In the hands of oligarchs close to the Kremlin, they have become a key component of the “hybrid war” strategy that Moscow has been carrying out in at least 30 countries.
Private military companies, such as the Wagner Group, have in recent years become in a vital tool with which Russia expands its influence in the world while defending its interests. Currently, there is a presence of Russian mercenaries in at least 30 countries from four continents, which shows the expansion of this phenomenon that had its first essay in the 2014 Ukraine conflict.
Although mercenary companies are technically illegal under the Russian Constitution, the truth is that they have become a key component of Moscow’s “hybrid warfare” strategy and they offer Russian President Vladimir Putin a means with which “to execute his political objectives and advance Russian national security interests around the world,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in a recent report. .
In general, according to the authors of ‘The wars of the Moscow mercenaries’, these security firms are in the hands of oligarchs close to the Kremlin, as is the case of the owner of the Wagner Group, Yevgeni Prigozhin, who is very close to Putin and is subject to sanctions by the United States.
One of its main tasks is to prop up Russian foreign policy and expand its influence globally, since thanks to mercenaries Moscow can support certain countries or partners.
From a military point of view, given the capabilities of these mercenaries – usually former members of the security forces – allies can be reinforced, while at the same time establishes military presence on stage where there was none and the balance of power is even altered in certain conflicts “while maintaining a plausible degree of denial by the Kremlin,” the authors emphasize.
In addition, mercenaries are more expendable and their use is less risky than the deployment of Russian soldiers, especially in case they die in combat or during training missions. The staff of security companies have also become a source to gather intelligence information, in addition to being able to carry out covert actions and clandestine activities, according to the CSIS.
Security contractors receive training before being sent abroad, in some cases even inside military bases and with the probable support of the Army and intelligence services. For example, according to the report, the Wagner Group trains its men in two camps next to an Intelligence Services (GRU) base in Molkino, in the Krasnodar region.
On the other hand, mercenary companies and firms linked to them in the field of energy, mines, security and logistics also offer the Russian Government a way to “expand your commercial and economic influence in developing countries and build new revenue streams, especially from oil, gas and mineral extraction, to reduce the impact of sanctions, “the report highlights.
Regarding the tasks they carry out, their main task is to train and equip the security forces of the host country or a local militia, which includes training in specialized combat tasks, such as the use of snipers or anti-aircraft defense. Further, work to protect local authorities, even becoming the bodyguards of presidents, as is the case of the Central African Republic.
On some occasions, according to the report, mercenaries linked to the GRU recruit human assets in addition to carrying out surveillance and reconnaissance tasks and carrying out actions of political warfare, sabotage and other covert missions.
Mercenaries are equally deployed to protect key energy infrastructure or mines for both host countries and Russian companies. In addition, both they and the media organizations linked to their companies help to disseminate messages in favor of Russia. In this case, it is particularly famous the ‘troll farm’ owned by Prigozhin, also sanctioned by the United States.
Ukraine was the first country in which Russian mercenaries made an appearance. Before their central role in the conflict in the still-active Donbas region, they were already present at the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. According to the CSIS, at the height of the conflict between separatists and Ukrainian forces there were between 2,500 and 5,000 Russian mercenaries, including from the Wagner Group.
His role was to “destabilize and then consolidate control over Crimea and Donbas, weighing down and pressuring Kiev and its Western allies to make diplomatic concessions”, all “denying any official Russian involvement,” the expert authors of the report underline. Despite this, the contest has ended up becoming in a “frozen conflict” from which Russia has nevertheless been able to draw some lessons to apply in other settings.
Syria has been one of them. Here, Russian mercenaries have been key in propping up the Bashar al Assad regime and slowing down the efforts of the United States and its allies. In addition, they have been crucial in taking over oil fields, refineries, gas plants and other infrastructure that were in the hands of the rebels.
According to CSIS, in this country there have been as many as 1,000 to 3,000 Russian mercenaries from different firms, including the Wagner Group, which have played an increasingly direct role in the combat operations of the Syrian regime and often in sync with Moscow’s economic priorities. This country has also served as a testing ground for a hybrid deployment model that includes state forces and mercenaries.
In the case of Libya, the support of the mercenaries has not been for the government recognized by the international community, but for General Khalifa Haftar, whose forces it has trained and supported in their offensive to take Tripoli. The role of between 800 and 1,200 mercenaries, mainly from the Wagner Group, has also included defending Russian interests in the country.