Russian Mercenaries In Syria And Around The World

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Written and produced by SF Team: J.Hawk, Daniel Deiss, Edwin Watson

The December 9, 2016 Kremlin celebration of the Fatherland Heroes’ Day brought attention to one of obscure components of Russian clandestine paramilitary capabilities, when a photo featuring President Vladimir Putin and the leadership of the so-called Vagner Private Military Company surfaced on social media.

Vagner is the pseudonym of Dmitriy Utkin, a retired member of the Russian Armed Forces who at the time of his discharge commanded the 700th Special Operations Detachment of the 2nd Separate Special Operations Brigade of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense.  He has gained experience in PMC operations while employed by the Moran Security Group where he participated in Somalia counter-pirate operations. Vagner’s deputy commander is also a Russian military veteran, Vadim Troshev.

Vagner represents Russia’s most ambitious experiment with the PMC concept. Elsewhere in the world, PMCs such as the Executive Outcomes and Erik Prince’s original Blackwater, which began as  corporate security outfits, have evolved into de-facto extensions of national military power, occupying the niche between covert action and the deployment of regular special operations and elite forces.

As of this writing, the Russian government has not yet adopted a clear policy concerning the existence of PMCs in Russia. While a bill was introduced before the State Duma that  would have provided a legal framework for Russian PMCs, it was tabled after some discussion. It would appear that the Russian government is in a “wait and see” mode, and the ultimate decision will depend on a number of factors. The first is the nature of Russia-West relations in the era of Trump, Brexit, and prospective wins by anti-globalist parties in the EU. Should the relationship evolve in the direction of cooperation rather than confrontation, it would reduce the need for PMCs. The second factor is the Syria experience, which is the the largest and most overt demonstration of the Russian PMCs to date, even though PMCs have been employed in achieving Russian state objectives for over a decade. Their usefulness has been demonstrated in Crimea and the Donbass, where a high number of quasi-PMCs were incorporated into the general concept of operation in order to fulfill missions that could not be performed by the Novorossia militias or regular Russian military forces for military or political reasons.

Syria is not only a more protracted and high-intensity operation, but also an opportunity to evaluate the relative advantages and drawbacks of relying on PMCs, as opposed to regular special operations forces and other elite formations. In that respect, Syria shows the evolutionary maturation of the PMC concept that gradually came of age during various operations in Central Asia, Caucasus, Crimea, and Donbass.  In contrast to the US experience which adopted a top-down model of PMC use, the precursors of the current Russian PMCs arose spontaneously, in response to market demands, as it were, both around Russia’s borders and around the world, and which tapped into a large pool of trained veterans of Afghanistan and Chechnya. Ironically, Russian PMCs owe a lot to the United States or other Western powers which used Russian “privateers” in a variety of operations, including in Iraq. Even Vagner’s operations in Syria are the result of Dmitriy Utkin’s initiative. It is only in the last few years that the Russian Ministry of Defense decided to weave PMCs into the broader array of forces at its disposal, and Vagner’s effectiveness has provided an additional stimulus toward formally institutionalizing the relationship between PMCs and the Russian MOD.

Since Vagner’s existence or participation in the Syria operation has not been officially acknowledged, there are no reliable reports on the number of Vagner operators or the functions they perform. Some estimates run into as many as 400 operators in the country where they are more likely to see frontline combat than the active duty Russian troops.  Vagner also suffered an unspecified number of casualties, including fatalities.

Finally, there is the question of what relationship will exist between the PMCs, the covert operations community, and the special operations formations on which the PMCs will naturally rely for recruits. The heavy US reliance on relatively undisciplined security contractors during its infamous Global War on Terror had the effect of increasing the death toll among the Iraqi and Afghan civilians who perished at the hands of PMC operators who were not accountable to either US or local laws, and of provoking an outflow of trained cadres from the US special operations units who opted for the far higher salaries and personal freedom that the US PMCs offer.

What that formalized relationship will look like may never be publicly known, for there are good reasons to maintain a certain level of secrecy surrounding what is, after all, an instrument of clandestine paramilitary action, which may also be a reason why a PMC law has not been formally adopted. However, considering that Vagner operators have received high military decorations for their contributions in Syria, it appears that Russian PMCs are here to say, and that they will enjoy a high level of prominence in the future. The recent talks with Libyan military leaders aboard the Admiral Kuznetsov suggest that Syria is not going to be the last battlefield for Russian PMCs.

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  • Igor Ochocinszk

    In 21st century we don’t use word “mercenary”. It’s private military service, like any other service business, doing service in exchange for monetary profit.

    • How about “Security Contractor”?

      • Jacek Wolski

        How about “Foreign Legion”?

    • Southern

      Anyone can use the word mercenary, there’s no law against it !!!

    • Barba_Papa

      What is this? Political correctness for mercenaries? When mercenaries first started to be used in Europe, in late medieval times, they were also part of private companies. Private military service by the book. They were notoriously unreliable because governments were even more unreliable in paying them on time. Or not.

      It was only centuries later that governments did away with mercenary companies and started to hire them directly. And thus the professional solder was born. Or more like reborn as the Roman legionnaires were just the same. It probably wasn’t until the 19th century that professional soldiers were more driven by actual patriotism then love for money.

  • Bill Rood

    The Praetorian Guard was the power behind Roman emperors and often participated in palace coups, assassinating the current emperor and installing their chosen replacement. PMCs will be loyal to the highest bidder, rather than to the general population of a state. They are a danger to democracies, essential to authoritarianism.

    • Nigel Maund

      Very good commentary and spot on; thanks!

    • Barba_Papa

      I think they’re less a danger to democracies then to autocracies. Because in the former power comes from the ballot box and in well established democracies armies tend to abide by the outcome. Politicians in democracies tend to love to use mercenaries because a dead mercenary causes no public outcry, whereas a dead soldier does. But PMC’s can cause little damage in a democracy because compared to the regular army they are small and number and lightly armed. They’re usually not well liked either by the regular army leaving them with few allies.

      In an autocracy however the ruler is never truly secure in the loyalty of his army, as any general can and often is a potential rival who may think he will do a better job, And while a praetorian guard of either very well paid professional soldiers, who are essentially mercenaries, or some Republican Guard recruited from the rules own tribe, or Janisaries/Mamluks recruited from foreign born slaves, may be a solution as they are more loyal then the regular army in the short run, history has shown that again and again these soldiers realize that they hold the keys to the palace and are therefore king makers. And start to act as such.

      In the end only well established democracies have solved the age old problem of how to keep the army in the barracks and from assaulting the government. History is full of all sorts of states and forms of governments where they tried and ultimately failed. Because while a state needs an army to defend itself, who defends the state from the army?

      • Bill Rood

        I said they were essential to authoritarianism, not essential to the authoritarian. I pointed out that they are a danger to the individual dictator, especially if they begin to view him as incompetent.

        Once the praetorians have overthrown the democracy, they will not restore it. It’s authoritarianism forever unless a countervailing force arises, like German tribes.

  • People who do this work are evil.
    The CIA and Mossad and Mi6 employ the most “hire for murder” people in the world.
    They think of themselves as “heroes” but this is just some lie Lucifer whispered into their ears.
    And and, Lucifer pays them very well for it.

  • Paulo Romero

    If they are governed by better laws than those applied by the US State Department for Blackwater contractors then they should be allowed to work in Syria and elsewhere. Furthermore there’s far better racial and ethnic integration amongst people in the Russian forces than elsewhere. This implies that they will have many people of Muslim origin within their ranks that will make civilian interaction far more effective for them in the Middle East. This is better than the way Blackwater used to operate , like a law unto themselves. Communication with the civil population was abrupt and minimal , with the PMC’s more likely to shoot than talk. If the Russians blend in , work well with the local population and respect international law , let them earn money for risking their lives in combat.

  • Mish

    The existence of Russian private military companies is a myth. Vagner is a particular myth with origins in Ukro propaganda. This guy Utkin who received the national award is only allegedly the leader of Vagner which only allegedly exists, according to Ukro prop. The phrase that “this is not going to be the last batrtlefield…” is highly provocative, justiying the Russia fear-mongering in the baltics and elsewhere, which was incited and continues to be fueled to order.

  • Ronald

    In Iraq the US employs as many contractors as it has uniformed soldiers , may be more . Politically that is very useful , as the numbers of “boots on the ground” is kept low , while they provide very real extra strength to regular forces . I would actually like to see the creation of a “Sikh Foreign Legion”. My choice of Sikhs is based on their history , when the Muslims invaded India in the 1400’s they stood up to them and stopped the forced conversion of Hindus , Jains , Buddhists etc . The Sikhs are a religious and martial blend of the Warrior caste of the Hindus. As their home is India and Pakistan , (Punjab) they are familiar with Islam , and can tell the difference between a regular Sunni and a Salafist . Ideally Syria could use them to beef up its military strength .

    • Jacek Wolski

      I’d pick the Gurkhas. Brave, loyal and give no quarters. Good example was in Afghanistan in 2010, as acting Sergeant Dipprasad Pun single-handedly fought off 30 Taliban soldiers and defeated them all. There are many others.

      • Ronald

        Jacek Wolski : The Gurkhas are the real elite as for as warriors go . The only problem is there are not enough of them ! The Sikhs run beside them though , trained from childhood in their own brand of martial arts , and most importantly , instilled with the highest moral ethics . The real bonus is they have a 500 year history of dealing with “extremist Islamic’s”
        Like the Sufi’s they wear turbans , and blend easily with Muslims . They straddle both sides of the Indian – Pakistan border and are numerous . Assad could well afford them , and they are loyal .

  • Sund Fornuft

    Good, you can mix them between the “black lifes matter” movement. Just send them to a long vacation to get some tan first.

  • kemerd

    use of professional soldiers is a slippery slope, they are mercenaries that fight for money and there is no lower ethical standing from that. Sooner or later they would discover that their service would be higher value to “competitors” of their current bosses and just decide switch sides.

    And, it is no wonder all of the empires in the history always use mercenaries for the simple reason that imperial wars does not need any justification other than a “winning prize” whereas a regular soldier that is drafted would like to be assured that he is fighting to defend his motherland and nothing else.

    If true, this story does not bode well for Russia.