THE WARSAW INSTITUTE REVIEW
Date: 30 March 2018 Author: Grzegorz Kuczyński
Putin’s Invisible Army
As far as the law is concerned, they are acting illegally, yet the state willingly utilizes them to implement an adventurist foreign policy. Russian mercenaries are “invisible,” and not only to the organs of justice. Although they fight and die on various fronts — from Donbass to Syria – by following the orders of Russian politicians, generals and oligarchs, officially, Moscow has nothing to do with them. For the Kremlin, this is a convenient situation, so it is not surprising that subsequent attempts to legalize private military companies in Russia have failed.
Such mercenary companies are a way to implement national interests without the direct involvement of the state – Vladimir Putin already spoke of mercenaries this way in 2011. With the outbreak of fighting in Ukraine, and the unofficial character of Russia’s military involvement in Donbass, armed formations not formally associated with the Russian state became even more necessary.
From “Volunteers” to Security Guards
The global market for private security companies is reportedly worth $244 billion annually. Russia’s market share is only five percent, although there is hardly any other country in the world where there is such potential for creating mercenary companies. Russia is a real forge of personnel, according to various assessments, it is able to deliver from 100,000 to 150,000 people with military preparation to the global market for military services. They are often excellent specialists in their field (snipers, combat engineers). There are more than 3,500 French Foreign Legion veterans in Russia alone.
Russian mercenary companies began their activities in the first half of the 1990s. At that time, “volunteers” were leaving to fight on the side of the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia. Among them was Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Igor Ivanovich Strelkov (born Igor Vsevolodovich Girkin), later known for combat operations in Donbass. From 1992-1995, several hundred Russian mercenaries were constantly active in Bosnia and Herzegovina, taking part in the ethnic cleansing of the city of Višegrad, among other things. These were mostly military veterans employed by the St. Petersburg-based Rubikon security company, supervised by the successor to the KGB, the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK), which in 1995 became the FSB. Without the consent and involvement of the security services and the Russian authorities, the activities of these “volunteers” would have been impossible. According to the same scheme, the Kremlin later sent mercenaries affiliated with the security services to Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia, the Crimea, Donbass and Syria.
A step towards regulating this area of security was the appearance of entities on the Russian market that were more specialized than ordinary security agencies. Private military contractors, known as ChVK (Chastnaja Voennaja Kompanija), maintain their headquarters and recruit employees in Russia, but are formally registered in other countries. This is due to the fact that Russian law does not provide for the activity of mercenary companies. The private security sector is well developed, but private military contractors directly involved in combat operations remain illegal. That is why, for example, Moran Security Group is registered in Belize, and RSB-Group is registered in the British Virgin Islands. As Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the defense committee in the Federation Council (Russia’s upper house of parliament), said: “Private military companies are and will remain illegal in Russia. But if they are registered abroad, Russia is not legally responsible for anything.”
This situation suits some of the companies, because legalization would be tantamount to stronger control by state institutions, and that would limit their freedom. On the other hand, this semi-legal status leaves the perpetual threat of criminal liability hanging over the ChVK personnel. Participation in an armed conflict on the territory of a foreign state, carries a penalty of up to seven years imprisonment, and for recruitment, training and financing of mercenaries — up to 15 years. This is taken advantage of by the security services or even politicians and influential businessmen, who use mercenaries for risky operations. As a result, in addition to the sale of their services outside the country on purely commercial terms, mercenary companies must pay off the Russian state – most often by performing combat activities outside of Russia. The mercenaries in Russia can be prosecuted under two articles of the Criminal Code: article 359 (“Mercenary activity”) and article 208 (“Organization of an illegal armed formation”). Of course, mercenary companies in Russia do not have the legal means to buy weapons. Either they buy them abroad or they get them from the Russian army (at least in Syria). The unregulated activity of the ChVKs is even beneficial for the Kremlin, as it facilitates control over the mercenaries, who are reminded that they must obey the orders of the authorities, otherwise they might end up behind bars. This status also makes it easier for the Kremlin and the army to wash their hands in the event of allegations of mercenary involvement in conflicts outside of Russia.
Private military companies in Russia can generally be divided into two groups. In the first, activities are organized by FSB special forces veterans from the Alpha and Vympel units. The second is dominated by former special forces soldiers of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and airborne troops. The best known, Wagner ChVK, is included in the second group, while the Moran Security Group, for example, is a “civilian” option. There are also large companies operating across a broad sphere, where there is no shortage of special forces veterans from not only the military and the FSB, but also from the Ministry of the Interior. The most well-known is RSB-Group – founded by former GRU and FSB officers (its chief, Oleg Krinitsyn, is a graduate of the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB, later renamed the FSB Academy) — which boasts that it operates in politically unstable zones, but only in agreement with the legal government of the country. The question of interpreting the legality of a given government remains unsettled. In Libya, the RSB-Group signed a contract with General Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the armed forces of one of the two warring Libyan governments. In spring 2017, one-hundred combat engineers planted mines around industrial installations in Benghazi. For the RSB-Group, for example, the “governments” of the so-called “people’s republics” are considered legitimate in the part of the Donbass that is de facto occupied by Russia.
RSB-Group cooperates with the New Zealand military contractor Navsec Group Ltd. Apart from participating in operations in Syria and Donbass, Russian mercenary companies generally work as subcontractors for Western companies (mainly from the US and UK) — primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Entities such as: Centr-Antiterror, Tigr Top-rent Security, Ruscorp or Fort Defense Group specialize in this area of activity. Another main area of activity for the ChVKs is maritime security in regions threatened by piracy. Among the contractors that operate in this area are: VST, Muse Group and the Moran Security Group. Moran focuses on the protection of ships and land convoys. It has a military-maritime training center in St. Petersburg. Centr R, Tigr Top-rent Security and Redut-Antiterror, have sent their people to Yugoslavia, the Caucasus, Iraq and Afghanistan. They specialize in snipers, combat engineers, and more. They deal with the protection of convoys, military facilities, oil company personnel and Russian diplomats in Lebanon, Palestine and Afghanistan. Antiterror is in turn a group of companies consisting of a training center, a squad of engineers and social organizations gathering former special forces officers. Antiterror deals with the training and preparation of mercenaries to perform special tasks in war zones. The company has direct FSB support, which helped it to establish itself in the Iraq region. Other companies include: Antiterror-Oriel, Ferax and Phoenix. Members of the ATK-GRUPP and Byzantium, were also active in the fighting in Donbass, as well as in Syria. In 2015, the media wrote about another ChVK taking part in the fighting in Donbass. On social media, photos of St. Petersburg-based MAR company members appeared with their flags at the entrance to Donetsk. Even on their website, they admit that they were involved in combat operations in Donbass on the side of the rebels. MAR advertises itself as providing a full spectrum of “security services” in areas of high terrorist activity or political instability. It sent its people to Donbass for the protection of “humanitarian convoys” meant for the Donetsk People’s Republic. ENOT Corp. is based in Moscow and is officially engaged in military-patriotic work and collecting help for the breakaway regions, also known as Novorossiya by the Russians. It is known, however, that the mercenaries of ENOT took part in various military activities in Donbass, including fighting with the rebels against the Ukrainians and securing the aforementioned convoys. ENOT Corp. personnel is recruiting people from Donbass for the war in Syria. The company co-founded the “Donbass Volunteers Union”. At its head is Alexander Borodai, one of the most famous figures of the “Russian spring” in Ukraine in 2014. His presence confirms that the ENOT Corp. is in a sense a branch of the Lubyanka (FSB headquarters in Moscow). Borodai, associated for many years with the FSB, was the former “prime minister” of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic, and earlier adviser to the prime minister of the autonomous government of Crimea in the period of Russian annexation.
But the modern history of the use of mercenaries by the Russian state began before the annexation of Crimea. The aforementioned Moran Security Group was founded by four former FSB officers. Vyacheslav Kalashnikov, a retired FSB colonel, became the head of the company. Moran was half owned by Neova Holdings Ltd., registered in the British Virgin Islands. Moran is engaged in the recruitment and training of security personnel primarily on ships sailing in areas of pirate activity. In the summer of 2013, the company was given a mission of a completely different nature. Syria’s Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources proposed the recruitment, training and sending of “specialists” to protect mining, transport and oil processing facilities. Moran did not directly contract with Damascus. Several company managers registered Slavonic Corps Ltd. in Hong Kong, while the main office began to work in Moscow. The company recruited 267 people who signed contracts with the Syrian ministry for the protection of “facilities for extraction, transport and processing of crude oil”. In September 2013, a group of mercenaries from the Slavonic Corps travelled through Lebanon to reach civil-war-ridden Syria. They ended up at a training center near Latakia. Most of them were former OMON (Special Purpose Police Unit) functionaries and Ministry of the Interior special forces. If they already had combat experience, it was from the North Caucasus and Tajikistan. They were promised $4,000 a month, $20,000 for heavier wounds, and $40,000 for their family in case of death.
On the spot, in Syria, they learned that before they could protect the oil infrastructure, they first had to retake it from the rebels. On October 13, 2013, the Slavonic Corps was packed into buses and jeeps. They received only light weaponry, and the convoy started east — the targets were oil installations in the province of Deir ez-Zor. However, the mercenaries did not make it there. After four days of travel, the convoy was ambushed near the city of Al-Sukhnah in the central province of Homs. Islamic rebels from Jaysh al-Islam outnumbered them several times over. The Russians were saved from slaughter by the arrival of a sandstorm — without casualties (only a handful were slightly wounded) they broke through the encirclement and made it to Al-Sukhnah. However, one of the mercenaries lost a folder of documents and the insurgents raised the alarm that Russians were fighting in Syria. This was not to the benefit of either the government in Damascus or Moscow and the Slavonic Corps was quickly transported out of Syria. But at the airport in Moscow, no one was waiting with flowers. When the two planes landed, they were immediately surrounded by FSB Alpha special forces and all the mercenaries were detained. Eventually, 265 people were released (with a warning). But the two commanders of the Corps, Vadim Gusev (at the same time the deputy director of Moran) and Yevgeny Sidorov (the head of human resources for Moran) were convicted under article 359 to three years in prison. The files with the personal details of the rest stayed in the Lubyanka. It is not known if this is the whole story of the Slavonic Corps. (Unconfirmed) reports have also appeared that members of this formation were seen during combat operations in 2013 in Deir ez-Zor, Hama and Aleppo.
However, no more than a few months passed, and the demand for mercenaries returned — with the annexation of Crimea and the use of hybrid warfare methods on a large scale. It turned out that almost all the veterans of the Slavonic Corps found themselves in a training center next to the Molkino (Krasnodar Krai) farm in Russia, from where they would go to Donbass. If someone was not willing enough, he was reminded of the Syrian episode and the fate of the commanders who were serving prison sentences.
From Donbass to the Euphrates
In the war in Donbass, Russia did not only utilize former members of the Slavonic Corps. For example, in the first weeks of the rebellion, the GRU sent the Vostok Battalion to Donetsk, composed mainly of veterans from the North Caucasus. Much was heard of them during the first battle for the Donetsk Airport in May 2014 – the battalion suffered heavy losses. But the main role was to fall to the veterans of the Slavonic Corps.
When the conflict with Ukraine started, the mercenaries were first trained in Molkino, and then, just before being sent into battle, in a military center near Rostov-on-Don, closer to the Ukrainian border. Training was conducted by experienced special forces and defense ministry officers. In June 2014, the first groups of mercenaries began to cross the border. These were generally tactical, company-sized groups. One of them was commanded by Dmitriy Utkin. It soon turned out that the mercenaries operating in the Donbass belonged to a new private military company – ChVK Wagner, also known as Wagner’s Company or the Wagner Group. The name comes from the pseudonym of the commander of the entire formation, Utkin. The “Wagnerites” were seen as early as February and March 2014 in the Crimea, among the “little green men” (masked soldiers in unmarked uniforms). Then it came time for battle — in October 2015, the website Fontanka.ru, wrote that Slavonic Corps veterans were seen fighting in one unit. At the end of 2015, the involvement of Wagner Group on behalf of the “people’s republics” was also written about by The Wall Street Journal. The Minsk agreements and the ceasefire in Donbass did not mean the end of the activities of the Wagnerites in this area. The mercenaries were used in internal rebel disputes, for example in Lugansk, where they liquidated recalcitrant field commanders such as Aleksander Biednov, Pavel Driomov or Aleksey Mozgovoy. But it turned out that the mercenaries were more important to the Russians somewhere else — as the core “volunteer” units fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad.
In 2015, after special training in Krasnodar Krai, the mercenaries commanded by Utkin landed in Syria. Shortly after the launch of an air operation by Russia in autumn 2015, the first reports of the deaths of Russian mercenaries appeared. Mercenaries killed in action are, however, not included in the official statistics of Russian losses in Syria. To this point, the Wagner Group has already lost hundreds of men in Syria, serving as cannon fodder on the most dangerous sections of the front. They played an important role in both the Palmyra battles in 2016 and 2017, and at Aleppo. Supervised by military intelligence (the main training center is located on the military range of unit No. 51532, i.e. the GRU 10th Special Forces Brigade), it is hard to even call the Wagner Group a private military company. Protection and securing of facilities is only a marginal part of their activities in Syria. Above all, they carry out military actions related to the plans of the armed forces of Russia. They are a military group that operates under the orders of Moscow and is overseen by Russia’s security services, engaging in combat operations into which Russia officially refuses to engage their regular army. The Wagner Group is a private, illegal special force that secretly carries out the Kremlin’s criminal orders.
Dmitry Utkin was born in Ukraine in 1970. He entered the military during the Soviet era and made his career in the Russian army. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, and retired in 2013, leaving the post of commander of military unit No. 75143 stationed in Pechory (Pskov Oblast); that is, the 700th Independent Special Forces Detachment of the 2nd Independent Brigade of the GRU. He was hired by Moran – taking part in maritime security operations, and he was one of the participants of the ill-fated Slavonic Corps expedition to Syria. After returning to Moscow, he avoided punishment, and a few months later he ended up on the front in Donbass – at the head of his own group of mercenaries, the Wagner Group. The pseudonym Utkin adopted was supposedly because of his sympathy for the Third Reich (Richard Wagner was considered Hitler’s favorite composer). The sponsor of the Wagner Group is businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. Already in 2015-2016, Utkin and his deputy Andrei Troshev were seen with Prigozhin’s security staff. Both men combined mercenary service with work in the structures of Prigozhin’s companies, Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering. The latter is a catering powerhouse on the Russian market, including for the Kremlin (Prigozhin’s nickname is “Putin’s cook”). The company earns a lot of money from servicing schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and military units throughout Russia. Prigozhin also finances “troll farms”, which have been producing anti-Western propaganda and carrying out disinformation activities for several years. For this reason, among others, the businessman found himself on the US sanctions list, alongside Utkin and the Wagner Group. In Syria, the Wagnerites are paid by the Evro Polis company, controlled by Prigozhin. For service in the “sandbox,” the rank-and-file soldiers of the Wagner Group get about $2,500 a month. The wounded can receive up to $15,000, and families of those killed in combat get from $20,000 to $50,000, depending on the rank of the deceased and the circumstances of their death.
At the peak of activity in Syria, there were to have been as many as 2,000 mercenaries from this company (the total strength the Wagner Group is estimated at around 6,000). The Wagner force consists of four reconnaissance-assault brigades (each made up of three companies of up to 100 men), an artillery squadron (three batteries of 100 men each), a tank company (twelve tanks), a diversionary-reconnaissance company (150 men), a combat engineering company (100 men), a communications company (100 men), and staff and support sub-units. Equipment, weapons, and ammunition were provided by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Wagner’s battle tasks were also received from Russian army officers. It was the officer corps that coordinated the cooperation of the mercenaries with the air force and the Syrian army. In Syria, the Russian command uses mercenaries as front forces and reconnaissance. One of the important tasks is also to guide air strikes to their targets. Their heaviest weapons are mortars, though they are sometimes supported by artillery and tank sub-units of the Syrian army. The basic tactical grouping of the Wagnerites in Syria is the mechanized battalion: with a company of tanks, a mortar battery, and an artillery division, plus a sub-unit for radio-electronic warfare and reconnaissance. The “eyes” of such a battalion operating within a radius of up to 25 km from the main forces are scouts equipped with drones and a JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller).
Initially, the Wagnerites were sent to Syria from a military airport about 200 kilometers from the Molkino training center, but later, this changed. As the Reuters agency has recently determined, Russian mercenaries are being flown to Syria on board private aircraft of the Syrian Cham Wings airlines, traveling from Rostov-on-Don to Damascus or Latakia. Since the beginning of 2017 to the end of March 2018, 51 such flights took place. In 2016, Cham Wings fell under US sanctions for carrying pro-Assad fighters to Syria and assisting Syrian military intelligence in delivering weapons and equipment.
The first reports of the arrival of the Wagnerites in Syria date from October 2015. They participated in the first liberation of Palmyra in March 2016, and then in the Battle of Aleppo. The Wagnerites were then well-equipped and armed. In the spring of 2016, most of these mercenaries got paid and returned home. But at the end of 2016, the decision was made to strengthen the formation in Syria again. The Wagnerites began to come back, but under different conditions. Now, they were supposed to defend oil fields as formal employees of the Evro Polis oil and gas company associated with Prigozhin. The wages were smaller, and the weapons were not so modern anymore, while casualties mounted. At the end of September 2017, ISIS unexpectedly counterattacked against government forces between Palmyra and Deir ez-Zour. Assad’s troops retreated, leaving the Wagnerites by themselves, several of whom were captured. The ISIS jihadists showed two of them in a video that was released online. The authorities in Moscow stated that the prisoners had nothing to do with the Russian army, after which they were immediately murdered. Their greatest defeat, however, was at the beginning of February 2018. Several hundred mercenaries were massacred by the US Air Force in the Euphrates Valley as they attempted to take over oil installations. They were most likely acting in the interests of Evro Polis, which signed an agreement with the government of Syria, under which it was granted the rights to a quarter of oil and gas extraction revenues in the areas that were to be recovered from Assad’s enemies.
Moscow, of course, claimed that it knew nothing and had nothing to do with mercenaries. However, it is known that the head of the operational department of the Wagner Group, Sergey Kim, planned and consulted the operation with the Russian military command in Syria. Contrary to the Kremlin’s intentions, the matter of the slaughter of Russian mercenaries in Syria has gained enormous publicity, damaging Putin’s image in Russia during the presidential campaign. The Russian authorities never admitted to the high casualties in the Euphrates Valley, but media reports of up to 200 dead mercenaries were confirmed. Already in April, testifying in a US Senate committee hearing, then CIA Director (now Secretary of State), Mike Pompeo, mentioned the killing of “a few hundred” Russians by the American forces.
Despite heavy losses, Russian mercenaries are still operating in Syria. At the end of March, they were seen securing Eastern Ghouta. On March 28, the US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, said that a few days earlier a group of Russian mercenaries had crossed a deconfliction line on the Euphrates and entered an area where they were not to be operating. After a telephone conversation between General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, the mercenaries withdrew, avoiding another slaughter. It should be remembered that although the Wagner Group is at the core of the mercenary forces of the former USSR fighting on the side of Assad, there are other, less known formations that are not as subordinated to the Russian military, mainly composed of veterans of the War in Donbass. Among them, scouts, saboteurs, and artillery spotters are in the greatest demand. After training in the Krasnodar Krai and the Rostov regions of Russia, they go to Syria. There is no shortage of mercenaries recruited in other post-Soviet republics, many come from Central Asia and the Caucasus. It is from these regions that the “Turan” formation originates. They have standard uniforms and operate alongside the Syrian army.
A Tasty Morsel
Russia is beginning to run out of cannon fodder. From one conscription to the next (in Russia there are two per year: in spring and autumn) the number of conscripts is shrinking. It is worth remembering that the death of a soldier always causes political damage for the ruling class. It is no wonder that ideas for legally regulating private military companies have been appearing in Russia for a long time. One of the first attempts to regulate the problem were amendments to the law “on armaments” in 2008, giving the foreign security agencies of Russian companies Transneft, Lukoil and Gazprom, the right to use service weapons to ensure the safety of facilities. Three years later, the need to form “volunteer units of reservists in the FSB, SWR and the armed forces of the Russian Federation” was discussed in the Russian press. It was clearly a top-down initiative (it was then that Putin mentioned the benefits derived by the state from mercenary activities) and even the law on the creation of “battle reserves in the force structures” was adopted. However, this still did not directly solve the issue, so in 2013, deputy Aleksey Mitrofanov introduced to the Duma the draft law “On the state regulation of the formation and operation of private military companies”. However, it ended up going nowhere.
The outbreak of the war in Ukraine caused the subject of mercenary legalization to return with even greater force. In 2014, the law was not adopted because it was blocked by defense ministry lobbyists. Why? The FSB was supposed to license and control the activities of the private military companies. The FSB would be responsible for the registration of the mercenary organizations and would monitor their activities both in Russia and abroad. The bill provided for the introduction of a single information system, in which the numbers of licenses issued for the companies would be stored, as well as details of their activities. The defense ministry, people throughout the presidential administration and in the government (all those afraid of increasing the power of the FSB), did not like this idea. The critics of the act indicated that it would give the Lubyanka a private army of thousands of experienced soldiers. Another attempt to legalize these companies in Russia was made in March 2016 – following a wave of reports about the participation of Russian mercenaries in the war in Syria. The draft by deputies of the A Just Russia party, Gennady Nosovko and Oleg Mikheyev was, however, negatively evaluated by both the GRU and FSB. In effect, the government was opposed, so the authors of the bill withdrew the project.
The case returned again this year. During a press conference on January 15, 2018, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about the fate of two Russians, members of the Wagner Group, who fell into the hands of ISIS and were killed. The head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs presented the official position that in this case he relies entirely on the military, whose stated position was that the Russian prisoners had nothing to do with the army. But he also began to discuss the legalization of private forces: “In this case, the legislative framework should be clearly improved so that these people are protected in the legal area.” Duma deputies immediately took up the subject. “The activity of private military companies needs legal regulation, because the semi-legal functioning of such companies is too dangerous,” said Andrei Isayev, of the ruling United Russia party. After just a few days, the parliament passed a bill by the leader of A Just Russia, Sergey Mironov and his deputy Mikhail Emelianov. The new law was to allow members of private military companies “to participate in counter-terrorist operations abroad, to defend the sovereignty of allied states against external aggression, as well as to defend various installations”. On January 23, the project was sent to the government for its opinion. On February 14, the initiative was supported by General Vladimir Shamanov, a former commander of the airborne troops, a veteran of the Caucasus wars (known as the “Butcher of Chechnya”) and currently chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee. He said that “Legalization of the ChVK should be carried out by a separate law in line with global practice”. The enthusiasm of the former military men is easy to understand. In the new project, the functions of licensing and control of the private military companies were proposed to be handed over to the Ministry of Defense. Moreover, Chairman of Russia’s Federation Council Defense and Security Committee, General Viktor Bondarev (former Commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces) went even further, throwing the idea of inserting the companies into the military hierarchy and simply subjugating them to the Ministry of Defense.
It is no surprise that the project has gained powerful enemies. Now the FSB, which in 2014 was in favor of legalization when they were to be in control, has come out in opposition to the legalization of the mercenaries. Lobbying from the Lubyanka siloviki (“strong men”) probably sealed the fate of the act. At the end of March, it turned out that the government did not support the project. The written opinion that the government issued stated that the provisions of the draft law conflicted with part 5 of article 13 of the Russian Constitution, according to which the activities of social associations whose goals and activities are directed at the formation of armed groups are forbidden. The authors of the opinion also point to article 71 of the constitution, stating that the issues of defense and security, war and peace, foreign policy and international relations of Russia, are in the hands of the state. The government’s opinion could not have been any different — the Ministry of Justice, General Prosecutor’s Office, Ministry of Finance, Foreign Intelligence Service, Federal Protective Service, FSB, National Guard of Russia, and the two ministries which initially strongly lobbied for its adoption: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense both assessed the project negatively. Apparently, it was recognized that it is not worth getting on the Kremlin’s bad side.
The critics of the project pointed to the vagueness of its provisions, which could raise serious problems in the future. But it was more important perhaps that too many influential people and interest groups recognized that the project in its current form did not suit their purposes. Once again, the conflict between the FSB and the GRU for control over this new military sector proved to be so serious and so evenly matched that the project was set aside, thus postponing the regulation of this problem until later. Two powerful lobbying organizations are in conflict. The defense ministry and the GRU are associated with the Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation and Navy (DOSAAF), and the FSB with the Union of Donbass Volunteers. The Lubyanka has always been suspicious of all aspects of the GRU’s activity. It was military intelligence which maintained a lot of foreign assets after the end of the Cold War, and the GRU is said to harbor the most plots against Putin. It is possible that arguments by the FSB convinced Putin himself that mercenaries controlled by military intelligence are a potentially serious threat to his power.
The issue of the legalization and widespread use of private military companies in the interests of the Russian state has become very relevant since 2014, with the development of conflicts in Donbass and Syria. The Kremlin might have thought that by hiring private soldiers, the state was freeing itself from any responsibility for their actions. The realities of the fighting in Ukraine and Syria have quickly shown that their hope that the participation of “volunteers” can free Moscow from responsibility for their actions is illusory. This is the second most important reason why the Kremlin has lost interest in legalizing them, along with the GRU and FSB being at loggerheads on this issue. Politicians will not return to this problem before Russia’s military involvement in the war in Syria has ended.
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