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Sergey Sukhankin
Apr 11 2024

Contrary to many Western and Russian proponents of a peaceful settlement of the Ukrainian conflict – naturally, accompanied by Ukraine`s recognition of its territorial losses but, as argued by these experts, pacifying Moscow – this outcome would not seriously change Russia`s use of mercenaries and paramilitary groups in pursuit of its geopolitical objectives. On the contrary, Russia will continue violating international laws by employing mercenary formations to achieve its geopolitical objectives abroad. It is important to recognize that Russia`s mercenary industry did not become a derivative of the post-February 2022 events, yet it is a long-term phenomenon whose development was merely accelerated by Russia`s war of aggression against Ukraine. In this article, Dr. Sergey Sukhankin, a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation (Washington DC) and Fellow at North American and Arctic Defence and Security Network (NAADSN) explores the roots and current composition of Russia`s mercenary industry. The piece centres on the question of why certain (quite powerful) forces within Russian society are not interested in changing or dramatically altering the mercenary industry in its current form.



Setting context

At some point in their history, virtually all states have employed private military contractors (or mercenaries) to achieve certain objectives. Russia is not an exception: for instance, until its very last days of existence the Soviet Union heavily relied on its army of the so-called “military advisors” – Soviet military personnel without insignia operating aboard – in confronting the US and its allies in conflicts that erupted in Asia, Africa, and Latina America as a part of the decolonization process. In post-1991 Russia the use of guns for hire took a different turn – being primarily translated into the creation of “private armies” and represented a hybrid between bandit gangs and Private Security Companies (PSCs) – given the relative weakness of the state and centrifugal processes Russia had to go through within this interim. Russian military-political leadership started to articulate interest in the creation of Private Military Companies (PMCs) – albeit erroneously referring to “Western experience” (where private military and security companies have not been used for combat for a long time) – that should have been delegated some of the non-combat functions performed by armed forces. Things, however, took a very different turn. Russia never adopted a contemporary Western approach to PMCSs. A hybrid that emerged follows no currently existing analogue(s) – neither in the West (PMSCs) nor in the East (such as Chinese PSCs) – resembling, perhaps, to some extent mercenary armies of the late Middle Ages and Late Modern period coupled with some elements of Contemporary history drawing on both Western and the Soviet experiences on non-linear warfare. 

While it is obvious that Russia`s mercenary industry is not to disappear in the near future – quite contrary, it should be expected to grow and develop further, based on currently observable trends – the direction it takes is not fully clear since this will depend on a great number of factors and variables.

The ticking bomb: how Putin let a dangerous genie out of the bottle.

Vladimir Putin did not invent Russian mercenarism – as noted before, guns for hire (in different forms and guises) have been an integral part of Russian history for a very long time – instead, he gave a powerful impetus to transforming it from narrow-niche and almost invisible occurrence into a nation-wide phenomenon that is now shaping various sides of life in Russia and whose implications will continue haunting Russia for decades to come. 

Being initially designed to perform unsavoury covert missions abroad for the Russian state without its direct participation (so-called plausible deniability) – that is how the Wagner Group emerged and that is precisely why it became so deeply integrated into Russia`s covert operations in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic/CAR, Sudan, Mozambique, just to name a few – after Russia`s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 mercenaries became an integral part of Russia`s official armed forces rapidly transitioning into their occasional replacement and, later, into a force with notable ambitions. Consequently, a combination of various factors – ranging from personal ambition and growing realization, undoubtedly erroneous, of their indispensability to the regime in its war against Ukraine – a part of Wagner’s leadership entered into a direct conflict with the Russian state and the Ministry of Defence /MOD. Having realized his own mistake, Putin tried to rectify it by physically eliminating the formal head of the group (Yevgeny Prigozhin) and his close associate (Dmitry Utkin) soon after Prigozhin`s unsuccessful mutiny in the summer of 2023. The liquidation of part of Wagner`s leadership and the ensuing drastic weakening of the group itself through its direct subordination to the MOD and Rosgvardiya did not result in the decimation of the Russian mercenary industry as such. In effect, Russia`s mercenary milieu has been flourishing albeit with an impression of unconditional subordination to the state. 

The truth is that the Kremlin`s decision to use mercenary formations on an unprecedentedly large scale as an overt tool of violence directly associated with the state has given full legitimacy to mercenarism and popularized this highly dangerous phenomenon. With the general level of violence and radicalism in Russian society skyrocketing after 2022 – with murders and political assassinations becoming a norm and rules and customs of the criminal world (so-called poniatiya) becoming (once again) a commonplace, whereas new generation of young Russians being brought up specifically for war and in the atmosphere of absolute hatred to the rest of the world – it would be fair to argue that Putin has created a very dangerous precedent in terms of the use of violence.

Tough reality: Russian society and an inexhaustible source of mercenaries.   

Russia`s large-scale aggression against Ukraine proved one very important point: Russian society – traditionally docile and very poor by Western standards – has enthusiastically embraced the idea of willingly exchanging lives for comparatively meagre financial compensation as demonstrated by the fact that 30,000 young and able-bodied men are willing to go and die or become mutilated for under $2,000 per month.  Russian ruling elites have received solid evidence that the price of human life in Russia is still very inexpensive and there is a visible surplice of those who, without much hesitation, will eagerly join Russian armed forces or paramilitary structures in pursuit of easy money. On top of that, growing economic pressure resulting from sanctions (though flawed but still hurting Russia) and worsening living standards – especially in areas traditionally characterized by sluggish economic growth, unemployment, and social malaise – mean that the flow of new recruits is unlikely to easily exhaust. 

At this juncture, it makes sense to mention that in Russian society there are at least three different groups either strategically interested in the existence of or being direct participants in the mercenary industry, which almost guarantees that new recruits will be joining the industry en mass and on a permanent basis. 

First, Russia`s criminal world. The abominable legacy of the Main Directorate of Correctional Labour Camps (GULAG) – the system of concentration camps where several generations of inmates were subjected to inhumane treatment, slave labour and physical/psychological abuse over several decades – cultivated the romanticism of criminal life and permeated Russian society with customs and traditions of the criminal world. No surprise, both Prigozhin – when in need to fill his Wagner Group with new “cannon fodder” in early 2023 – and Russian authorities searching for stormtroopers (so-called Storm-Z PMC that became Wagner`s competitor) massively resorted to the same source, members of the criminal world. Apparently, now, after the Russian state regained full monopoly on the recruitment of convicts from prisons – likely, done in close collaboration with authorities of Russia`s criminal underground world – the use of individuals with criminal past (or currently serving their time in Russia`s penitentiary system) is bound to increase further. In parallel, criminals – including those who have already participated in hostilities in Ukraine – are showcasing notable interest in expanding their role in Russia`s political milieu. At this juncture, it would be worthwhile to mention the case of Alietdin Ali Makhmudov, a criminal from Volgograd who was sentenced to almost 18 years in prison for organizing the assassination of a criminal authority in Volgograd but later pardoned after volunteering to fight in Ukraine. In 2023, Makhmudov was spotted in the Russian State Duma having a meeting with Andrey Lugovoy, a representative of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the suspected murderer of Alexander Litvinenko. 

Second, the Russian state. Once again, it makes sense to reiterate that the Wagner Group as such was created, sponsored, and armed by the Russian state to solve its “delicate missions” abroad. Given that Moscow does not have any interest in finishing its war of aggression against Ukraine, Russia will be in greater need of new soldiers and, given Russia`s method of warfare, “cannon fodder”. This means that new recruits to join both the armed forces and various paramilitary structures will be always welcome. At the same time, sending the most troublesome elements – such as members of Espanola or Storm-Z formations – on the frontline, where their survival rate is quite low, is a guaranteed method of “cleansing” Russian society of troublemakers and least desirable elements under a “noble” pretext. At the same time, Russia is not planning to get rid of its “adventures” in countries of the Global South and especially resource-rich and politically unstable Sub-Saharan Africa. On the contrary, Russia seeks to gain more foothold and expand its presence in this macro-region. Given Russia`s economic weakness and technological un-competitiveness (with some exceptions) the only effective tool Russia could use is its version of security export which is inconceivable without the use of paramilitary formations. To meet this condition Russia would have to rely on combat-hardened, experienced non-linear warfare mercenaries whose strategic value to the Russian state will undoubtedly increase. Ultimately, close ties between former members of the Wagner Group (and to a lesser extent other similar formations) and Rosgvardiya (part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs) – whose role has notably increased following Prigozhin`s mutiny – also points to the fact that (former) members of mercenary formations could be used domestically to quell potential unrest and deal with domestic opposition and opponents. It is also interesting to note that the Russian state (specifically, the MOD) has been using such public companies as MosGaz, Gormost, United Energy Companies (UEC), and Mosvodokanal to find new recruits (de facto mercenaries) to take part in the war against Ukraine. 

Third, the (semi)private sector, which primarily includes large companies/corporations. Multiple investigative reports have argued that such corporations as Rusal, Novatek, PIK Group (Russia’s largest real estate developer), Mospromstroy, Gazprom, Roscosmos, and Russian Railways and other, much smaller business entities have embarked on the process of creation of private armies that take part in hostilities on the territory of Ukraine. While motives prompting business entities are not fully clear – arguably, the key driver might be their preparation for a power struggle (akin to the 1990s) that could erupt if internal destabilization in Russia spreads and large businesses could no longer rely on the state – the process of privatization of force in Russia is clearly underway. In the coming year, one might thus expect new paramilitary formations associated with large businesses to emerge and start operating in Russia, using the Russo-Ukrainian war as a polygon. 

This said, in addition to these three, by far the largest groups, keenly interested in the preservation (at least temporary) of Russia`s mercenary industry, there are also other forces that will continue taking part in it. For instance, members of regional ruling elites are actively using paramilitary forces as a factor of their power projection within specific parts of Russia. Undoubtedly, the best example would be Ramzan Kadyrov and his Kadyrovtsy formation (aka 141st Special Motorized Regiment formally subordinated to the federal centre) and the Akhmat special forces unit (which heavily relies on ethnically Russian recruits) one should also keep in mind various so-called Governors’ Armies that emerged after 2022. While some of them took the form of territorial defence units (in Belgorod, Orel, Pskov Kursk) whose operational strength and combat readiness are questionable, others, such as PMC Konvoy and the Livadia battalion (subordinated to Sergey Aksyonov, the Moscow-appointed head of illegally annexed Crimea) have reportedly achieved a much higher level of professionalism. Aside from the above-mentioned actors – whose primary motive in prompting the existence of the mercenary industry in Russia in its current shape is either influence or economic considerations – there are groups whose participation in the industry is primarily driven by ideological aspects. For instance, such actors as the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) or the Sabotage Assault Reconnaissance Group (DShRG) “Rusich” – both have participated in Russia`s aggression against Ukraine as well as operations in the Middle East since at least 2014 – are mainly motivated by ideological aspects, which makes them potentially very dangerous for, aside from others, Russia`s corrupt incumbent political regime. The danger for the regime posed by paramilitary formations of this type could increase exponentially if Russia`s progress in Ukraine is either very limited or nonexistent. 

In the final analysis, it should be argued that even if the war in Ukraine comes to an end either on a permanent basis or takes the form of hypothetic Minsk-3 accords, changes for Russia`s mercenary milieu will not be significant. Today Russian society has accumulated a thick layer of men (and, quite notably, women) – with criminal pasts, extensive combat experience, debts, and lack of clear future in a war-damaged, economically and prospectively politically unstable country – will not be able to find their place in civilian life. The best example that comes to mind is the so-called Afghantsy (soldiers who participated in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) many of whom, being unable to adjust to civilian routine, ended up in various criminal groups (or formed criminal syndicates of their own) and private armies serving interests of oligarchs and large businesses. Later, some of them would take part in various regional conflicts and Russia`s “foreign adventures” in Syria, Libya, and ultimately Ukraine (both in 2014 and 2022). Most likely, the vicious circle of history for Russia will continue even with the end of the war in Ukraine. Mercenaries are there in Russia to stay for a very long time. 




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