Not unlike the unfettered bands of hired guns terrorizing the old, wild west in America, Russia’s private military companies (PMCs) have a long reach – but with a geopolitical mission. In its report on Russia’s adventurism in Libya, Liberty Nation raised the specter of the impact that one PMC, the Wagner Group, had on the course of the internal power struggle in Libya. Now we learn from a new Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) analysis of Russia’s use of PMCs that the effect of these irregular soldiers for sale has increased more than conventional wisdom might have thought.
Dr. Seth Jones and his colleagues at CSIS describe in their analysis, entitled “Russia’s Corporate Soldiers,” a highly trained and organized paramilitary force managed by the Russian Ministry of Defense that has operated in over 25 countries. The CSIS assessment unpacks the ubiquity of the Russian extension of its geopolitical reach by explaining the magnitude of the expansion of the Kremlin’s mercenaries across the world. Though the CSIS researchers acknowledge that the Russian Federation-backed mercenaries operate in countries as diverse as Venezuela and Belarus, the heart of the report uses four case studies that provide evidence of the PMCs’ impact. The four are Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Sub-Saharan Africa, where the commercial gunslingers have operated and continue to do so. Each of these countries presents a different environment and challenge for the PMCs. The study provides insight into what’s in it for Russia. Quoting the “2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” the authors report:
“‘Private military and security companies managed by Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin extend Moscow’s military reach at low cost, allowing Russia to disavow its involvement and distance itself from battlefield casualties.’… PMCs also allow Russian leaders and oligarchs – including those close to Putin – a means to expand trade and economic influence in the developing world and build new revenue streams.”
Those revenue streams, according to the authors, include oil and gas resources in Syria; “gold, uranium, arms, and diamonds in the Central African Republic; oil, gold, and arms in Venezuela; and arms and infrastructure projects and hydrocarbons in Libya.” Consequently, to achieve its ends, the Russian Ministry of Defense is very calculating in its choice of where the mercenary troops will carry out operations. As the CSIS report reveals:
“Russia has targeted resource-rich countries with weak governance, including Sudan, the CAR, Madagascar, and Mozambique. Though PMC tasks have varied from case to case to meet local needs, in each of these countries Russia has exchanged military and security support for economic, geopolitical, and military gains.”
For example, Moscow sent the Wagner Group to Sudan to “provide a range of political and military assistance to the then-president Omar al-Bashir to exchange for gold mining concessions and the right to establish a base on the Red Sea.”
Military assistance typically includes weapons, vehicles and helicopters, facilities security, training for local ground forces, and a service somewhat unique to such paramilitary forces: “information operations.” Though not often thought of as an element of mercenary assistance, Russian PMC troops provide very typical “hybrid” or “gray zone” warfare instruction. In Sudan, this assistance took the form of disinformation campaigns including “fake videos to depict protesters as being opposed to Islam, linked to Israel, and supportive of LGBTQ rights” – an anathema to the Sudanese Islamic population.
To their credit, the study’s authors don’t simply describe the problem that PMCs represent for the U.S. and its allies, toss the results over the transom, and say, “there you go, good luck.” On the contrary, the analysis concludes with a thoughtful explanation of the vulnerabilities that attend these paramilitary forces, the opportunities that present themselves to mitigate the potential harm that the PMCs do, and practical options for the U.S. to consider in dealing with the Wagner Group and others of that ilk. One opportunity for blunting the effectiveness of PMC operations is to assist countries in increasing the legal consequences of the mercenaries’ activities. All too often, the paramilitary troops are immune to prosecution in countries where they operate. Zarko Perovic – writing for Lawfare, a publication of the Lawfare Institute associated with Brookings – lamented that prosecuting private militaries is very difficult. He opened his article on the topic with:
“On March 11, a Syrian national filed a complaint in Moscow against a company called the Wagner Group for the torture, killing, and mutilation of his brother by Wagner employees. This complaint is part of a second attempt to criminally prosecute members of this elusive group for this case. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta submitted a complaint regarding the case in 2019, but no action was taken.”
Applying the pressure of legal liability to the unlawful activities of these Russian-sponsored irregular troops will take significant international pressure – pressure which isn’t present to any great extent. According to Dr. Jones and his colleagues, any substantial reining in of Moscow’s unconventional warfare soldiers will take working with European allies and implementing a successful campaign that includes “multiple instruments of national power.” The U.S. would need to apply “diplomatic, financial, intelligence, and information” operations that will be more effective than direct military operations at a tactical level. As the authors put it succinctly: “In short, the U.S. response should be multilateral, multi-domain, and driven by timely intelligence.”
If the U.S. doesn’t consider what the Russian Federation is doing “off the books” and take effective steps to counter PMC operations worldwide, we could soon face a Kremlin with tentacles spanning the globe, having never had to put its national military or treasure at risk.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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