Mercenaries & Their Masters
Moscow considers formalizing its relationship with soldiers of fortune
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.