In Russia, there is increasing popular opposition to the growing number of mercenary organizations, especially those working directly for the government. Such activity is illegal and efforts to legalize this sort of thing continue to have problems getting through a largely pro-government parliament. The problem is that there are already some illegal armed groups in the Caucasus that are pro-government and tolerated. And now the Cossacks are being revived, but not yet as armed groups with any degree of independence. Then there are the PMCs (Private Military Companies) that not only exist in Russia but work for the government. Actually, PMCs existed in Russia, in one form or another, since the 1990s. There were largely security firms (personal and facility protection) but many of them attracted paratrooper and Spetsnaz (commando) veterans who were sometimes equipped with infantry weapons, especially for assignments outside Russia.
In addition to the security firms inside Russian, there were other Russian firms that largely operated outside Russia providing legal semi-military services. These activities included providing Russian made transport helicopters, with crews and maintainers, for projects (economic, peacekeeping or smuggling) in remote areas. The flood of Cold War surplus weapons coming out of East Europe and Russia in the 1990s had to be delivered and there were plenty of Cold War surplus An-12 (similar to the U.S. C-130) and An-26 (and two engine version of the An-12) transports available to move the weapons (including over 20 million AK-47 assault rifles and nearly as many machine-guns, pistols RPG rocket launchers and other portable stuff like mortars). Heavier stuff (tanks, artillery, disassembled aircraft) moved by ship, often from Ukrainian ports because Ukraine became independent in 1991 and inherited enormous quantities of Soviet-era weapons because Ukraine was where a lot of this stuff was built (and the factories now belonged to newly independent Ukraine) and even more of it was stored there in anticipation of a war with NATO. Soviet war plans called for waves of mechanized infantry and tank divisions, most of them manned by reservists, picking up their equipment in Ukraine and heading west. That never happened and in the 1990s Ukraine found itself with a lot of fairly modern weapons that it didn’t need.
Ukraine did need cash and legal, illegal and semi-legal ways were found to sell those weapons. There was also a lot of money to be made in delivering the weapons to remote parts of the world. There was also a need for instructors or, in an emergency, operators of more complex systems (like artillery, electronics, jet fighters or helicopters). The Soviet-era armed forces of Russia and East Europe largely demobilized in the 1990s leaving a lot of unemployed troops who had skills weapons exporters could use. The trainers, operators and maintainers could make good money if they were willing to serve in dangerous parts of the world. It was understood that these “foreign experts” were former military and that they arrive armed for self-defense. In most cases, the weapons were never used and when they were it was usually for self-defense. But sprinkled among all those support personnel were a growing number of former paratroopers and Spetsnaz who were hired to fight. Many of these highly trained combat troops found legal or illegal work back home as bodyguards, security specialists or assassins. With the end of the 1990s, most of the cheap and illegal weapons were gone and there were a lot of men with experience moving them and operating in foreign countries as para-military specialists. After 2000 the Russian government had become more efficient and many of the key elected or appointed officials were former KGB and Spetsnaz officers, including Vladimir Putin.
By 2014 Putin found himself with a lot of friends and associates who were very familiar with para-military and mercenary operations. One of these Putin cronies, former Spetsnaz officer Dmytro Utkin had helped revive the Soviet era disinformation (influencing foreign media) operations. Utkin realized that the Internet was the best way to create and spread disinformation and organized the Internet Research Agency and was cited as influencing the 2016 American elections. Russians had been doing this since the 1920s but thanks to the Internet the Russians could do a lot more damage at less cost than in the past.
Utkin also took the lead in forming legal Russian PMCs. His first one, the Wagner Group, got around Russian laws against this sort of thing by registering the company in Argentina and only taking assignments from the Russian government. There were already other Russian PMCs but these were technically (and actually in most cases) security firms that provided trained, armed and legal personnel to guard facilities and key people in Russia and abroad. Some of these security firms did illegal work and the KGB veterans were familiar with this because during the communist period some criminal gangs survived by doing “special tasks” for the KGB. Utkin suggested the use of such PMCs for “special tasks” his boss had in mind for Ukraine. Thus it was Utkin who supplied the unidentified armed men in unmarked uniforms who showed up in Crimea as part of a carefully planned and executed operation to transfer Crimea to from Ukraine to Russia. The PMCs were less successful in grabbing another valuable area, a portion of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas (Donets River Basin industrial region). That takeover operation stalled and the KGB and PMCs are still trying to make it work. T
The PMCs, particularly Utkin's Wagner Group showed up in Syria by late 2015 and after that in other parts of the world. Details of what was going on with these Russian PMCs was successfully kept out of the mass media, in part because Utkin was also quite adept at disinformation and media manipulation in general. But by 2016 details began to get out, usually through the Internet, an information tool that is not easily tamed.
By late 2017 Ukrainian military intelligence analysts presented convincing evidence that a Russian military contractor (that they identified as “Wagner”) had become, in effect, president Putin’s private army in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere. Ukrainians identified Russian Special Operations colonel Dmytro Utkin as the organizer of Wagner. The name “Wagner” was originally the radio call sign for Utkin. The Ukrainians already had a lot of experience with the Wagner firm, which was, and still is, used for a variety of “special tasks” in rebel-controlled areas of Donbas.
Wagner is believed to have several thousand highly skilled (and highly paid) personnel on the payroll. Ukraine and foreign analysts documented that the Wagner firm was a major Russian military contractor providing most of the PMC personnel in Ukraine and Syria. What little was publically known about Wagner was collected from Internet posts (usually in social media) about the death of Wagner employees in Ukraine or Syria. There is so much data like that freely available that it is possible to get a good idea about the size and activities of Warner and other military contractors Russia uses.
By early 2018 Russian officials were scrambling to conceal the impact of a major defeat of Wagner Group combat troops when they tried to attack an American base in eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province). Russia admitted that the “dozens” of foreign troops were killed in eastern Syria during a February 7th battle were no Russian military personnel were present but there were armed Russians there working for Russia. Many of the dead were Russian and the rest were from nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union. The officials admitted that the many wounded Russian military contractors were being treated in Russian military medical facilities in Syria. Russia never revealed the official number about Wagner Group casualties in that battle and as many of 200 Wagner Group personnel may have died. Those who work for Wagner Group sign a non-disclosure agreement which stipulates that if their next of kin provide any details of Wagner Group operations they will not receive the death benefits (up to $80,000) Wagner Group operatives receive if killed.
Initially, Russia would admit that only five Russians were killed. But it turned out all the “Russian” casualties were military contractors from the Wagner Group, the largest military contractor in Russia. While most of the PMS personnel handled security for Russian facilities, in the case of the Deir Ezzor attack, Wagner had formed one of their special combat units normally used to go after ISIL or other difficult foes on the ground. Working for Wagner was not a military secret in Russia and death benefits (up to $80,000 depending on rank and job) are paid promptly and in most cases the body is quietly returned to the family. Friends and family of the Wagner casualties will at least mention the loss on the Internet and after a while, an accurate estimate of contractor casualties could be maintained. Private posts via the Internet or other communications with family tend to become public after a while.
Russian military personnel in Syria are paid nearly as well as the Wagner personnel and receive bonuses in addition to their regular pay. But deaths among Russian military personnel in Syria, even though all of them are volunteers, is a much bigger deal back in Russia than the death of a Russian mercenary. This became obvious when opinion polls were conducted and the average Russian saw the much higher pay of the PMC men as fair compensation for the risk of getting killed, rather than dying in the defense of Mother Russia (which is what members of the armed forces do, even volunteers, for lower pay). This attitude could be confirmed by a perusal of the Russian language social network discussions.
The social network chatter drives Russian security officials nuts because even with non-disclosure agreements, you can’t keep chatter about what PMCs do a secret. Foreign intelligence services already knew how to use this OSINT (open source intelligence) to form an accurate assessment of how Russia was using PMC forces and estimating how many men were hired and deployed by the Wagner Group. The Internet also provided, for those willing to dig, info on the growing number of similar PMCs the Russian government was hiring for overseas efforts that could not be defined as defending Mother Russia, at least not in the traditional sense.
As of the end of 2017, it was estimated that Russia had about 5,000 military and contractor personnel in Syria and admitted to 45 Russians killed in Syria since mid-2015. The actual number was believed to be 30-80 percent higher because of the growing use of Russian military contractors, who are not, for record keeping purposes, members of the Russian military. Because of the disastrous February encounter with the Kurds (SDF) and Americans in eastern Syria the Russian death toll has gone way up, at least for the contractors. As many as 200 died in the February debacle. The Syrian war effort, despite the low number of Russian casualties, was not popular with most Russians who saw Assad and most other Middle Eastern governments (especially former Soviet allies) as losers. More Russian casualties mean lots more unrest back home so the PMCs were increasingly used for situations where Russian troops, usually Spetsnaz commandos or other highly trained volunteers could do the job. It wasn’t that the PMC men were more effective, often they were not, but the PMC men were more expendable, at least when it came to media and political backlash in Russia.
In early 2018 the Ukrainian government released the results of their investigation into the Russian use of PNCs, especially the Wagner Group. Ukraine had captured a number of Wagner Group contractors operating in eastern Ukraine and some had been forthcoming with details of how Wagner operates. For example, Russia transported a number of Wagner Group men to Syria via the Russian missile cruiser Varyag. This is a large ship (11,000 tons) with a crew of 480. The Russian navy has been short of sailors and many ships go to sea short 10-20 percent of their crew. So it made sense that the government could fill some of those empty berths with Wagner men which Russia wanted to keep quiet about. Many more Wagner men were flown to Syria via a Syrian airline that operated a flight to Rostov-on-Don, an out of the way city where it is easier to hide things.
In mid-2018 it became public that a second Russian PMC had shown up in Syria. This one, called Patriot, was apparently more elite (highly paid Russian combat vets for dangerous missions) than the existing Wagner Group. Although these companies are still illegal according to Russian law moves are being made to change the law. These contractors have been showing up in Africa, providing security for Russian commercial operations. Contractors are still doing a lot of the base security work in Syria. But Patriot group appears to be supplying elite combat units for “special missions” that will avoid the February 2018 debacle in which many Wagner mercs were killed. Patriot PMC personnel are apparently more careful and methodical and seen as able to avoid getting ambushed like the Wagner personnel were.
It was now widely accepted that to make their Syria intervention work, Russia had quietly resorted widespread use of PMCs. By the end of 2017, there were at least 1,200 PMC personnel in Syria. It turned out that not all of these were from Wagner and that the Russian government had allowed more PMCs to organize and compete for the Russian government (and Russian firms operating overseas) contracts. In Syria about half these PMC personnel were believed to have been part of organized combat units that were reliable enough to be used in place of scarce army special operations troops.
By monitoring Russian language social media activity (which anyone can do) it was noted how many recent military veterans were working for several of these PMCs. These fellows would often post pictures from Syria and Ukraine. Casualties were suffered in both places although the duties of the contractors were different. In Syria, the security contractors mainly guarded Russian bases but were also used in combat when they provided security for Russian artillery units supporting Syrian Army troops. In a few cases, the contractors were sent in to assist Syrian troops who got themselves in trouble. Russia described these men as special operations troops because outside Russia the security contractors often wear Russian military uniforms. But social media revealed that many of these dead Russians in Syria were actually contractors. In Ukraine, at least one PMC was used as “enforcers” to punish troublesome pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels. Often this just meant arranging an accidental death for a disobedient rebel leader but in a few cases, a larger number of rebels had to disappear. The Russian supported rebels came to call these contractors “cleaners” and were justifiably terrorized and impressed. Cuban troops were also reported in Syria, brought in to help train and assist Syrian troops. Some of the Cubans are believed to be special operations (commando) forces. Cuba, Russia and Syria deny the presence of Cuban troops in Syria. More PMCs are being seen in Africa, South America and any place Russian firms have operations that local security forces cannot adequately protect. In these situations, PMCs are strictly high-end (and very expensive) site or personnel security.