The private military contractors on the front lines of Russia's foreign policy
In 2018, there was a direct clash between Russian and American forces. The battle took place near the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zur when Russian-Syrian forces assaulted a Kurdish military base that had a U.S. military presence which successfully beaten back the attack. A notable aspect of the Russian contingent of the attacking force was that they were not soldiers of the army of the Russian Federation but were the personnel of the Wagner Group, a prominent Russian Private Military Contractor (PMC). The Battle of Deir ez-Zur was not an isolated incident, as the Russian government has been steadily increasing the use of PMCs in the pursuit of Russian interests and foreign policy objectives. Despite the lack of transparency from the Russian government about it's of PMCs, since 2018 there has been an increasing clarity of how Russia utilizes PMC forces to its advantage in different regions of the world. Russia has sought to use PMC forces to advance Russian strategic objectives in Ukraine, Syria, and Africa.
Russia’s recent embrace of PMCs began in Ukraine during the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the commencement of military support to pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. PMCs were one of the first Russian forces to enter the country and engaged in activities that supported Russian military operations in Ukraine, ranging from reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering to infantry actions and VIP security. As the conflict in Ukraine intensified, Russian PMCs such as the Wagner Group aided and were involved in training Pro-Russian rebel groups in Eastern Ukraine fighting Ukrainian government forces. Russia also began using PMCs to consolidate their influence among the Eastern Ukrainian separatist factions by assassinating dissident rebel commanders and disarming rebel groups opposed to Russia. These activities of Russian PMCs in the Ukrainian conflict showcase how Russia has sought to use PMCs to increase their power projection capabilities, enhance military effectiveness of pro-Russian forces, and consolidate their influence in Eastern Ukraine.
After the successful use of PMC forces in Ukraine, Russia began deploying PMCs into Syria as part of their military intervention to prop up the Assad regime beginning in 2015. Use of Russian PMC forces provided several benefits to Russian policymakers seeking to accomplish their political objectives in Syria. Like in Ukraine, PMCs were successfully used to train and prepare pro-Assad regime forces such as the 5th Assault Corps which had its officer corps trained by Russian PMCs and became the primary assault force for the Assad regime military operations in 2018. Russian PMCs forces also became useful in Syria for purposes of plausible deniability due to there being no official connection between the Russian government and Russian PMC forces, as shown by the example of the Battle of Deir Ez-Zzor, where Russian forces engaged in combat with American forces could be disavowed after the battle to minimize diplomatic fallout, as well as minimize domestic backlash in Russia where mounting casualties of official Russian soldiers would be unpopular but dead PMC personnel would barely elicit a public reaction.
Furthermore, Russian PMCs more specifically the Wagner Group were able to be used by the Russian government and the Assad Regime to seize and secure oil and gas fields from rebel factions, thus accomplishing an important Russian strategic goal in the Syrian Civil War as well as freeing up manpower for other military operations. Like Ukraine, Russian PMCs in Syria were used to enhance the military effectiveness of pro-Russian forces, accomplish political objectives, and support official Russian military operations through the utilization of PMCs for auxiliary tasks such as energy security.
After Russia experienced major success with the utilization of PMCs in both Ukraine and Syria, Russia has begun to operationalize its connections to these Private Military Contractors, to use these PMCs routinely to project power abroad. The most recent region where Russia has now begun deploying PMC forces is now Africa, where reports are now circulating about Russian PMCs operation in several African countries. In conjunction with a diplomatic push by the Russian government seeking to increase its influence in Africa, Russian PMCs like the Wagner Group have expanded into Sudan, the Central African Republic, and likely Libya. In Sudan, Russian PMCs were used to train the Sudanese armed forces which facilitated Russia’s ability to secure a major investment deal in Sudanese gold deposits as well as increased interest in Russian military systems and weapons by the country and the region. In the Central African Republic, where a power vacuum is present due to the withdrawal of US troops and opposition to French influence, Russia has sought to increase its political influence in the country by increasing investments in the CAR mining sector which is feasible due to Russian PMCs being used to stabilize the internal security situation in the country. Furthermore, while no official confirmation is currently available of Russian PMCs being deployed into Libya, there are indications that Russian PMCs are likely being or about to be used in Libya likely to safeguard Russian interests in the Libyan oil industry.
Over the past couple of years, Russia has rapidly developed a capability of utilizing and deploying Private Military Contractors to accomplish a variety of strategic and foreign policy objectives. In Ukraine and Syria, Russian PMCs were used to support local pro-Russian forces, accomplish political objectives, and support official Russian military operations. In Africa, a clear pattern is emerging of Russian PMCs being used to protect and expand Russian economic interests on the Continent. Russia will likely continue to increase its the use of Private Military Contractors in its foreign policy. Increasingly, Russia has embraced the business of war.
Photo credit Chas Pik, Creative Commons