Russia’s Corporate Soldiers: The Global Expansion of Russia’s Private Military Companies

Informe (resumen ejecutivo)
CSIS Transnational Threats Project, julio 2021
Seth G. Jones, Catrina Doxsee, Brian Katz, Eric McQueen y Joe Moye 
(investigadores CSIS)

Russia has utilized private military companies (PMCs) as an important component of its irregular warfare strategy. Irregular warfare includes activities short of conventional and nuclear warfare that are designed to expand a country’s influence and legitimacy. Instead of deploying large numbers of conventional Russian soldiers, Moscow has leveraged special operations forces, intelligence units, PMCs, and other government and nongovernment organizations to expand its influence, build the capacity of partners and allies, and secure economic gains. Some Russian PMCs have direct or indirect links with the Russian Ministry of Defense (particularly the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU), Federal Security Service (FSB), Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and the Kremlin.

While there has been growing public awareness of Russian PMCs, this report updates and documents Moscow’s continuing use of PMCs around the globe— including Russia’s objectives, PMC activities, and policy implications for the United States and its partners. Understanding Russian PMCs is particularly important because, as extensive interviews with U.S. government officials indicate, the U.S. government and its partners have done little to counter them. There is limited systematic analysis of Russian PMCs; limited proactive diplomatic, military, intelligence, and financial action taken against them; and little substantive interagency or international coordination against their activities.

Using a mixture of quantitative and qualitative information, this report has several main findings. First, Russia has increased its use of PMCs as a tool of foreign policy, beginning around 2015. As CSIS data highlight, the number of countries where PMCs operate around the globe increased sevenfold between 2015 and 2021, from 4 countries in 2015 to 27 in 2021. Russian PMCs are active in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Latin America—including in such countries as the Central African Republic, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela. Within these countries, there is significant variation in the organizational structure, roles, missions, tasks, and funding arrangements among PMCs. In addition, there is a close relationship between the Russian government and numerous PMCs. The Kremlin and Russian security agencies—including the GRU, SVR, and FSB—have provided guidance and aid to Russian PMCs.

Second, Russia’s use of PMCs needs to be understood in the broader framework of its utilization of irregular warfare and gray zone methods. Organizations such as ChVK Wagner—better known as the Wagner Group—have been involved in combat operations, intelligence collection and analysis, protective services, training, site security, information operations, and propaganda to further Moscow’s interests. As the 2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community concluded, “Private military and security companies managed by Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin extend Moscow’s military reach at low cost, allowing Russia to disavow its involvement and distance itself from battlefield casualties.”1 The Wagner Group is probably best understood as a clandestine collection of businesses with close ties to the Russian government—including financial facilitators, cut-outs, front companies, and shell companies to hide activities and investments.

PMCs also allow Russian leaders and oligarchs— including those close to Putin, such as Yevgeny Prigozhin—a means to expand trade and economic influence in the developing world and build new revenue streams. Examples include oil and gas in Syria; gold, uranium, arms, and diamonds in the Central African Republic; oil, gold, and arms in Venezuela; and arms, infrastructure projects, and hydrocarbons in Libya. Third, Russian PMCs present a moderate threat to the United States and its partners—but a threat that needs to be understood in context. The United States faces a range of national security threats and challenges from states, such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea; terrorist groups and other non-state actors; and transnational challenges, such as pandemics, climate change, and migration. While Russia is not a global superpower, Moscow still possesses conventional, nuclear, and irregular capabilities. Russia has meddled in U.S. elections and waged disinformation campaigns inside the United States and other countries. Russia also has substantial offensive cyber and space-based capabilities.

Despite these varied threats, Russia’s growing use of PMCs does require a more substantive and coordinated response by the United States and its partners.


Russia’s Corporate Soldiers

Russia has used PMCs to increase its influence overseas, extract resources, and expand its military and intelligence footprint. In Libya, for example, Russian PMCs operated MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-24 fighter aircraft, as well as Pantsir S-1 surface-to-air missile systems. Yet Russian PMCs have vulnerabilities that can be exploited. Some have a relatively poor track record. Others have been ineffective or have been involved in human rights abuses and corruption. As a June 2021 United Nations report concluded, Russian private military companies and other actors in the Central African Republic were involved in “excessive use of force, indiscriminate killings, the occupation of schools, and looting on a large scale, including of humanitarian organizations.” Consequently, there is an opportunity for the United States and its partners to better exploit Russian vulnerabilities.

An effective campaign to counter PMCs should be multilateral to maximize pressure on Russia, PMCs, and the countries where PMCs are active. The goal should be to undermine the effectiveness of PMCs and prevent Moscow from significantly increasing its influence overseas. In addition, an effective campaign needs to involve a wide range of diplomatic, intelligence, financial, military, and other actions. Moving forward, the United States and other Western countries should consider the following steps.

  • Increase public awareness of PMC activity: The United States and its partners should develop more aggressive open-source reporting—including through open-source intelligence (OSINT)—about the activities, financial arrangements, and challenges of PMCs. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), for example, has effectively used satellite imagery to publicly highlight the activity of companies such as the Wagner Group.3 But AFRICOM’s activities have been the exception rather than the rule. The goal should be to make information about PMC activities publicly available, including through the internet and digital platforms.
  • Highlight PMC ineffectiveness and failures abroad: PMCs have a mixed track record overseas. Despite assistance from PMCs in Libya, for example, the Libyan National Army (LNA) was unable to seize Tripoli and triggered an expanding intervention from Turkey to bolster the Government of National Accord (GNA). The Wagner Group alone lost hundreds of fighters and key weapons systems in Tripoli’s heavy ground fighting and from Turkish drone strikes. Russian PMCs also struggled immensely in Mozambique, Madagascar, and the Central African Republic. Despite these problems, the United States and its partners have failed to systematically highlight PMC problems, including by providing information to countries where PMCs operate. One goal should be to pressure these countries to phase out PMCs and their contractors. As an alternative to Russian PMCs, the United States should consider offering security force assistance programs to local countries, including training by U.S. or partner government agencies.
  • Heighten legal liabilities: PMCs lack government legal protections in foreign countries and have engaged in illegal activities, including human rights abuses. Without embassy protection, PMC contractors are more susceptible to legal complications, incarceration, and personal financial burdens than government employees. Diplomats from the United States and its partners should encourage the leaders of countries where PMCs are operating to take appropriate action against companies and their employees when they are engaged in illegal activities.
  • Increase financial pressure on PMCs: PMCs are profit-based organizations that require revenue to exist, making them vulnerable to economic sanctions and other financial tools. Economic sanctions are one of the most important instruments for targeting PMC activities. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has already taken some steps against individuals linked to Russian PMCs, such as Yevgeny Prigozhin. But the United States has failed to build a strong multilateral sanctions campaign against Russian PMCs.
  • Target the Wagner Group: Wagner’s unique status and relative monopoly over the Russian PMC market is a final vulnerability that should be better exploited. Wagner operates in roughly a dozen countries, while most other PMCs operate 3 in only one or two. The Wagner Group also works in the countries where Russia has the greatest interest, such as Ukraine, Syria, and Libya. But the United States has not developed an effective multilateral campaign against the group. The European Union, for example, has not imposed sanctions against Wagner. The United States and its partners should develop and implement a more aggressive campaign that discredits Wagner by highlighting its ineffectiveness, corruption, and human rights abuses and countering its activities.

PMCs such as the Wagner Group represent an important component of Russia’s irregular warfare campaign, often in cooperation with the Kremlin, GRU, SVR, and FSB. Yet PMCs have sometimes been ineffectual, fraudulent, and predatory. Others have plundered natural resources from fragile states. These activities by PMCs create an opportunity for the United States and its partners to better exploit Russian vulnerabilities

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