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20 September, 2017  ▪  Yuriy Lapayev

Private and armed

Why the Kremlin needs private military companies

All wars that humanity has ever conducted and conducts have one common feature. There is no war without deaths. The victims are always a tragedy for their relatives. On the other hand, they are only inconvenient statistics for the country participating in combat, however cynical that sounds. It is inconvenient for politicians, because information about fallen sons of the Fatherland spoils their ratings and encourages voters to ask "awkward" questions. This problem is especially acute when a country is not officially participating in armed conflict.

However, it is possible to find a way out of even such a difficult situation. The Russian authorities have solved this issue by creating numerous illegal entities – so-called private military companies (PMCs). They are controlled by the security forces, primarily the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) and Russian Ministry of Defence. Although these groups are formally illegal, their activities are rather well regulated and have been developing successfully. In 2012, the Russian State Duma made several attempts to adopt relevant legal acts that would introduce standards for PMCs, but so far the bills have been rejected because of their incompatibility with the Russian Constitution. However, this does not prevent these companies from operating: at least ten Russian PMCs are known today, among which the most active are Centre R, E.N.O.T. Corp, MAR and the Wagner Group.

The first analogues of PMCs emerged in Russia immediately after the collapse of the USSR. This was facilitated by the large number of retired servicemen and KGB agents with experience of conducting operations in other countries that were unable to find themselves in ordinary civilian life. Two wars in Chechnya only added to this "talent pool". Some of them joined criminal gangs and stood behind the famous "wild '90s". The participation of such Russian mercenaries in various conflicts is rather well known. Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ossetia, Tajikistan, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Georgia, and then the Ukrainian Crimea, Donbas and Syria...

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In creating their own PMCs, Russia copied steps taken by the United States. The USA had similar reasons – many veterans of all possible military conflicts could not see themselves leading a peaceful life. In addition, the US Army, or rather its most trained units, was literally scattered between Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. This led to special-forces soldiers not having enough time to rest between missions, which adversely affected their combat capabilities. Therefore, some missions that did not involve state secrets were assigned to PMCs. In general, the use of external civilian contractors in the military sphere (logistics, catering, research and development, etc.) is one of the priority lines of development for the modern US Army. The responsibilities of PMCs mainly include security work (for example, guarding critical infrastructure, government agencies and important persons) and training personnel (law enforcement officers in Iraq and Afghanistan). For mercenaries, this is a good opportunity to earn, since fees start at $850 per day (Iraq) and range to around $1,200 (Afghanistan). The main customers of their services are government structures, although they are trying to keep a low profile after a series of scandals with the infamous company Blackwater in Iraq. At that time, the PMC was accused of murdering civilians, arms smuggling and coming into conflict with the regular army. However, after a series of reforms and reorganisations, the company is continuing its operations, but now under the name of Academi.

The situation with Russian private companies is slightly different. It is hard to imagine that in today's Russia, which is full of special services and law enforcement agencies, it is possible to freely create a paramilitary organisation, arm its members, conduct special tactical training and then transport these combatants across borders. There are many things that confirm the presence of state administration. The main proof is their available weaponry. Illegally possessed military designs of small arms, automatic weapons and sniper rifles in such quantities must come from somewhere. According to intelligence from open sources, in addition to light weapons, the PMCs also have grenade launchers, mortars, portable anti-aircraft missile systems and even armoured vehicles (one of the fighters killed in Syria was the gunner in an infantry fighting vehicle). More evidence comes from the trips in military aircraft and medical treatment in state-run hospitals. This is too much for those the units that do not officially exist. Too much state participation in what should supposedly be private.

One of the most well-known companies associated with the Kremlin is the Wagner Group, named after the nom-de-guerre of its founder and commander Dmitry Utkin. Lieutenant colonel in the reserve, he served as commander of the 700th Separate Special Operations Detachment and after his discharge worked in the Russian PMC Moran Security Group (officially a security firm specialising in protecting ships from pirates). Subsequently, he was in the Slavonic Corps, a company that recruited and sent mercenaries to Syria and had an office in St. Petersburg, but was registered in Hong Kong. The future fighters were offered a monthly salary of $ 4,000 for allegedly protecting an energy facility. In fact, they were deployed as cannon fodder to assault the city of Deir ez-Zor, which houses one of the Syrian centres of the oil industry. The only military operation of this group ended with defeat against Syrian opposition forces, retreat from the battlefield and simple fraud. None of the mercenaries received any money for their "business trip". Instead, at home the cheated soldiers were met with FSB interrogations and accusations. After the failure of the Slavonic Corps, in 2014 Utkin founded his own company, whose number of militants, according to various sources, ranges from 700 to 2,500. The Wagner Group is currently subordinated to the firm Euro Polis, with which Syria signed a contract for the protection of oil facilities. It was reported that the remuneration for these services is a quarter of what is made from the extraction of gas and oil. In turn, Euro Polis belongs to the well-known Russian oligarch Evgeniy Prigozhin, Vladimir Putin's favourite restaurateur and friend.

According to investigations by journalists from the Russian website Fontanka and a number of Western media outlets, recruitment and preparation of militants for the Wagner Group takes place almost openly near the village of Molkino, Krasnodar Territory. The exact same settlement is home to the base of the 10th Separate Special Forces Brigade of the GRU military intelligence service, which has already been spotted in both Georgia and the Donbas. In social media anyone who shows interest is openly advised to come to the checkpoint of the base and ask about joining the PMC. According to Russian journalists, the number of applicants significantly exceeds the number of vacancies, so there is always a queue outside. Since 2017, Ukrainians from the occupied territories have been recruited as well – there is a separate unit named Vesna [Spring] with up to 150 people. This popularity is due to the attractive financial remuneration promised by the PMC.

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However, these mercenaries get more than money. In December 2016, the leaders of this military company were noticed in photo reports from ceremonial events dedicated to Heroes of the Fatherland organised by the Russian president. A feature of the reception was that all guests should have the Hero of Russia or Order of Courage awards. Wagner himself can be seen in the photos next to Putin. The president's press secretary Dmitry Peskov later confirmed his presence at the ceremonies, while not answering a question about the participation of PMC militants in the Syrian hostilities. An interesting detail is that there are no decrees from the President of the Russian Federation awarding state military orders to PMC mercenaries (including posthumously) on the government web portal. Similarly to how there is no official information about where exactly and why Russian mercenaries are dying. Meanwhile, this information comes up in news regularly. The largest number of deaths coincides with the timing of large battles in the Donbas and Syria. Deaths of militants who first fought in the units of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People’s Republic" have repeatedly been recorded in the latter country. A fresh example is Vyacheslav Metalidi, a native of Murmansk region and militant in the Sparta unit from 2014, who was killed in Syria at the end of August 2017. The exact number of dead and wounded mercenaries is unknown, but for such companies it is relatively large. This is probably due to the use of PMC militants at most active parts of the front, in order to reduce losses among official military personnel. Such a tactic was adhered to by Russian units during the assault of Debaltseve in Donetsk Oblast, which was often written about on social networks by participants on the side of "DPR" illegal armed formations.

PMCs are a rather important element of Russian hybrid warfare, and the support provided to them by state authorities calls into question the private status of these companies. The use of mercenaries allows the Kremlin to solve several problems at once. The first (most characteristic for Syria) is minimising losses in the regular army, because in the event of death or injury to soldiers, the law provides for compensation and benefits, while their families must be given official explanations on what caused the death. Plus, this reduces negative reactions from various human rights organisations like the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. Another important factor is the opportunity to use militants covertly, in order to deny the official participation of the Russian Federation in the conflict at any time, as is done in the Donbas. In some cases, PMC members are brought in to cover up Special Operations Forces or GRU missions. There is also a certain political subtext. Many mercenaries have not only combat, but also criminal experience, and some of them belong to radical nationalist movements. Therefore, PMCs are in some way used to isolate and "dispose of" people with dangerous skills and experience that pose a potential threat to Russian society and the Kremlin. Perhaps this was the real reason that Utkin-Wagner was given an award.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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