny Enikeev wrote in a Facebook post on November 7 that Neelov refused a private lawyer his wife hired for him, saying that the lawyer provided by the state would be enough.
“It looked suspicious. After I started telling Vladimir that a state lawyer might not always strive to defend the interests of his client, our conversation was interrupted,” Enikeev wrote.
“Because of this, I did not have time to ask about the reasons for such a decision, in particular, whether there was pressure from the investigator or SIZO’s [remand prison] officers. In the termination of the conversation, I see pressure on the members of the POC and on Vladimir Neelov from the staff of SIZO-2.”