Pri­vate and armed:

Why the Krem­lin needs pri­vate mil­i­tary com­pa­nies

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Yuriy La­payev

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...

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.

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.

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