Believe It or Not, Russia Dislikes Relying on Military Contractors
But a law under consideration could usher in a new era of Russian private military companies
On Jan. 28, the Duma began discussing the possibility of legalizing private military companies in Russia. The law, which counts influential vice prime minister Dmitry Rogozin as a supporter, has one major goal — to ensure that Iraqi oil fields where Russian firms Rosneft and Gazprom operate no longer come under the protection of British or American security companies.
Back in April 2012, Russian president Vladimir Putin pointed out the need for Russia to pass contractor-friendly legislation. Putin praised private military companies as “instruments to further national interests without the direct involvement of the government.”
The center-left A Just Russia Party proposed a draft of the PMC bill in November 2014, but the Duma defense committee rejected it. Members of parliament returned with a revised text in December 2014, which the committee again turned down, deeming it “inarticulate,” “useless” and “irrelevant.” The FSB security agency and the Ministry of Defense both voiced concern of one day seeing “tens of thousands of uncontrollable Rambos turning their weapons against the government.”
It seemed Russian authorities had not forgotten the chaotic 1990s, a time when countless unpaid military officers sold their services to the highest bidder.
There are also deeper concerns. Most Russians are skeptical of military outsourcing. Only a few months after Putin’s speech in favor of PMCs, the Russian president dismissed Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov for his involvement in an outsourcing scandal. Serdyukov’s successor Sergey Shoygu reversed his predecessors decisions, bringing back into the military some functions that Serdyukov had contracted out to private companies.
Nevertheless, despite the legal vacuum numerous PMCs do exist in Russia. Although the Russian criminal code bans mercenary activities, the law’s wording is sufficiently vague that some private security firms have managed to survive.
RSB Group, arguably the most important Russian PMC, offers a wide array of services, from the protection of oil and gas installations and airports, to the provision of escorts for convoys in conflict zones or cargo vessels in piracy-stricken waters.
Besides this, RSB also provides mine-clearing services, military training, intelligence and analysis. Moran Security Group, another first-rate Russian PMC, offers teams for hostage-rescue and cargo-retrieval.
Iraq, a virtual playground for Western PMCs, is also a destination for Russian security firms. In 2005, a company calling itself Tigr Top Rent began offering protection missions. Following Tigr’s disbandment in 2006, many of its former employees each set up their own firms. This allowed them to export their talents to Afghanistan and Syria and also to Africa, where they have been successfully defending cargo along the coast of Somalia and Guinea.
More recently it appears the firm Redut-Antiterror has been running consulting missions in Iraqi Kurdistan. And other firms with no clear legal identity have gained a reputation for murky dealings with the Russian army.
In eastern Ukraine in 2015, several local separatist warlords died violently in apparent assassinations. The deaths ensured the unquestioned authority of Igor Plotnitski, the Kremlin’s strongman in the region. Interviewed by the author, numerous separatists point to a single culprit — the TchVK (that’s Russian for “private military company”) Wagner, a band of Russian contractors who allegedly also took part in the battle of Debaltseve in February 2015.
The TchVK Wagner saga does not end in the Donbass region. On Dec. 18, 2015, The Wall Street Journal revealed that at least nine contractors, allegedly members of this armed group, died in western Syria. Russian authorities did not confirm this incident. However, the deaths could be yet another indication of how Russia is using contractors to avoid media and diplomatic outcry that the deaths of Russian soldiers abroad could potentially cause.
And that was not the first time Russian contractors had been mentioned in connection with Syria. In the autumn of 2013, the Slavonic Corps, 267 men strong, traveled to Syria to help defend an oil installation in the sector of Homs. The contractors reportedly believed they would be working for the Syrian government in a static security capacity. However, once on the ground, they were told by their actual employers — private citizens, reportedly — that they must recapture the installation from the Islamists who had seized it.
Badly equipped and misinformed, the contractors decided to return to Russia.
Upon their return, the FSB denied having ever heard of their case. And for the first time, the agency arrested Russian citizens on the charge of undertaking mercenary activities. The trial revealed how managers of a PMC called Moran Security organized the recruitment of the Slavonic Corps.
It now seems the TchVK Wagner is building on the Slavonic Corps’ misfortune. Indeed, many members of this mysterious organization, as well as its leader — a former major in the Spetsnaz and ex-employee of Moran Security — were also members of the luckless 2013 expedition in Syria. According to the journalist Denis Korotkov, author of numerous articles on the TchKV Wagner, these contractors are active in Syria and entertain “close links with the Russian army.”
“TchVK Wagner is not a PMC, but a paramilitary organization with no official status,” Korotkov insists. “It is obvious that this task force could not exist without serious support from high-ranking government officials.”
Oleg Krinitsyn, head of the Russian PMC RSB Group, says he agrees with that assessment.
According to Korotkov, neither Moran Security nor RSB Group are active in eastern Ukraine — and this for legal reasons and in order to preserve their contracts abroad. Furthermore it seems the Russian army in Syria does not make use of these two PMCs. For sure, these companies do employ droves of former FSB agents, and one can easily imagine that they offer piecemeal services to the Russian state while on duty abroad, especially in Africa.
However, despite all the fears, it seems an exaggeration to consider Russian PMCs as important tools of Moscow’s hybrid proxy wars. Could the establishment of a legal framework for the development of PMCs change that? Maybe. But one wonders if Moscow is really serious about this law.
Rivalries within the establishment appear to be one of the law’s main hurdles. Krinitsyn of the RSB Group says that the Ministry of Defense and the FSB cannot agree on which government entity should be responsible for PMCs if they were legal. It’s a vital question for these two government bodies as they perpetually vie for influence.
But what if Moscow’s best interest lay in maintaining a hazy legal shroud over the situation? According to Philippe Chapleau, a French journalist and author of numerous works on PMCs, the present situation is favorable to small operations similar to TchVK Wagner. “Small structures are more prone to small-scale illegal warfare, as they have nothing to lose,” he says. “A legal structure with a wide client base risks a lot more.”
Case in point — Moran Security was desperate for revenue when it engaged in its reckless Slavonic Corps expedition.
For now, the potential PMC law would only allow private security firms to operate abroad, and not inside Russia. Nevertheless the budgetary situation, the growing interest of Russian experts in soft-power tools and the Kremlin’s desire to modernize may propel a new push for military outsourcing.
To allow this, Moscow must first move past the idea that PMCs are useful only as pawns in shadowy proxy wars.
In fact, Russia already has perfectly suitable pawns — and need not legalize private military companies to staff its shadowy foreign forays. “History has shown it is far more simple to use ‘volunteers’ in order to resolve problems abroad,” Krinitsyn says. “It is always possible to disown them.”