Security forces inspect at the site after a Russian missile attack as Russia-Ukraine war continues in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on July 19, 2022. (FILE PHOTO by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Since the turn of the century, private military and security companies (PMSCs) have played an increasingly important role in conflict zones. Because the lines between private military companies and private security companies are often blurred, the all-encompassing PMSC term is used to describe them.
While PMSCs became more prominent in the immediate post-Cold War era, it was the US-led war on terror that saw them become major actors in warfare. During the peak of the US military campaign in Iraq in 2007, for example, the 160 000 troops deployed by Washington were outnumbered by more than 180 000 contractors working there. Additionally, contractor deaths exceeded those of US military personnel during the US campaign in Afghanistan.
But following several high-profile incidents involving US PMSCs, particularly the company formerly known as Blackwater and now called Academi, Western PMSCs came under heavier public scrutiny. The 2008 Montreux Document, since signed by almost 60 countries, was put forward to regulate the growing PMSC industry and provided limitations on their use in armed conflicts.
Russia is one of many countries that is yet to sign the document, but Russian PMSCs have existed for decades. The earliest modern Russian variants developed in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union underwent economic reform. Amid the rising criminal and militant activity, the crumbling Soviet security state was unable to manage privatisation and enforce financial agreements, leading to further acceleration of this process as security structures were significantly downsized following the Soviet collapse.
Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin granted Russian security and detective firms increased weapons and arrest powers throughout the 1990s and by the end of the decade, there were “6 775 private security firms and 4 612 armed security services … registered in Russia”. Often, Russian PMSCs were little more than protection rackets run by organised crime.
Although PMSCs were legalised in Russia for domestic purposes, their use in conflict zones was not. The Kremlin sought to avoid creating friction with the country’s armed forces, as well as potentially balkanizing Russia’s security structures into smaller factions. To bypass this, Russian PMSCs were simply registered overseas. Russian PMSCs sent thousands of personnel to fight in the Yugoslav wars and in conflicts across the former Soviet Union, but their effects were limited.
The Kremlin reestablished a strong security state in Russia after Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000. But observing the use and legitimisation of PMSCs during the war on terror, the Kremlin again began to entertain the possibility of using PMSCs to promote Russian foreign policy. While not committing to legalisation, Putin stated in 2012 that “such companies are a way of implementing national interests without the direct involvement of the state”. By avoiding legalisation, Russia also did not have to admit it was employing PMSCs or publish about their deaths.
Russia’s major resource companies had also already been granted exemptions from employing PMSCs abroad. In 2008, Transneft and Gazprom were permitted to use armed forces to protect their assets with some limitations “concerning the kind of weapons these forces might use”.
The Kremlin’s first major experiment with PMSCs under Putin was in Syria. The Moran Security Group had aided the Syrian government since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011 and it set up a new entity, the Slavonic Corps, to fight the Islamic State in 2013. Its mission, however, proved unsuccessful and the Slavonic Corps was disbanded shortly after.
But following the initial outbreak of the war in Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin leaned heavily on Russian PMSCs to support its war effort. The Wagner Group, a Russian PMSC believed to have been created that year, took a central role in taking Crimea. And as Russia attempted to downplay its role in the war in the Donbas region, Russian PMSCs became notable for operating on the frontline.
Russian PMSCs have recruited citizens from across Europe and beyond to fill their ranks. In addition, Wagner personnel were used to help keep in line other pro-Kremlin militias operating in Ukraine, granting them the nickname “the cleaners”.
The success of Wagner and other Russian PMSCs in Ukraine played heavily into the Kremlin’s decision to redeploy them to Syria in 2015. Shortly after the beginning of the Russian military intervention, Wagner personnel began to be deployed on Russian military planes and they have become integral to the Kremlin’s war effort.
In one instance in 2018, hundreds of Wagner personnel were killed by a US air strike in Syria after they attacked a base occupied by the US and allied militants. Despite this setback, Wagner has managed to find significant success in the war. Its contractors were essential to retaking the city of Palmyra in Syria and have been granted partial rights over Syrian oil and gas facilities that were reclaimed from Islamic State and other rebel groups.
Russian PMSCs have also helped Russia expand its presence in Africa, a continent typically dominated by British, French, US and Chinese interests. In Libya, Russian PMSCs have supported Libyan military commander General Khalifa Haftar and helped the Kremlin expand its influence in the country. Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic, and other African countries have also hosted and employed Wagner personnel and those from other Russian PMSCs.
As Russia significantly escalated its military involvement in Ukraine in 2022, it again turned to PMSCs to achieve its objectives. Wagner has recruited across Syria and beyond to bring troops to fight in Ukraine’s Donbas region, with the company’s ranks swelling by the thousands since the beginning of the invasion.
But this suggests that other countries may seek to help Ukraine by sending their own PMSCs. Ukraine has used its own private military companies to fight back against Russian forces for years, while US and European contractors have also shown renewed interest in deployment opportunities in Ukraine since February.
The risks of clashes between the West and Russia through PMSCs should not be overlooked. Besides the battle between the US military and Wagner in Syria in 2018, close to 100 Wagner troops were sent to Venezuela in 2019 to help support President Nicolás Maduro’s government. Erik Prince, the creator of Blackwater, meanwhile, suggested using US PMSCs to topple Maduro, according to a 2019 Reuters article, demonstrating the increasing likelihood of interference by such companies in trying to influence policy decisions as the profiles of PMSCs continue to grow.
Preparing for confrontation (and de-escalation) between Western and Russian military forces and PMSCs should therefore be a priority for political and military leaders. Failing to do so could result in the war in Ukraine spiralling into a more direct conflict between nuclear powers as private actors increase their roles in the war.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.