The Role of Private Military Companies in Russian National Security Strategy

By Stephen Blank

Not a day passes without a fresh revelation of Russian probes against the West somewhere in the world.

By now audiences are possibly accustomed to this fact but it remains difficult for elites, ot to mention ordinary citizens, to grasp that Moscow has been waging a war, even if it is a political and largely non-kinetic war, against the West for over a decade.

In this war Moscow’s strategy truly is a whole of government or whole of state strategy and is accompanied by signs of an ever deeper mobilization of civilian assets and resources for the purposes of this struggle.

As the Israeli scholar Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky has astutely written, Moscow’s strategy is one of “multi-domain coercion.”

In other words, Moscow fights this war on many simultaneous fronts and theaters and uses all the instruments of national power at its disposal.

And since Vladimir Putin, like any good Tsar, owns the state and the national economy he can commandeer any resource he wants or create new ones to wage this war.

Thus the purely military manifestations of this war have hitherto been confined to Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria and to the unceasing development of modern conventional and nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, scanning Russia’s global operations, we find the employment of organized crime, the energy weapon, penetration of media, political and economic elites, foreign political parties, classic espionage on a scale comparable to that of the Brezhnev era.

Putin has also created new types of Russian instruments to wage this war.

In particular we now encounter the phenomenon of so called private military companies (PMC’s) that recruit Russian men to fight abroad for profit.

These mercenaries evoke not only the medieval and Renaissance Condotierre, but also more recent British, French, and American mercenary or private companies but there is nothing private about them.

The organizers of these units like Wagner, the most well-known among them, are Kremlin insiders, oligarchs and millionaires or billionaires whose fortunes , like all private property, are essentially beholden to the state in return for their state service.

Since property is conditional upon state service – a hallmark of Russia’s continuing feudalism- they are either eager to show their devotion to the state and Russian interests by organizing such units or are instructed to do so.

These units offer the Kremlin the benefit of plausible deniability, take the strain of outfitting and maintaining them off the Kremlin and the regular state budget as they are financed by these oligarchs, and allow Moscow to operate at home and abroad below the threshold of Article V of the Washington Treaty or international law.

The appearance of these so called PMC’s or private operators acting on behalf of Moscow represent an innovation in the art of political warfare that has been particularly difficult for the West to contend with.

But we should not make the mistake of thinking that they are not instruments of war.

Moreover, they are ubiquitous. In the United States we have abundant evidence of so called private actors who were deeply involved in the effort to corrupt the U.S.’ presidential election in 2018 or infiltrate key interest groups.

Aleksandr’ Torshin and his “protégé” Maria Butina, who are clearly agents of Russian intelligence figured prominently in Russian efforts to infiltrate the NRA and then the GOP.

In Macedonia and Greece we see that a prominent Greek businessman with ties to Moscow, Ivan Savvidis, apparently helped organize Moscow’s efforts to undermine the recent Greco-Macedonian agreement on changing the name of Macedonia to North Macedonia in order to facilitate its entry into NATO.

Konstantin Malofeev, another Kremlin oligarch and patron of the Orthodox Church organized private forces to instigate the failed coup in Montenegro in late 2016 and in Ukraine in 2014.

And in Ukraine all kinds of so called private or irregular forces were organized or recruited to fight in both the Crimea and the Donbass.

The Wagner group, as is well known, fought a pitched battle with U.S. and Kurdish forces in February over a Syrian refinery, a sign of their mercenary motives.

This lure of material gain that attracts men to these kinds of operation as well as the similar attraction that also helps motivate Kremlin oligarchs to outfit such operations is a major motive for both the Russian state and its servitors in organizing these groups.

Nor are they confined to Syria or the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

On July 31-August 1 three Russian journalists who were in the Central African Republic to investigate the Wagner group fighting there were murdered under circumstances that remain unclear.

But this tragedy also shows that Moscow is now reaching into Africa in new and innovative ways that it has employed in Europe and the Middle East.

In many ways these groups are also the latest incarnation of a process begun when the Soviet Union collapsed and many former intelligence operatives were forced to swim in the new world of capitalism by making a name for themselves in the provision of security services at home or abroad.

The most well-known of the was Viktor Bout,. Bout probably was a former member of the GRU who became known as an international “merchant of death” for his prowess in organizing large-scale arms deliveries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Until Bout was busted in a DEA sting in 2008 by the DEA he was living in Moscow and enjoying the hospitality of Vladimir Putin despite being wanted by Interpol. When busted in 2008 he was in Bangkok, almost certainly on Moscow’s instructions, attempting to run guns to Leftist insurgents, the FARC, in Colombia, our Latin American ally.

Since Moscow was already organizing similar ventures through Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, it is clear that Bout represented a second, more illicit effort by so called private operators to promote Russian interests. Indeed, once Bout was arrested the Russian government went into overdrive to prevent his extradition.

This now appears to be the case as well with regard to Maria Butina, suggesting that she is indeed a spy or kremlin agent.

Thus the use of private military companies or private financiers to advance Russian interests or the use of so called unofficial groups like the Russian biker group the Night Wolves threatens security wherever they appear.

Indeed, the President of Slovakia has just called the Night Wolves a threat to security.

These “private” organizations are clearly a new, innovative, Russian response to the demands of the political war it is waging and it also appears that we have not yet found a sufficiently adequate response to this and other associated phenomena.

Therefore we can be sure of one thing.

More of these groups will soon appear and probably in more than one theater for they are visibly regarded in Moscow as a useful instrument by which to advance Russian national interests in Moscow’s unending war against the West.

In the featured photo, which is a November 11, 2011, file photo, Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves food to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during dinner at Prigozhin’s restaurant outside Moscow.

Military contractor Prigozhin reportedly funds the Wagner Group. Photo: AP