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The Kremlin's Invisible Battalions: The Growing Influence of Private Military Companies

26 November 2023

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Introduction & Attempted Coup

On June 23rd 2023, the world was stunned to hear of an alleged attempted coup taking place in Russia. The Wagner Private Military Company, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin had decided to march on Moscow.

Prigozhin had, over the last number of weeks, been releasing videos and posting them online where he heavily criticised the Russian government – in particular defence minister Sergei Shoigu – for incompetent war strategies such as not sending enough supplies to the frontline and sending his Wagner fighters into the “meat grinder” to effectively be used as cannon fodder. Prigozhin was always smart enough to stop short of directly criticising Vladimir Putin. 

In mid June of 2023 Russia had decreed that all PMCs fighting in Ukraine were to sign contracts in order to integrate them closer and make them subordinate to the Russian army. Prigozhin refused. (1)

Russia's state intelligence agency, the FSB, launched an investigation into Prigozhin. He was very quickly making himself and his Wagner fighters enemies of the Russian state. Things came to a head on the 23rd June when Prigozhin released a video claiming that the Russian army had shelled Wagner positions in Ukraine. In response he declared a “March for Justice” in which his Wagner fighters reversed from Ukraine and headed towards Moscow to oust defence minister Sergei Shoigu. 

In the ensuing march, Wagner managed to take the city of Rostov-On-Don near the Ukrainian border and 600 miles away from Moscow. The capturing of Rostov-On-Don was strategically and symbolically important. It is the logistical hub for the war in Ukraine. Many of Russia's operations in Ukraine are run out of Rostov-On-Don. It was also a practical choice due to its close proximity to where the majority of Wagner troops were based in east Ukraine. The city of about 1 million residents was captured relatively peacefully when Wagner moved in in the early hours of the morning and captured buildings and several military checkpoints whilst setting up barricades and checkpoints of their own across the city. There was very little resistance within the city from the Russian military and it is most likely because it was believed that Wagner would ultimately be defeated and that the whole thing was just a case of Prigozhin protesting the treatment of Wagner by the Russian Government. Therefore Russian soldiers in Rostov were reluctant to start shedding blood. From Rostov, Wagner continued to march north towards Moscow. (5)

 

The coup seemed to be the first potentially serious threat Putin has had to his power since he became leader of Russia in 2000. Gunfights tookplace between Russian soldiers and Wagner soldiers, tanks were blown up and planes shot out of the sky – this looked like a serious coup attempt and looked to have the potential to escalate into mass scale civil conflict within Russia.

Alas, on June 24th 2023, just one day after the coup began and with Wagner only 200 km from Moscow – Prigozhin turned back, claiming that he had made his point. It seemed that this coup was actually more of a show of strength, one which cost the lives of around 30 people. (4) 

 

The Belarussian leader Lukashenko mediated a truce between Putin and Prigozhin. Prigozhin was exiled to Belarus along with thousands of Wagner soldiers and leaders in return for the charges being dropped. (2) 

 

Putin began making moves immediately to integrate Wagner into the Russian military and formally disband them as a PMC. This coup brought the Russian use of PMCs to the forefront of the conversation about Russia's war in Ukraine. Many external observers asked themselves questions about the identity of Wagner, as well as started inquiring on the definitions of a private military company. And, in the wake of this coup, many wondered who would fill the gap left by Wagner's disbandment, notably given that the group's efforts were pivotal in the Russian advance into Ukraine, particularly in Bakhmut. 

Essentially, the use of Russian PMCs in Ukraine has been vital to Putin in sustaining the war in Ukraine and his popularity. It is, however, something that is often overlooked when talking about Russian military power, especially in the context of the Ukraine conflict.

The Identity of the Wagner Group

To understand Russia's use of private military companies – we have to look deeper into the history of Wagner and their recent involvement in Ukraine.

PMC Wagner was founded in 2014 by Dmitry Utkin and financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin. Technically speaking, they don't 'exist' and are illegal in Russia; the Russian constitution bans private military companies from existing in Russia. This legal ambiguity attached to PMCs suits the Kremlin as it helps them maintain a distance from these groups. (8)

 

Wagner began recruiting ex-Russian military to join their ranks, often ex-officers and ex-special forces. In its early years it was seen as a more elite fighting force due to its high quality recruits but the more Wagner has expanded, the more diluted and broad its recruitment base has become. In 2014 Wagner, were sent into eastern Ukraine to aid separatists in the Donbas region on behalf of Russia whilst also giving the Russian state plausible deniability.

The group grew rapidly over the next number of years and was deployed to aid in conflicts in places such as Libya, Mali, Sudan, Venezuela and the Central African Republic (CAR). They took part in training the armies of these countries, providing personal security for high ranking politicians (who were friendly with Russia) and also in field combat. (6)

 

In Africa, where it made the most of its money, the organisation started making millions by acquiring control of several gold mines in Mali as well as a few diamond mines in the CAR and oil fields in Syria. The Russian government denied their existence the entire time this was taking place. (7) Their links to the Russian state, nonetheless, was without question -- Wagner fighters would often fly and be transported in official Russian military vehicles and they would use official Russian military hospitals. They were effectively just a unit of the Russian army that Russia could use to escape accountability and be involved in conflicts it shouldn't be. Such insights were further revealed by a Wagner dissident, Marat Gabidullin, in his very own book published in French, "Moi Marat, ex-Commandant de l'armee Wagner" (I Marat, ex-Commander in the Wagner Army).

Wagner have been accused of carrying out war crimes in this period in all the countries they were present in, such as executions, torture, extortion and planting landmines in and around the Libyan capital, Tripoli.(9)

 

In February 2022, when Russia launched its full scale invasion into Ukraine, Wagner was also deployed. They were accused in the opening days of the war of torturing and killing civilians near Kyiv, alongside regular Russian soldiers. (10) In March 2022, German intelligence linked Wagner fighters to the massacre of civilians which took place in Bucha, Ukraine. (11)

 

The invasion of Ukraine did not go to plan for the Russian military and it proved to be a much tougher fight than they had anticipated. Putin began drafting civilians to join the army but this was hugely unpopular, in part leading to Putin's decision to allow Prigozhin to recruit from Russian prisons. Drafted prisoners were promised an official pardon if they served 6 months in Ukraine under Wagner and survived. Tens of thousands of prisoners were recruited.

 

Wagner was used heavily in the battle for Bakhmut as these prisoners were sent into 'the meat grinder'. The Russian military tactics for taking Bakhmut were essentially centred around overwhelming the Ukrainian army with waves upon waves of men. This has been a long standing military tactic used by Russia for hundreds of years, where they effectively utilise their sheer mass of troops to be sacrificed until the enemy is eventually overrun. Thousands upon thousands of young Russian and Wagner soldiers were killed in the battle for Bakhmut.

Given that the deaths of soldiers fighting for PMCs do not need to be counted as part of a state's official military losses, the Russian public saw the battle for Bakhmut as a great victory for Russia, on paper.

 

Gradually, as the war went on, the aforementioned tension between Wagner and the Russian state continued brewing. This eventually led to the failed coup and the ultimate death of Prigozhin as well as other Wagner leaders on the August 23rd, 2023, when they were on a plane flying over Russia that was shot out of the sky.

Wagner may have been a PMC who grew too large for their shoes, but they have left a hole that will be filled and has already been filled by a number of other Russian PMCs who have been active for years and now have the opportunity to step up even further. This analysis takes a deep dive into the newer, more obscure, PMCs fighting the Kremlin's battles abroad.

What are Private Military Companies (PMCs)?

Private Military Companies are independent private companies that offer military services to national governments for a fee. In theory, they are apolitical and their sole motivation is profit. PMCs have been used in some form or another by major countries for thousands of years. The United Nations Mercenary Convention has tried to have PMCs banned, but none of the major global powers have ratified this convention. (13)

 

The USA has often utilised PMCs in its wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – most notably Blackwater, who gained notoriety for their brutality towards civilians and combatants during the Iraq War. States use PMCs for a number of reasons:

  • PMCs can allow states to have a physical presence in a conflict without it 'officially' (or 'legally') being involved in it.

  • PMC soldiers are not included in the official death tolls for national armies. As a result, states can use them to embellish their performance within a conflict or battle. 

  • The use of PMCs can give a state plausible deniability for certain acts, such as war crimes that may be committed by PMCs. This also suggests that using PMCs can be a way of getting around or avoiding sanctions.

  • PMCs are often highly skilled and well trained.

  • In particular in the case of Russia's war in Ukraine, the use of PMCs can mean less conscription is required, meaning the public are less likely to turn against the war.

 

As aforementioned, PMCs are illegal in Russia. The illegality of PMCs has helped the Russian government distance themselves from these groups that they are closely connected to. However, Russia has only begun using PMCs on a large scale since the 2010s. Putin has used PMCs all across the world to alter the balance of favour in a conflict in favour of Russia with less risk. (12)

Private Militaries in Russia: a Breakdown

Since the escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war in February 2022, PMC use by Russia has been growing. For a number of months before Wagner's march on Moscow, Russia began encouraging different PMC involvement in the war – possibly as a way of diluting the influence of Wagner and Prigozhin.

Russia has 27 active PMCs, according to Molfar. Let's look at some of the main players in the post-Wagner era.

1 - Patriot

 

Patriot were founded in 2018 and are said to have been the most direct rival of Wagner. The organisation is believed to be very close with the Russian Ministry of Defence and Sergei Shoigu is believed to hold a lot of power within the group. Soldiers in Patriot are exclusively ex-Russian army soldiers and the organisation is believed to provide the best salaries out of all the PMCs. They have been active in Ukraine since 2022 and have also reportedly been active in Syria, CAR and Yemen. In these other countries, their role has often been more as providing personal security for high profile individuals for whom it is in Russia's best interest to keep safe. Patriot are believed to be the most powerful PMC now with Wagner more or less out of the equation. (17)

 

2 - Redut

 

Redut was founded in 2008 and their main purpose was to protect Russian commercial assets in conflict zones. They have been active in Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon among others. Up until 2022, the organisation was relatively small and its membership numbered a few hundred. It is now believed to be in the thousands. Redut were deployed in Ukraine from the start of the conflict escalation and it is speculated that at one point they were tasked with assassinating the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

They have been in conflict with Wagner due to a lot of Wagner fighters moving to Redut to get better wages. (16) Redut has more overseas experience than Patriot and experts believe that they are most likely to take control of Wagner's overseas operations in Syria, CAR and Mali, despite the fact that Wagner PMC has claimed it will remain active in Africa despite ceasing its operations in Ukraine.

 

3 - Convoy

Convoy was founded in Crimea in 2022 by Sergey Aksyonov – Russia's appointed leader of annexed Crimea and a close ally of Vladimir Putin. Convoy have seemed to be capitalising on the fall out in relations between PMC Wagner and the Russian state as their recruitment drives have coincided with the deterioration in relations between Wagner and Russia. They are continuing to grow in numbers and serve in Ukraine but for now remain a small player. (20)

 

4 - Kadyrovites

The Kadyrovites are considered a PMC, though they are also (to some extent) a regional army in the Chechnya region of Russia. They are a paramilitary founded by former Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov in 1999 as a response to Chechen separatists trying to secede from Russia. They had the backing of Moscow and were successful in gaining control of Chechnya. When Kadyrov was elected  president of Chechnya, the group essentially acted as his personal bodyguards. His son Ramzan Kadyrov now leads the Kadyrovites and leads the Chechen Republic. The Kadyrovites have a particularly brutal reputation amongst Ukrainians and amongst other Russian units. They have been accused of a platitude of war crimes, including executing injured soldiers on their own side who could not fight anymore, as well as the torture of civilians. It has been speculated that their presence in the war is more about the psychological effect and the fear they instil in Ukrainians because their successes on the battlefield have actually been pretty low. Allegedly, Chechen fighters are often deployed on the frontline and used as cannon fodder because they are seen as more dispensable by Russian generals and commanders. (20)

 

5 - Gazprom

 

Gazprom – the Russian state gas company who sponsored The UEFA Champions League for years as well as numerous high profile sports clubs, stadiums and events – are now in the PMC game too. 

After Russia's full scale invasion in 2022, many Russian corporations were sanctioned and cut off by Western states. Gazprom escaped these sanctions probably simply due to Europe's complete reliance on Russian gas.

Despite this, Gazprom controls many gas fields in Ukraine. They have now sponsored multiple PMCs which have been registered as “private security companies”. The plausible excuse that was given by Gazprom was that these are security companies sent in to protect Gazprom's assets in Ukraine amidst the ongoing war. This approach is not uncommon and has also been used regularly by Western countries, including the US, but it is believed that Gazprom's PMCs are involved in more on-the-ground combat outside of protecting their facilities. Gazprom has always been very closely linked with Vladimir Putin. (17)

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Graphic created by Molfar showing the links and connections between Russian PMCs and Russias elite and powerful.

The Future of PMCs in Russia

With the downfall of Wagner, will another PMC take their place? Unlikely. The Russian state will not allow another PMC to grow and gain as much power and influence as Wagner did. This is why they may be encouraging the use of so many different PMCs in the war – they continue to reap the benefits of PMCs whilst also diluting the individual power of each one. All the active PMCs in Ukraine since July 1st, 2023 have signed up to a bill put forward by defence minister Sergei Shoigu that has, to a certain extent, integrated them more into the official ranks of the Russian military and given the Russian state more control over them. In return for this, the PMCs have received more legitimacy and legal backing from the Russian state.

The PMCs explored in this analysis are some of the main players, although there are undoubtedly many more at play. These Private Military Companies are all motivated primarily by profit. As each active PMC fights for power and control, whilst also trying to win the favour of Vladimir Putin, there will be some that come out as the winners and some that come out near the bottom.

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

  1. 2023. Lieven, Anatol “The failed Wagner coup shows Vladimir Putin’s regime remains stubbornly strong” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/jun/29/failed-wagner-coup-vladimir-putin-regime-strong-yevgeny-prighozin

  2. 2023. “Wagner chief's 24 hours of chaos in Russia” BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-66006880

  3. 2023. Rohac, Dalibor “Wagner Group’s ‘coup’ was short-lived, but the end is near for Putin” New York Post. https://nypost.com/2023/06/24/wagner-groups-coup-was-short-lived-but-the-end-is-near-for-putin/

  4. 2023. Harding, Luke. “The Wagner uprising: 24 hours that shook Russia” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jun/25/prigozhins-march-on-moscow-chronology-of-an-attempted-coup

  5. 2023. Yerushalmy, Jonathan. “Rostov-on-Don: why has Russian city been targeted by Wagner group?” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jun/24/rostov-on-don-why-russian-city-targeted-wagner-group

  6. 2023. Luna, Nathan. Vredenbregt, Leah. Pereira, Ivan. “What is the Wagner Group? The 'brutal' Russian military unit in Ukraine” ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/International/International/wagner-group-brutal-russian-military-group-fighting-ukraine/story?id=96665326

  7. 2023. Rampe, William. “What Is Russia’s Wagner Group Doing in Africa?” CFR. https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/what-russias-wagner-group-doing-africa

  8. 2023. Blazakis, Jason. Clarke, Colin P. Chowdhury Fink, Naureen. Steinberg, Sean “Wagner Group: Evolution of a Private Military” The Soufan Centre

  9. 2019. Rondeaux, Candace. “Decoding the Wagner group: analysing the role of private military security contractors in Russian proxy warfare”. Arizona State University.

  10. 2023. Helsel, Phil. “What is the Wagner Group? A look at the mercenary group led by man accused of ‘armed mutiny’ in Russia” CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2023/06/24/what-is-the-wagner-group-led-by-man-accused-of-mutiny-in-russia.html

  11. 2022. McFate, Sean “The Mercenaries Behind The Bucha Massacre” Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/mercenaries-behind-bucha-massacre-russia-ukraine-putin-attack-terror-brutality-wagner-group-moscow-geneva-convention-war-crimes-atrocities-11649797041

  12. Faite, Alexandre “Involvement of Private Contractors in Armed Conflict: Implications under International Humanitarian Law.” International Committee of The Red Cross.

  13. 2023. Anaysis and research team “The Business of War - Growing risks from Private Military Companies” Council of European Union Analysis and Research team.

  14. 2022. El Mquirmi, Nihal “Private military and security companies - a new form of mercenarism?” Policy Center for the New South.

  15. Katz, Brian. Jones, Seth G. Doxsee, Catrina. Harrington, Nicholas “The Expansion of Russian Private Military Companies” Centre for Strategic International Studies. https://russianpmcs.csis.org/

  16. 2023. Bauer, Ryan. Mueller, Erik E. “Ukraine Is a Breeding Ground for Russian PMCs” The RAND Blog. https://www.rand.org/blog/2023/06/ukraine-is-a-breeding-ground-for-russian-pmcs.html

  17. Catalog of Russian PMCs: 37 private military companies of The Russian Federation” Molfar. https://molfar.com/en/blog/catalog-of-russian-pmcs

  18. 2020. Stronski, Paul. “Implausible Deniability: Russia’s Private Military Companies” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/06/02/implausible-deniability-russia-s-private-military-companies-pub-81954

  19. 2023. Sheftalovich, Zoya. “Russias private armies” Politico. https://www.politico.com/newsletters/global-insider/2023/06/28/russias-private-armies-00103991

  20. 2023. Krutov, Mark. Dobrynin, Sergei. “Who's Who Among Russia's Mercenary Companies” Radio Free Europe. https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-other-mercenary-companies-ukraine/32424520.html

  21. 2023. Sauvage, Gregoire. “Private Russian military companies are multiplying – and so are the Kremlin’s problems” France24. https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20230716-private-russian-military-companies-are-multiplying-%E2%80%93-and-so-are-the-kremlin-s-problems

  22. 2019. Dahlquist, Nils. “Russia’s (not so) Private Military Companies” Swedish Defence Research Agency.

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