The Future of Russian Private Military Companies

In Soviet times, Russian military professionals worked across the globe from Cuba to Vietnam, teaching, advising and sometimes just pointing Kalashnikov muzzles at the enemy for the sake of the proletariat.

Now Russian authorities want them to do so again, but this time, for profit — and, just possibly, as a governmental proxy.

A bill filed with the State Duma late last month would legalize private military and security companies (PMSCs) in Russia, an idea endorsed in 2012 by President Vladimir Putin.

Enthusiasts say it is high time that Russia, with its strong military traditions, get a toehold on the global PMSC market, estimated at up to $350 billion last year, according to the bill.

The market is currently dominated by Western companies, and many developing nations would welcome PMSCs with different geopolitical affiliations, said analyst Ivan Konovalov, who last year co-penned a Russian-language monograph on PMSCs in Russia and around the world.

Russian security services are also ambivalent, despite Putin’s endorsement, as they are unwilling to relinquish a monopoly on legal violence and are fearful of unleashing what may well become an unchecked mercenary force, analysts told The Moscow Times.

And even the potential PR gains from using PMSCs instead of army troops in sensitive situations — like in Ukraine — are less than can be expected if those companies can be traced back to the Kremlin, said military analyst Alexander Golts.

FSB Park Rangers

The new bill seeks to allow Russian PMSCs to perform military consulting, protection services and mine clearance, and, best of all, facilitate “the alternative settlement of armed conflicts outside Russia.”

The PMSCs will be allowed to use firearms but not heavy military equipment, according to the draft law, available on the Duma’s website.

Thin Red Line

Unlike the mercenaries of the past, PMSCs rarely have access to heavy equipment such as tanks, artillery or fighter jets, though armored personnel vehicles are usually permitted.

But there is still a big difference between a PMSC employee and a mercenary, said Alexander Nikitin, a security expert with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).

“Any involvement of a PMSC in open armed combat means crossing a red line and qualifying as a mercenary under the UN convention,” said Nikitin, who was a member of the UN’s working group on the use of mercenaries for six years. He added that very careful legislative work is needed to give PMSCs enough space to act without exceeding their authority and becoming de-facto mercenaries.

PMSCs rose to prominence during the 2000s, largely due to their extensive use in U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. The once notorious American PMSC Blackwater, now rechristened Academi, made more than $1 billion on U.S. state contracts in 2007, compared with $700,000 in 2001, according to Forbes Russia.

The United States embraced PMSCs because their services, despite exorbitant staff salaries, are cheaper for the Pentagon than using regular soldiers, who are entitled to many state benefits, military analyst Golts said.

Supply and Demand

Russia is ripe for entering the PMSC market, given the surplus of retired military professionals from its 760,000-strong army, not counting the other 300,000 young men who complete obligatory national service every year, Golts said.

“We probably have more people who know how to handle a Kalashnikov than the U.S. does,” he said.

Legalizing ‘Polite Men?’

However, the real reason behind the renewed push for PMSCs in Russia may be the fallout from the Ukrainian civil war, experts said.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March using masked army troops without insignia, nicknamed “polite men” or “little green men.” Putin only admitted they were actually Russian troops after the annexation, having previously denied their presence in Crimea.

Russia has also been accused of deploying its soldiers to save the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine from defeat in August and again this week. Moscow has never admitted to it, but reports persist, backed by a wealth of evidence suggesting the troops were either not informed about their deployment to a war zone or coerced into posing as retired volunteers.

The rumored deaths of Russian soldiers in an undeclared war was met at home with little enthusiasm, which made the Kremlin think again about PMSCs, Golts said.

Using PMSCs instead of regular troops in sensitive situations is a common enough practice throughout the world, he said.

But a proxy would not avert reputation damages for the Kremlin if the boots on the ground are seen as carrying out the government’s will, Golts said.

Full article: The Future of Russian Private Military Companies (The Moscow Times)

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