As Syrian forces push their advantage against the Islamic State, it is increasingly clear that there are Russians on the ground with them. Some are Spetsnaz special forces, there for recon and forward air control, but others are mercenaries, working for a shadowy outfit in St. Petersburg. Increasingly, the Kremlin is waking up to the potential advantages of outsourcing combat missions to private contractors — but doing so in a very Russian way, in which “private” is still a euphemism for “deniable,” and where official intelligence agencies are still in control.
Much of the confusion about the scale and nature of Russia’s direct commitment on the ground probably reflects the presence of both state and private forces, with each having their own deniable components. Russian contractors appear to be operating T-90 tanks in combat and similar heavy equipment, and were at the fore of the recent drive to take Palmyra.
The force in question was disclosed last week in an investigative report in the independent Russian Fontanka news site. It is known as “Wagner,” after the call-sign of its commander, 46-year-old reserve Lt. Col. Dmitri Utkin. Until 2013 he was an officer in the 2nd Spetsnaz Brigade, based in Pskov, and on mustering out, joined the Moran Security Group, a registered private security company that specializes in maritime protection — especially providing guard contingents for ships sailing through pirate-infested seas.
Utkin, whose call-sign reflects his apparent “commitment to the aesthetics and ideology of the Third Reich,” according to Fontanka, was involved in Russia’s first, ill-fated foray into the world of pseudo-private military operations as part of the “Slavonic Corps,” briefly deployed into Syria in 2013. This was technically a Hong Kong-based company, generally regarded as an offshoot of Moran, because whereas private security companies (PSCs) — providing armed security for premises, people, and transports — are allowed under Russian laws, private military companies (PMCs) — actually involving themselves in mercenary combat operations — are not.
Two Slavonic Corps companies of Russian mercenaries were deployed to Syria, but it soon became clear that their paymasters, and the Syrian government, were unable to provide them with the equipment and support they had been promised. After a couple of inconclusive and mismanaged skirmishes against the Islamic State, they returned to Russia — where most were detained by Federal Security Service (FSB) officers for breaching Article 348 of the Russian Criminal Code, which bans mercenary service. This is despite the fact that Moran is run by FSB veterans, and FSB officers were involved in recruiting for the corps.
Hardly an impressive debut, but nonetheless there had for some time been some consideration of the possible value of PMCs as a further instrument of Russian statecraft.
Five years ago, Putin suggested that “such companies are a way of implementing national interests without the direct involvement of the state,” and in 2013 Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin floated the idea that it was worth considering setting up such PMCs with state backing. At the time, though, there was considerable resistance within the defense ministry. Nonetheless, the passage that year of a bill that allows state energy corporations Gazprom and Transneft to maintain extensive security forces — which since 2007 had anyway legally been allowed to issue heavier and more lethal weapons than generally available to security officers — represented a first step towards creating the legal and practical basis for PMCs.
Since then, though, Moscow’s perspective has been transformed by its own experiences in Ukraine, and also its growing adventurism abroad.
In the Donbas, independent “militias” — which as often as not emerge from organized crime groups and similar structures — have often proved to be of limited real combat effectiveness. They offer a degree of deniability and allow Moscow to keep the war simmering, but at a serious cost in battlefield capacity, and have periodically had to be bailed out by regular Russian troops in combat with Ukrainian regulars. A perhaps even more important problem with them is control. The mysterious (well, not that mysterious) recent assassination of several maverick commanders, such as Alexander Bednov (known as “Batman”) and Alexei Mozgovoy, probably reflect Moscow’s efforts to reassert a degree of authority over the military forces of the rebellious regions.
Instead, the Donbas has been a testing ground for new state-controlled but notionally private initiatives, ranging from the Vostok Battalion, deployed in 2014, to a variety of other groups drawn from Cossacks, veterans, and adventurers, largely mustered by the FSB — or more usually, military intelligence, the GRU.
Utkin apparently commanded one such outfit in Luhansk, beginning in 2014. Indeed, he was blamed for being behind the killing of “Batman” on Moscow’s order. His unit was reportedly trained at the 10th Spetsnaz Brigade’s base at Molkino, in the south of Russia, and was far more carefully prepared and well paid than the typical adventurers in the Donbas.
So both the FSB and the GRU have now had experience raising and deploying deniable-but-controllable pseudo-private military contingents, and consider them to offer a reasonable balance between effectiveness and control.
Hence the “Wagner” group, which may comprise 400 effectives at present (from a reported peak of almost 900), is likely to be something of a testbed. It is not registered under Russian law, not least because PMCs are still not legal, and it has no official status.
Nonetheless, it is clearly in Syria with the blessing, and probably funding, of the Kremlin — likely through the GRU this time — and playing a significant role in the current ground fighting in and around Palmyra. Before then, having arrived in Syria in late 2015, they had primarily been deployed to protect key government installations and assist in the security of Russian bases. Now that the Syrian forces seem again better able to guard their own facilities, and the war has taken a more offensive turn, they are being used to stiffen and support Damascus’s forces. As a result they have also suffered “dozens” of combat losses according to Fontanka — compared with the mere seven official casualties Moscow has acknowledged from its own forces.
This year is likely to see the passage of a law finally legalizing PMCs in Russia. As a result, we can expect to see groups like “Wagner” — what we could call “hybrid businesses,” technically private, but essentially acting as the arms of the Russian state — cropping up in other war zones before too long.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and director of its Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats. His most recent book is Spetsnaz: Russia’s Special Forces (Osprey, 2015).
Photo credit: Freedom House