This is the second of a series of articles we will be featuring on Strife in the coming week looking at the role of Proxy Warfare in the 21st century by Series Editor Cheng Lai Ki. Previous articles in the series can be found here.
By: Gregory Wilson
On the eve of the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, it became apparent that Russia was furthering its path towards resurgence. Harshly criticizing Western actions, Russia began a series of interventions, notably in Syria and Ukraine. At home, President Vladimir Putin continues to solidify his rule, dominating elections and polls alike, while Russian nationalism and ultra-nationalism surges. In Europe, Russia has fanned the flames of populist nationalism, heavily supporting right-wing fringe groups in an apparent quest to destabilize Europe’s economic and political unity. Embroiled in a variety of conflicts, it comes as no surprise that Russian private military companies (PMC) have begun to operate not only in Russia, but across the globe. The real question lies in whether or not Russian PMCs will expand in the future, or remain as a sidelined player in Moscow’s arsenal.
In a 2011 address to the State Duma, Putin expressed support for the use of Russian PMCs as a tool for expanding government influence. Despite this admission of support, the legal status of Russian PMCs straddles something of a grey area. Multiple Russian owners of PMCs have addressed these issues in interviews, claiming that Russia inherited their legal system from the Byzantine Empire, thus anything that isn’t explicitly prohibited is allowed. This, however, has not stopped legislators from introducing bills that would fully legalize PMC groups in Russia, particularly of their use for the Russian government. A bill, submitted in 2014 by MP Gennady Nosovko of the Fair Russia party, was recently rejected by the Russian cabinet, citing security and legal issues. While some follow voluntary regulations, PMCs in Russia will remain in the grey zone, neither legal nor prohibited. The future legality of PMCs in Russia is yet still unclear, as the same Nosovko promised future legislation.
Regardless, this legal grey area has not prevented Russian PMCs from advertising their services in Russia and abroad. Overall, the use of PMCs worldwide has been varied. It was not until the 2003 Iraq War that PMCs began to massively grow. On the Russian side, PMCs have largely been confined to operations involving private Russian companies in Africa, the Middle East, and international waterways. The largest of the Russian PMCs, the RSB Group, has a detailed history, boasting operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, the North Caucasus, and Serbia.
The most recent and notable example of Russian PMC operations occurred in Syria, 2013. The PMC group in question was the Slavonic Corps Limited, a Hong Kong registered company led by Director Sergei Kramskoy that primarily employed ex-Russian soldiers. The Slavonic Corps heavily advertised in Russia, coordinated by Vyacheslav Kalashnikov, a lieutenant colonel in the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service) reserves who also happens to be the head of another PMC, the Moran Security Group. The origins of this fighting force in Syria is massively convoluted, bearing ties with two separate PMCs and an officer in the FSB. In Moscow, the ex-soldiers were reassured on the legality of the operation, as their new role protecting key assets for the Syria regime was sanctioned by the FSB and the Russian government.
Despite these assurances, the situation on the ground in Syria was far from adequate, with the soldiers severely underequipped and managed by Vadim Gusev, the deputy director of the Moran Security Group. After a number of mishaps and a total of six wounded, the ex-soldiers mutinied and returned after battle with elements of the Syrian rebels. However, once back in Russia, the men were apprehended by FSB, arresting Gusev and an Evgeny Sidorov, both members of the Moran Security Group, on charges of mercenary employment. In the end, the story of the Slavonic Corps is almost unbelievable. A Russian PMC with ties to the FSB hires another Russian PMC to send forces to protect assets in Syria, who in turn are arrested upon return in Syria. With all parties denying or refusing to comment, the situation may never truly become clear. Regardless, these events must be seen as an example of the grey legality of Russian PMCs and the absolute mess that results.
With this turbulent history of Russian PMCs, it is now imperative that we look to the future of these organizations. Today, our understanding of what may come lies within the modern Russian-Ukrainian Conflict. Despite their initial denial, the Russian government had deployed unmarked Russian soldiers, not PMCs as far as it is known, in operations seizing the Crimean Peninsula and supporting Ukrainian separatists, sparking a massive outcry and souring relations with the West. While this narrative may be well known, another element is critical in understanding the future of Russian PMCs. The ‘Night Wolves’ are Russia largest biker gang and the rabid supporters and exporters of Russian ultra-nationalism. In 2014, it was confirmed that the biker gang participated in the seizure of Crimea, assaulting a Ukrainian naval base and gas facility on the Black Sea, and has now created local chapters in Eastern Ukraine supporting the separatists there. The most significant aspect of the Night Wolves is their relationship to President Putin. Alexander Zaldostanov, leader of the Night Wolves, has strong personal ties with Putin, who happens to be an honorary member and has provided over $1 million in grants to the gang.
How exactly do the Night Wolves relate to the future of PMCs? Ultimately, the Night Wolves serves as a greater advantage to Putin and the Russian government than PMCs ever could. Officially, it is difficult to establish a direct tie between the government and the biker gang. With this plausible deniability at hand, the Kremlin has the assurance that the Night Wolves will continue their ideological operations in ways deemed acceptable or crucial to the overarching policies of the government. Furthermore, groups like the Night Wolves can operate offensively whereas official PMCs cannot, otherwise they are branded as mercenaries, something explicitly outlawed in Russian and the international community. In other cases where ideological militias or paramilitary elements cannot reach, Russian troops, whether or not they are marked as so, are more than appropriate. Thus, Russian PMCs are likely to remain on the backburner, unutilized by Putin and the Kremlin, remaining stagnant in their role as private security guards.
Gregory Wilson is a MA Candidate in Intelligence and International Security at King’s College London, specializing in the field of Russian/Soviet intelligence and regional security.