The role of Russian PMCs in armed conflicts
Up until recently private military companies (PMCs) had been considered as non-government contractors providing professional security and bodyguard services. Their tasks were predominantly limited to guarding production facilities, escorting valuable cargoes or protecting VIPs against violent attacks. Yet, over the last few years Russia has brought this craft to a new level, demonstrating that PMCs can carry out offensive missions and even build a backbone of an occupation army. While it is clearly prohibited by a number of international laws, the world community has not been able to produce a meaningful response to this new threat.
PMCs on steroids have become a handy tool for Russian foreign military operations, ideally fitting the concept of Moscow's all-time favorite 'hybrid warfare'.
PMC personnel raised to the role of aggressive mercenary troops gives many advantages to a government seeking to hide its face behind legal discrepancies. It offers:

  1. Flexibility. Soldiers of fortune can come from and be deployed anywhere.
  2. Low cost. Despite a high risk to their life PMC contractors get $1,500 to $3,600 a month [1, 2] in the war zone depending on the type of their tasks. Moreover, these payments are made in cash and bypass any financial statements.
  3. Deniability. Moscow can pretend that Russian government has nothing to do with unruly PMCs that engage into combat on foreign soil.
  4. Next to none legal responsibility. Russia as a state cannot be held legally accountable for what the Kremlin insists are the actions of volunteer foreign fighters. In addition to that, PMCs can emerge and dissolve whenever needed, leaving no opportunity to be brought before court.

All these advantages make it possible for Russia to rapidly increase its military presence in different parts of the world, including Ukraine, Syria, Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, and Lybia. This list has been growing quickly, matching the Kremlin's untamed appetite for easy gain.

Evolution of Russian PMCs
The tactics of using irregular troops abroad to keep the end beneficiary in the shadow is not new for Russia. In modern Russian history mercenaries appeared immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They surfaced in early 1990s in Yugoslavia and Moldova (Transnistria), later they played an important role in the occupation of Georgia.

In April 2012 Putin, who was the Prime Minister of Russia at that time, supported the idea to create a network of Russian PMCs working abroad. "I think it can really be the tool to implement national interests without the direct involvement of the state" [3]. This idea became central for Moscow's reinvention of PMCs, making them today one of the top instruments of Russian foreign policy and a looming threat for the world order.

Now Russian PMCs actively participate in armed conflicts around the world. Given that, they may choose among the following roles:

  • carry out operations in a combat zone of an already ongoing conflict
  • provoke and ignite a new armed conflict (like they did in the East of Ukraine)
  • create an affiliate organization abroad and train its members, so that they will be able to handle one of the two previous tasks.

The list of the Russian PMCs that were reported to carry out offensive missions outside of Russia currently embraces 11 companies with the most recent addition of PMC Patriot.

Some of these 'non-state' actors are not new to mercenary business. The longest existing mercenary organization is the Cossacks who have been moving from one war zone to another since 1992 when they first took part in the armed conflict in Moldova (Transnistria). Now, 27 years after, they are still very active. South Ossetia, Crimea and Donbas were among their latest destinations.
Yet, over the last few years Cossacks-type infantry units are getting gradually replaced by well-equipped assault troops with clear command-and-control structure mirroring the organization of the Russian Army. MAR, E.N.O.T. Corp., Wagner Group and Patriot manifest a new age in Russian traditional proxy warfare with privateers reinvented for the 21st century and redeployed on land instead of sea.

Professing not to be connected to the Russian Armed Forces these armed groups surprisingly enjoy much freedom in a state where siloviki control politics and business and where no move on international arena is done without President Putin’s approval. Their ability to travel wherever they want with bulky military equipment, such as howitzers, IFVs and MBTs, looks even more far-out given that PMCs are illegal in Russia.

Illegal, but above the law
The Russian Criminal Code explicitly prohibits creation or participation in armed formations that are not stipulated by a federal law. It also foresees prison sentence for mercenary activities or recruiting, training, funding or supply support of mercenaries. These restrictions are clearly articulated in the Article 208 "Organization of an illegal armed formation" and Article 359 "Mercenary" of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. Needless to mention that the same Criminal Code sets out severe punishment for illegal purchase / sale or smuggling of arms.

Despite the illegal status of PMCs in Russia thousands of mercenaries keep fighting in different parts of the globe on a day-to-day basis. Only the Wagner Group is generally estimated to include 3,000 members (one of the estimates gives the number of 6,000 members [4]) and none of them have been convicted. At the same time, Vadim Gusev and Yevgeny Sidorov, the owners of Slavonic Corps which became the backbone and paved the way for the Wagner Group, were convicted to 3 years of imprisonment in 2014.

The only feasible explanation of such selective justice can be attributed to the ties of some PMCs versus the others. Hybrid war is the type of Russian business that has a strictly limited number of beneficiaries with carte blanche from the Russian government.
Connection to the Russian government
The PMCs not only remain mysteriously in the blind zone of Russian law officials, but they also seem to get direct assistance from the government. The most notorious cases of such assistance refer to the Wagner Group.

The first test ground for the Wagner Group was Ukrainian Crimea [5]. Built on scraps of Slavonic Corps, which had a disastrous experience in Al-Shukhnah, Syria, the Wagner Group, unlike its predecessor, demonstrated close collaboration with the Russian Army from the very beginning. According to the reports, in 2014 Wagner fighters were helping Russian regular military units seize facilities and disarm Ukrainian Army servicemen during the covert occupation of Crimea [6]. Russian forces were putting a lot of effort into concealing their identity and origin, and the Wagner Group coped pretty well with this task in Crimea.

Later on Wagner mercenaries strove to preserve this secrecy when they surfaced in the East of Ukraine where Russia continued its occupation. Yet, they could not fully reach this goal.

On December 28, 2014 the first photos of the Russian KamAZ-43 269 Dozor infantry mobility vehicles (IMV) deployed in Luhansk Region of Ukraine appeared on the web. These Dozor IMVs were later traced to Sanzharivka, Donetsk Oblast (Ukraine) where they became a part of the assault force attacking the Valera strongpoint held by the Ukrainian Army in January 2015. During the clash at least 11 Wagner mercenaries were killed and two IMVs got destroyed [7].

According to the phone intercept [8] published by the Security Service of Ukraine, the commander of the Wagner Group Dmitry Utkin instructed his subordinate Sergey Kovalev to urgently evacuate the wrecks of Russian military equipment despite the great risk. It was to prevent the disclosure of Russia's direct involvement in the Donbas war. KamAZ-43 269 Dozor IMVs were pieces of hard evidence, being solely in service with the Russian Army. In February 2015 Wagner mercenaries lost two other Dozor vehicles near Verhulivka, Luhansk Oblast, which confirmed the connection between the Wagner Group and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).

This odd practice of the Russian MoD to share military equipment with what is proclaimed to be a private military company is not the only link which connects them. Numerous reports state that the primary training base of the Wagner Group is located in Molkino village, Krasnodar Krai (Russia) right next to the military unit 51532 belonging to the Russian 10th Special Forces Brigade of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) [9, 10]. Locals say that this facility with restricted access has been preparing Wagner mercenaries for combat operations in Ukraine, Syria and, more recently, Africa. The site has been in operation for the last 5 years, and this proximity of illegal mercenary squads does not seem to bother the 10th Brigade command, law enforcers, local government authorities or Russian MoD officials.

More than this, courtesy of the Russian MoD extends to giving airplane rides to Syria for the Wagner Group. While many of the airlifts are done by civilian passenger planes operated by a Syrian airline Cham Wings [11], some Wagner mercenaries state they were transported to Syria by military freighters [12, 13]. One of the mercenaries said in a interview [14] that he flew to Syria with other members of the Wagner Group from Chkalovsky military airport (Moscow Oblast) by a cargo plane belonging to the 76th Air Assault Division (garrisoned in Pskov).

Despite the abundance of evidence pointing at the connection between private military contractors and Russia's Armed Forces, Moscow keeps denying everything. On February 14, 2018 Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "The possibility cannot be excluded that there are Russian citizens in Syria. But they are in no way connected to the Russian Armed Forces".

Yet, it is wiser to judge by deeds rather than words. If Russian mercenaries have nothing to do with the Russian Armed Forces, then why do they get combat decorations issued by the state? Journalist investigations conducted by different media outlets have identified at least 15 members of the Wagner Group that have received state military decorations for operations in Ukraine and Syria.
While some may argue that the Hero of the Russian Federation, the Order of Courage and the Medal for Courage can also be awarded to civilians, other details obtained by the journalists suggest that these awards were given specifically for the Wagner Group military offensives. The fact that Wagner Group commanders were spotted at the official reception at the Kremlin on December 9, 2016 and even took a photo together with Putin [15] makes the warm relationship between this mercenary group and Russian government even more obvious.
Private armies as a business
Russia is trying to build up its influence in the Middle East and Africa and is desperately clinging to the remains of faded dominance in post-Soviet states. A country that could never break the vicious circle of raw-material economy, now is more than ever dependent on new resource bases. Putin and his entourage need more money, but corrupt and inefficient Russia cannot generate enough profit to match oligarchs' perception of luxurious lifestyle.

Therefore, mercenary armies not only have to achieve certain geopolitical goals set by the Kremlin — they must make a profit. It is a special form of business: regular Russian citizens may lose money, but the house, i.e. Putin and his pocket oligarchs, always wins.

Several sources, including the U.S. intelligence, reported that Russian oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin was almost certainly appointed to control Russian mercenaries in Syria. Prigozhin himself has been denying any connection to the Wagner Group. At the same time, The AP reported that it had obtained a copy of the contract between Euro Polis company affiliated with Prigozhin and Syrian state-owned General Petroleum Corp. The contract stipulated that Euro Polis would receive "25% of the proceeds from oil and gas production at fields its contractors capture and secure from Islamic State militants" [16].

Evgeny Prigozhin is believed to be closely connected to Putin, and until recently he used to be the largest supplier of food and cleaning services for the Russian Army [17]. Internet Research Agency, Concord Management and Concord Catering, indicted by the Washington D.C. grand jury for illegal interference in the 2016 presidential elections, are also controlled by Prigozhin. According to the U.S. intelligence intercept [18], Prigozhin told a senior Syrian official he had gotten a green light from a Russian minister to move forward with a "fast and strong" initiative to take place in early February 2018. This 'initiative' actually took place. Dozens of Wagner mercenaries were killed on February 7 in an unsuccessful assault on Syrian Democratic Forces HQ. The most probable goal of this assault was to take control over the gas processing plant and gas and oil resources of the region.

Mercenaries keep fighting and dying for the interests of the Russian elite merged with the government. Still, the government of Russia is reluctant to disclose this fact to the public and offer any legal status to those they view as cheap cannon fodder. Under the circumstances, this past July Russian veterans organization All-Russian Officer Assembly called on the government to officially recognize private military contractors fighting abroad as combat veterans: "For three years already, we have been receiving complaints and appeals from Russian citizens who were injured in Syria and cannot undergo medical treatment in Russia. Soldiers and officers of these combat units have no social, medical or financial support from the state … We demand that the status of combat participants in private military companies be recognized" [19]. It is unclear if Russian officers will eventually achieve what they demand, but at the moment it does not look like the Kremlin is ready to reveal the driving force of the Russian hybrid operations to the world.
The growing threat of Russian PMCs to the world order
While Russian PMCs continue redoubling their squads, their true threat remains largely underestimated by the democratic West. The geography of the conflicts is expanding. Russian mercenary groups not only work in Syria now — they are spotted in the Central African Republic, Sudan, Yemen and Libya. To give an example, PMC RSB-Group currently is very active in Libya [20]. Some reports indicate that Russian PMCs are also active in Brunei and Burundi. There are signs that Russian mercenaries work in other African countries, but short dispatches about their presence have not yet been supported by convincing evidence.

European countries are in danger, too. Not only Ukraine which has seen the whole kaleidoscope of Russian hybrid forces, including mercenaries posing themselves as PMCs (the Wagner Group, E.N.O.T. Corp., MAR, the Cossacks, etc.). According to several reports Serbian president Vučić was seeking Putin's assistance to deal with Kosovo, and he may get it through a new Russian PMC Patriot [21] closely affiliated with the Russian MoD.

In fact, Patriot is an upgraded version of the Wagner Group where all members are military professionals who are, apparently, still serving in Special Operations Forces or The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (formerly GRU). Patriot members get higher salaries that may go up to $6,100 - 15,200 a month [22]. Discreet apparent practice is taken to the extremes. This shift from patchy Wagner crowd to top-qualified military professionals may indicate that Russia wants to raise the stakes. Facing no real counteraction on behalf of the world community the Kremlin brings into play the plan of massive hybrid expansion.

This threat should not be taken lightly. Essentially, Putin seeks to use the tactics of Genghis Khan: conquer new territory and increase your army by recruiting people from newly conquered lands. Then repeat.

To most Western countries this Medieval approach may look bizarre, for it seems to have no positive outcomes — both in terms of economic profit (conquered lands should be taken care of) or image on the international arena. However, there is one important factor that changes everything: the goal of this expansion is not prosperity of Russia as a country, it is immediate gain for a limited number of people in power. This is exactly what Russia did and does in Abkhazia, Transnistria, South Ossetia, Donbas.

Locals who had fought for Moscow's interests in occupied Moldova and Georgia in 2014 joined mercenary troops who went to fight in Donbas. Ukrainian locals who joined Russian hybrid occupation army in the East of Ukraine now fight in Syria. A perfect example of this is Wagner Group's Karpaty company task force. Most of its personnel (excluding Russian citizens who hold command positions) are Ukrainian mercenaries who first fought for the interests of the Russian Federation in Donbas, and then went on to earn a living in Syria [23]. Brainwashed poor people in a land devastated by war, with no job and no prospects, eagerly risk their life in exchange for money.

Russian PMCs have been rapidly evolving, and now they are almost indistinguishable from most regular armies. They have assault units, reconnaissance and artillery, they operate MANPADS and armored vehicles, including MBTs [24].

Right now Russian mercenary troops lack only warships, submarines, warplanes and ballistic missiles, but with the current pace it could be just a matter of time when they get them. At the same time, they can use any type of uniform or insignia to achieve their goals and cover up their true affiliation. Thus, one of the Wagner Group mercenaries Alexander Pichugin, personal number M-1706, commander of the Gun Position Office (GPO) platoon, was spotted in Syria wearing Desert Hawks uniform and insignia [25].

Still, such shift of clothes is by far not the only surprise hidden in Pandora's box of Kremlin-controlled PMC landscape. The most dangerous facet of it is that members of the Russian PMC stir up armed conflicts and commit international crimes which Wagner mercenaries confirm themselves [26, 27, 28]. On top of war crimes and crimes against humanity they are suspected by the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) to stand behind a shoot-down of Ukrainian IL-76MD military plane with 49 people on board on June 14, 2014, which is investigated as a "terrorist act that led to the death of people and caused considerable material damage". According to the information released by the SSU [29], Dmitry Utkin himself gave an order to down the plane to two Wagner mercenaries — Andrey Guralyov (personal number M-1235) and Andrey Lebedev (personal number M-1671).

They also contribute to the outspread of transnational organized crime: arms trafficking, money laundering, smuggling of valuables and cultural artifacts. Adding to that, many of the Wagner Group mercenaries have criminal backgrounds [30], but crimes are pretty much typical for any Russian PMCs, including 'elite' Patriot. Based on the report by TVRAIN [31], members of PMC Patriot may have a direct connection to the murder of Russian journalists Orkhan Djemal, Alexander Rastorguev and Kirill Radchenko who were filming a documentary about Russian PMCs and their role in arms trafficking.

Proxy PMC armies are a convenient tool for the Kremlin. In the essence they are cheap regular troops with no social insurance guarantees provided by the government, and there are signs which illustrate that Moscow is not going to limit their use in the following years. In 2017 the black budget of the Russian Federation accounted for 63.9% of total national defense spending (17.3% of a total federal budget). In 2018−2020 this share is supposed to reach 65.5−66%.

The practice of using PMCs to cover up full-scale armies ideally fits Soviet classical playbooks. They provide the perfect basis for Russian officials to obfuscate the chain of command and avoid command responsibility for crimes against peace and other international crimes. By playing a 'non-state actors' card Putin is hoping to capture as many resources as possible before the UN, other international organizations and the world community in general can generate any impactful response.

Ambiguity of PMC status in Russia should fool no one. Legal or not, Russian PMCs:

  • demonstrate an increase in quantity and quality

  • rapidly expand their geography

  • build up their influence in the regions of expansion

  • stretch their budgets and get more funding from covert government and non-government sources.

In simplistic terms, the occupation army is growing and keeps conquering new lands.
Proposed ways to counter hybrid armies under PMC disguise
All things considered, the international community should stop pretending like nothing is happening and produce the response that would curb Moscow's appetite before it is too late. More pressure is absolutely necessary, and currently existing legal framework should be updated to respond to the threat of Russian PMCs.

Firstly, there is an urgent need to institute an international authority that would establish unified rules and provide strict control over PMCs. All PMCs in the world must become a subject to licensing and periodically go through checks and a rigorous license renewal process. PMCs without such license should be treated as illegal combatants.

Secondly, it would be wise to clearly define PMCs in the international law, including the Rome Statute. Right now many illegal combatants avoid fair punishment for their actions because they insist they are either regular civilians, or foreign fighters who receive no monetary incentives.

Thirdly, all countries should take a hard stand against mercenarism. United Nations Mercenary Convention has only been ratified by 35 countries and it is largely unable to respond to new challenges. National legislation of separate countries in most cases also lacks effective mechanisms of holding mercenaries accountable for their crimes.

Fourthly, the world needs to unify the efforts with the goal to stop this immoral and cynical business. Killing people for money should bear consequences of such force that would discourage the overwhelming majority of mercenaries from continuing their bloody missions. They and their families should not gain from war. Mercenaries should be prosecuted internationally, and all assets that they obtain through war must be seized by court orders. Migration authorities ought to pay close attention to the mercenaries that may attempt to hide from criminal prosecution abroad.

Fifthly, the free world should increase economic pressure on Russia, Iran and other countries waging hybrid wars through the employment of PMCs and other paramilitary organizations. They seek supremacy, but only to make their outdated, deeply corrupt and inefficient regimes sustainable. This sustainability needs to become a target for all international efforts. The relatively small costs that these regimes are paying now should become unbearable.

In the 21st century war must not become a source of revenue.