Burkina Faso joined its neighbour Mali in January in expelling French forces and exploring hiring Russian private military companies (PMCs) to replace them. These African countries are not alone, as Russian PMCs continue to operate in many countries around the world. The best known of them is the Wagner Group that took part in the Crimean crisis in 2014 and is now taking part in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Numerous factors, some external and others domestic related to the return to power of Russian President Vladimir Putin, led the Russians to follow the US and Western model of such companies.
With the collapse of the former Soviet Union and end of the Cold War in 1991, the Western powers shifted away from the principle that the state should have the sole right to the use of military force and began to use the paramilitary forces of private contractors like the Titan Corporation, MPRI, Blackwater, DynCorp and CACI in the conflicts in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan despite the fact that the UN Security Council has never issued a mandate permitting such deployments abroad.
As a consequence of the breakup of the Soviet Union, vast numbers of Russian military and security personnel were discharged. Many of them established relations with private military and security firms abroad, especially US and British ones (DynCorp and Blackwater) which operated in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At the same time, entire Soviet military units that had been dissolved after the collapse formed private military firms. The Alpha Group was a Soviet-era counterterrorism task force that then became attached to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Rubikon, which oversaw arrangements for organising transport for volunteers to combat fronts, fought alongside the Serbs during the Yugoslav Civil War in the 1990s.
Such companies were given a boost with Putin’s rise to power in 2000 and the privatisation of many economic sectors in Russia, leading to the establishment of major defence and energy companies in which the state retained a majority share. The management of these companies was assigned to intelligence and political leaders close to Putin such as Sergei Ivanov, Igor Sechin, and Sergey Chemezov.
These firms needed security, so they turned to Russian private contractors to perform the tasks of private security companies everywhere, namely to protect their premises, staff, and activities. However, the security companies also performed military functions abroad, whether attached to the Russian military or in collaboration with the forces of Russian allies.
From 2000 to 2021, there was an increase in Russian PMCs to around 20 major firms, according to some intelligence agencies. Prominent examples are Lukom-A, founded in 1992 by the Russian oil company Lukoil to protect its investments in Iraq, Anti-Terror Orel, founded in the Russian city of Orel (Oryol) in 2003 as a “non-governmental education and training centre,” and the Moran Security Group, an offshoot of Oral that was registered in 1998 and eventually established a subsidiary in Hong Kong called Slavonic Corps owned by former Moran Group deputy director Vadim Gusev.
The Wagner Group surfaced for the first time in 2014 during the war in the Donbas. Founded by Dmitry Utkin, a military intelligence officer, it has roots in other PMCs including Anti-Terror Orel, Moran, and the Slavonic Corps.
According to a report published by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in July 2021, the number of countries in which these Russian PMCs operate increased sevenfold from four in 2015 to 27 in 2021. They have been particularly active in Africa (in, for example, Botswana, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Madagascar, Sudan, Mozambique, Tanzania, Mali and Eritrea), but they have also operated in Latin America (Venezuela), Europe (Belarus, Serbia, and Ukraine), the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, and Yemen), Southwest Asia (Afghanistan), and the Caucasus (Azerbaijan).
The Russian PMCs serve the Russian state in various ways. They are used to support the governments of allied nations against uprisings and revolutions, to protect vital economic interests and facilities abroad, and to perform and secure logistical operations for the procurement, transport, and distribution of raw and primary materials.
In short, they are a cost-effective means for Russia to achieve important foreign-policy goals without having to officially engage in conflict. On the one hand, this averts the risk of public anger over Russian troop losses abroad, as occurred during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, while on the other, it also helps to counter US and Western hegemony and work towards a multipolar order.
The roles and services the PMCs perform vary according to needs and circumstances. For example, the functions they are required to perform in Libya are not the same as they are in Syria. Moscow has a relatively limited role to play in Libya compared to its role in Syria. In the former, the PMCs serve economic and political purposes intended to ensure that Russia has a place in any political settlement process, while in the latter they support and sustain a strategic alliance.
In the Central African Republic, Russian PMCs have been engaged by the Russian Lobaye Invest Company to support gold and diamond mining activities. They also train the Republic’s presidential guards and army. In northern Mozambique, they serve in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) group. In Sudan, Wagner PMC oversees a camp recently established in Omdurman to train Sudanese special forces and intelligence operatives.
But regardless of how their functions might vary from one country to another, the Russian PMCs all perform the following services: providing operational and tactical support during military operations; training governmental and non-governmental forces; collecting and analysing intelligence information; protecting commercial vessels and shipments in the ports and high seas; mine removal; securing refugee convoys; protecting and equipping forces; providing onsite security; engaging in propaganda warfare, information gathering and analysis; strategic planning for conflict zones; guarding and security; supplying goods and logistics services to military forces; and participating in combat operations and the recruitment of volunteers.
While Western PMCs perform pretty much the same roles and services, the Russian PMCs differ from their Western counterparts in several respects. They are prohibited by law from operating inside Russia itself, and they engage in offensive operations that the Western PMCs are officially not allowed to do. They also tend to be more ideologically motivated, are less inclined to offer logistics and support services, and operate at the direction of the Russian security agencies and are therefore not governed by market pressures, unlike the Western PMCs.
The Russian PMCs started out under the supervision of the Kremlin and the Russian security agencies. Over the past two decades, the Russian authorities have increasingly come to feel the need for “measures short of war” of the sort that proved successful in defending South Ossetia in 2008.
Developed, strengthened, and honed during the war in Ukraine that began after the regime change in Kyiv in 2014, such measures involve clandestine operations that sometimes include assassinations, the use of mercenaries, unconventional warfare, disinformation campaigns, and other covert activities.
Many of these types of activities have been farmed out to PMCs formed under the auspices of the Russian intelligence agencies.
If Moscow’s use of PMCs to advance its foreign policy goals has met with mixed success, it will probably still continue to refine the Russian model for these firms as it utilises them to broaden its influence in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere where political instability and an abundance of natural resources happens to coincide.
At the same time, the US and the other Western powers will increase the pressure on Moscow and other countries to rein in Russian PMCs that have come to pose a threat to US and Western interests.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly