Mer­ce­nar­ies & Their Masters

Moscow con­sid­ers for­mal­iz­ing its re­la­tion­ship with sol­diers of for­tune

The Moscow Times - - LOOKING FORWARD - By Matthew Bod­ner m.bod­ner@ime­dia.ru1 | Twit­ter: @mattb0401

In Spring 2013, Rus­sia’s first foray into the murky world of pri­vate mil­i­tary con­trac­tors didn’t go en­tirely ac­cord­ing to plan. The group of pri­vate sol­diers, called “Slavonic Corps,” found them­selves in the mid­dle of the Syr­ian desert. Poorly equipped, they re­lied on old Kalash­nikovs, an­cient Soviet tanks and ar­mored ve­hi­cles that hardly worked. Pre­dictably enough, the group were am­bushed in their first and only en­counter with the Is­lamic State (a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion banned in Rus­sia), re­sult­ing in six deaths.

Part of the group man­aged to es­cape un­der the cover of a sand­storm. But when they re­turned home, rather than be­ing greeted as he­roes, they were ar­rested for vi­o­lat­ing Rus­sian laws, which strictly for­bid mer­ce­nary com­pa­nies.

On Oct. 14, 2016, more than three years later af­ter the first pri­vate op­er­a­tions, the Rus­sian govern­ment in­di­cated it may be about to re­visit its anti-mer­ce­nary laws, and for­mal­ize its cur­rent re­la­tion­ships with mer­ce­nary com­pa­nies. Un­der new pro­pos­als sent to the State Duma par­lia­ment, the De­fense Min­istry would be al­lowed of­fer short-term con­tracts for spe­cific mis­sions.

Un­der The Radar

Rus­sian mer­ce­nar­ies have re­port­edly per­formed key mil­i­tary tasks in both eastern Ukraine and Syria. One of the cen­tral fig­ures in such pri­vate armies is a 46-year-old former spe­cial forces lieu­tenant colonel by the name of Dmitry Utkin.

Once a mem­ber of the now-de­funct Slavonic Corps, Utkin’s cur­rent out­fit is known as Wag­ner, and is reg­is­tered as a pri­vate mil­i­tary com­pany in Ar­gentina. Op­er­at­ing out­side Rus­sian law, which con­tin­ues to out­law such com­pa­nies, the group is be­lieved to have as many as 1,000 men fight­ing in its ranks.

It re­port­edly trains in Molkino, in Rus­sia’s south­ern Krasnodar re­gion, along­side a base be­long­ing to Rus­sia’s 10th spe­cial forces brigade. Wag­ner sol­diers are be­lieved to have taken part in op­er­a­tions across the border in eastern Ukraine. But it is in Syr­ian op­er­a­tions that the group has come into its own. Of­fi­cially, Rus­sian sol­diers are not in­volved in ground fight­ing in Syria. Un­of­fi­cially, the Wag­ner group has played a key role. The group has re­port­edly suf­fered any­where from dozens to 500 ca­su­al­ties.

But be­cause they fight un­der the radar, and have no for­mal re­la­tion­ship with the state, they ex­ist in a le­gal gray zone. They will re­ceive none of the ben­e­fits or glory, re­served for sol­diers in for­mal ser­vice.

“No one will ever find out about them,” a Wag­ner sol­dier, in­tro­duced by Dmitry (not his real name) told Sky News in an Au­gust 2016 re­port, “that is the scari­est thing. No one will ever know.”

A Chang­ing Re­la­tion­ship

The pro­posed amend­ments ap­pear aimed at pro­vid­ing a stop­gap mea­sure to ad­dress the needs of mer­ce­nary sol­diers, says in­ter­na­tional af­fairs ex­pert Vladimir Frolov. “This is about turn­ing pri­vate con­trac­tors into ac­tive duty sol­diers, about al­low­ing those killed or wounded in ac­tion to get the ben­e­fits they were promised. It also gives the De­fense Min­istry more flexibility in hir­ing peo­ple for short-term de­ploy­ments over­seas.” But oth­ers doubt this is only about mer­ce­nary forces. Rus­lan Le­viev, head of Con­flict In­tel­li­gence Team (CIT), a Rus­sian open-source in­ves­tiga­tive out­fit fol­low­ing Rus­sian sol­diers in Syria, says the changes may in­stead have come about from the need to ro­tate Rus­sian sol­diers in and out of Syria.

“You can’t send con­scripts to Syria, so they need a law to turn con­scripts into con­tract [vol­un­teer] sol­diers,” Le­viev says.

Vadim Kozyulin, a mil­i­tary ex­pert at the Moscow-based PIR Cen­ter, be­lieves the move is mostly aimed at former sol­diers who al­ready have mil­i­tary train­ing and com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence. These are sol­diers that may not be in­ter­ested in vol­un­teer­ing for an­other three-year ser­vice stint, but might en­joy an­other mis­sion or two in a pa­tri­otic war some­where.

“I think many retired Rus­sian mil­i­tary per­son­nel are not will­ing to re-join the army, but would be ready to have a brief and well-paid va­ca­tion abroad,” Kozyulin says. “They don’t want ser­vice at a re­mote base some­where, but would be happy to join a real a thrilling mis­sion that could bol­ster the fam­ily fi­nances.”

It would make lit­tle sense for the Rus­sian govern­ment to have any­one other than former sol­diers in mind when draw­ing up short-term con­tracts. The main rea­son three-year vol­un­teer ser­vice was im­ple­mented was to ad­dress the fact that most Rus­sian sol­diers are con­scripts on year-long stints in the mil­i­tary. By the time they are trained to do any­thing use­ful, they are al­ready near the end of their ser­vice.

As things cur­rently stand, short-term con­tracts can be of­fered to Rus­sian ci­ti­zens in the event of emer­gency sit­u­a­tions, such as nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, loss of con­sti­tu­tional order, or in­ter­na­tional peace­keep­ing op­er­a­tions. They also can­not be for periods of less than six months. The amend­ment would axe that min­i­mum re­quire­ment, and also de­fine emer­gency sit­u­a­tions as bat­tling ter­ror­ism.

Ac­cord­ing to the word­ing of the doc­u­ment, the moves are de­signed to “in­crease the mo­bil­ity of Rus­sian troops.” What­ever the real ambition is, the out­ward message seems quite clear: Rus­sia has ac­quired the taste of fight­ing abroad and is not con­sid­er­ing stop­ping any time soon.

Ex­perts say the changes may have come about from the need to ro­tate Rus­sian sol­diers in and out of Syria.

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