Russia’s Private Military Companies in Ukraine Are an Opportunity for Kiev

Russia’s Private Military Companies in Ukraine Are an Opportunity for Kiev
AP Photo/Sergei Grits, File
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Russia’s use of private military companies (PMCs) in Ukraine is clever, but it won’t get the Kremlin the results it wants partly because of changes in the contracting environment due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rested in part on the private soldiers of Wagner Group, the best-known Russian PMC. And like the Wagner deployment to Syria, using PMCs in Ukraine is a useful short-run move, that creates a battlefield opportunity for Russia’s foes.

The most visible vector of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and incursion into Eastern Ukraine was the “little green men,” Russian airborne or special forces troops in unmarked uniforms, but the PMCs were also “first in” and performed tasks ranging from infantry and artillery actions to reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering, to providing bodyguards for VIPs, similar to the Blackwater operatives who guarded the American ambassador in Iraq, and eventually graduating to  assassinating unruly pro-Russia militia commanders.  Or the assassinations may have been related to business disputes over the sharing of seized businesses, including factories and coal mines.

Russia didn’t come to the idea of private military forces by copying the West’s recent experience.  Sergey Sukhankin of The Jamestown Foundation highlighted that, before 1917, the Russian state used private forces for various missions, such as military and economic missions in the Baltic Sea region in the 1500s, and the early exploration of Siberia. The private forces morphed into partisan movements that harassed the over-extended lines of communication of invaders, and were normalized to the extent it was suggested after the Patriotic War of 1812 that partisan forces be made a regular branch of Russia’s armed forces.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet Union used its partisan experience as part of its revolutionary activities worldwide, most notably the NKVD’s command of the partisan forces supporting the Republican government in the Spanish Civil War. After the 1941-1945 contest with National Socialism, the USSR made “military advisers” part of its asymmetric war against the capitalist West.

In the present day, in order to prosecute the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. made extensive use of contractors in roles from logistics and maintenance to VIP protection, and contractors have outnumbered the military in almost every instance. The high cost and complexity of the contracts, and some highly-publicized incidents, such as the hiring of local warlords for transport services in Afghanistan, and the Nisour Square shootings in Iraq that resulted in 14 dead innocent bystanders, encouraged the U.S. government to increase oversight of contractors.

The President appointed special inspectors general for Iraq and Afghanistan reconstruction, Congress held hearings and empaneled the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, an independent commission to “study federal agency contracting for the reconstruction, logistical support of coalition forces, and the performance of security functions, in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The auditors got in the act, and the Defense Department changed its organization to give more attention to the management of war zone contracts.

Outside the government, the primary contractor industry group, the International Stability Operations Association, advocated its own code of conduct and participated in drafting the Montreux Document which outlines the legal obligations of private military and security companies in war zones and has 54 participating states, the Russian Federation not among them.

The agreements and obligations were then distilled by groups such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) into internationally-recognized management and quality assurance standards for private security operations.

So, governments recognized legitimate roles – some armed – for contractors on the battlefield but bounded the roles with contracts (the key to managing contractor behavior), codes of conduct, and legislative and executive branch oversight. And did it with the cooperation and encouragement of industry.

The response from Russia to this long-term and public process? Crickets and Russia thus missed participating in creating the structures to govern contractors in combat zones.

But better late than never? Early this year Russian war veterans demanded their government legalize private military companies and give them access to veterans benefits, but a draft bill was opposed by the Cabinet of Ministers and the entire security establishment. In August, though,  the Kremlin spokesman confirmed that “a petition to legalize mercenary groups is on its way to the president, the Attorney General's Office, and the Supreme Court” which may be a sign that the struggle between the military and the security services for control of the companies has been resolved. Or, perhaps with Putin’s poll ratings down after the government made changes to the public pension system the Kremlin doesn’t want more bad news stories about social benefits.

Legal status won’t affect firms like Warner inside Russia as Wagner reportedly trains at the facilities of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation or GRU, and the military companies are incorporated outside Russia, so they’re really not “Russian” firms. And we shouldn’t assume that the PMCs and other “semi-state security actors” are controlled by the center, as we may be witnessing the jockeying for power in the post-Putin era rather than a coherent strategy of deniability and ambiguity.

What is the opportunity for Ukraine and the U.S.?

If Russia drags its feet on legalizing the PMCs, it is an opportunity for the U.S. to help the Ukrainian military target the private Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory. That will involve sharing of sensitive intelligence, but with it, the Ukrainians can prioritize the Russian targets, and send a clear message to their Russian-speaking countrymen, who may then be reluctant to communicate with or operate near Russian formations. And since the PMCs aren’t part of the Russian military, there will be a minimal penalty if the U.S. role in dispatching them becomes known.

The Russian man on the street isn’t sympathetic to a private soldier killed in action, but he’s not the intended audience. Aggressive targeting of the Russian PMCs may make it harder to recruit soldiers, or good ones anyway, which will have a knock-on effect of poor performance in battle. And if the PMCs are unable to seize economic targets, as was Wagner’s intent for the oil and gas assets near the Deir Ezzor refinery in Syria, the elites will get cranky wondering where their money is. So, Kiev should remind Moscow that, according to United Nations experts, among the prosecutable offenses of mercenaries is “forcible control of valuable natural resources” of which Ukraine has many.  

And it might be time to start quizzing Moscow about those armed Russian civilians on Ukrainian battlefields. Are they “civilians accompanying the force” and not taking an active part in hostilities but still subject to military law? Are they paramilitary operatives who enjoy few or no Geneva Convention protections on the battlefield? And what PMC mission, at least as the rest of the world understands it, involves active combat?

And if some clarity isn’t forthcoming from Moscow, Red Notices for officials and oligarchs courtesy of Kiev might help Russia focus or at least give the leaders a few headaches.

Ambiguity worked for Russia during the Cold War, but since 2003 the growth in oversight and transparency in the private soldering profession jumped, while Russia sat on the sidelines. Russia’s ambiguity may be better suited to managing intra-elite competition rather than battlefield effectiveness, and so the Russians may be fated to learning the lessons - while under sanctions - that Western governments and private security firms learned at great cost.


James Durso (@James_Durso) served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years specializing in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is presently managing director of Corsair LLC, a consulting firm specializing in project management and marketing support in the Middle East and Central Asia.



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