From Russia, With War

by David Isenberg

Although largely unrecognized by the rest of the world, Russia already has a substantial private military and security industry complex. Ironically, in the past the United States has even availed itself of its services. Before Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was caught in 2008 in a sting operation and subsequently convicted, the Pentagon used his airline, Air Bas, to fly equipment into Baghdad airport for the use of U.S. military forces.

To date, Russian private military contractors (PMC) were largely an instrument of Russian state power. But that may be changing. In the future Russian PMCs may be able to operate more independent of state control. If that happens, global efforts to better control and regulate the private military and security contracting sector may become much more difficult.

The military affairs oriented website War is Boring recently reported that on January 28, the Duma began discussing the possibility of legalizing private military companies in Russia. This is not the first time the issue has come up in Russia. Last fall, the Russian cabinet rejected a bill, sponsored by Gennady Nosovko of the center-left party Fair Russia, to regulate the work of private military companies because of legal weaknesses and security fears.

The rejection of this bill last fall seems to have led directly to the current discussion. Nosovko, disappointed at its rejection, promised to rework the draft and submit it again last November. If the reworked piece of legislation was rejected again, he promised to bypass the government and send it directly to the State Duma before the end of 2015.

Russian reasons for regulating contractors differ from those of Western countries. In states like the US and the UK, concerns are largely about how to do proper oversight and accountability of PMCs operating in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Russian concerns are more oriented toward internal security. According to Nosovko:

Izvestia quoted an unnamed source in one of Russia’s “power agencies” who said the government had rejected the bill because a section concerning state regulation lacked detail. “The main question is which organization, the Defense Ministry or the Federal Security Service of the Interior Ministry, would control tens thousands of “Rambos” to make sure that they would not turn their arms against the state itself,” the source said.

Even the most vehement critics of PMCs in the West have never had that fear.

The Russian public, meanwhile, is not enthusiastic about PMCs. A poll conducted in 2014 by the Public Opinion Fund found that 18% of respondents were in favor of their use, while 78% were against.

But Russian authorities are right to be wary, even if they have been instrumental in their creation and growth.

According to some news reports, Russian PMCs have acted in a far more combat-oriented role in the Ukraine than US or UK counterparts did in Iraq or Afghanistan. Last November, Inform Napalm, a “volunteer initiative to inform both Ukrainian citizens and the foreign public about the crises in Ukraine” published an article about the history and use of Russian PMCs. It noted that 10 private Russian military companies have conducted a range of operations in Ukraine, including training, demining, working with the FSB (the successor of the KGB), selling military goods, delivering “humanitarian aid,” and protecting cargo. In addition, operatives from ATK GROUP, Slavonic Corps Limited, and Vizantiya have been encountered in both eastern Ukraine and Syria. A delegation of the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries will visit Ukraine from March 14 to 18 to gather information on the activities of alleged mercenaries and foreign fighters, as well as private military and security companies.

Just like their counterparts from other countries Russia contractors have taken casualties. Last December up to nine Russian contractors reportedly died in Syria. Also like their Western counterparts Russian PMCs have been reportedly involved in scandal. Last July the British Guardian reported that:

The United Nations has spent half a billion dollars on contracts with a Russian aviation company since discovering one of its helicopter crews in the Democratic Republic of the Congo drugged and raped a teenage girl in a sexual attack.

Senior UN officials considered terminating the company UTair’s contract after concluding that the incident, in which the girl was dumped naked and unconscious inside the helicopter base, was indicative of a wider culture of sexual exploitation at the company.

If PMCs become a legitimate market sector in Russia they won’t lack for work. As the St. Petersburg Times reported in 2014, “One area where Russian PMSCs would be in certain demand is foreign projects by Russian transnational corporations such as Gazprom or RusAl, which currently employ Western PMSCs.” UN contracts for logistical and infrastructural support of UN peace operations are another bright prospect, according to the Times. “Russia used to be the UN‘s second-biggest overall contractor for infrastructural support for such operations (even without PMSCs), though it has dropped out of the top 10 in recent years.”

If Russian PMCs enter the global market in large numbers, it would mark the end of the international status quo where most PMCs come from just a handful of countries, namely the United States and the United Kingdom. In a sense it would be similar to the few years after World War II when the United States was the only country in the world to have nuclear weapons, until Russia held its first nuclear test on August 29, 1949. France and China have also sought to help their PMCs get a bigger piece of the global insecurity and conflict market. If Russia breaks the US and UK stranglehold on the market, others are sure to follow.

Photo: Unidentified gunmen at the Simferopol airport in Crimea.

David Isenberg

David Isenberg is an independent researcher and writer on U.S. military, foreign policy, and national and international security issues. He a senior analyst with the online geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and is a U.S. Navy veteran. He is the author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq. His blog, The PMSC Observer, focuses on private military and security contracting, a subject he has testified on to Congress.