Mercenaries out of control: Putin tries to legalize 30 Russian paramilitary companies

The crisis in Russia over Wagner’s mutiny has revealed the complex network of troops working in and outside of the country. The Kremlin helped create a system that has now turned against him

Mercenarios Wagner en Rostov del Don Rusia
Wagner mercenaries during the uprising on June 24 in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.Associated Press/LaPresse (Associated Press/LaPresse)
Luis de Vega (Special correspondent)

Wagner Group is only the most important, visible and recognized mercenary organization in a dense network of Russian paramilitary companies deployed throughout the world. There are approximately 30 paramilitary groups — most with more than 500 troops and some with tens of thousands — deployed in different countries. Of these, about 20 are fighting or working in the war in Ukraine despite the fact that article 359 of the Russian Penal Code prohibits these activities, which they have also been carrying out for years in the Middle East and Africa. What had been until now a tool to extend and strengthen Moscow’s political, economic and diplomatic influence abroad through hybrid warfare has now shown its weaknesses. Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin — who launched a failed mutiny in Russia on June 24 — was planning to seize control of these militias, gain power and influence in the highest echelons of the Kremlin, and overthrow Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. That’s according to Igor Tishkevich, a researcher at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future.

This expert told EL PAÍS that the Kremlin is concerned about losing control due to the rising influence of these private military companies, which are illegal but permitted and promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage. These paramilitary groups have been gaining ground thanks to several factors: there are tens of thousands of veterans from the battlefront in Ukraine, employing mercenaries has a lower social cost for the government, these groups play a key role in increasing Russia’s presence in Africa, and large Russian companies are heavily dependent on these private security apparatuses.

The recent attempt to regularize the mercenary groups by forcing them to sign a contract under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defense, combined with doubts about the effectiveness of the Russian army in the Ukrainian offensive, has triggered the current crisis in Russia. Moscow’s goal, according to Tishkevich, is to legalize these companies “sooner or later.” He explains that it’s “the easiest way to gain control over the industry and subdue those who do not accept such control.” So far, according to information from Tishkevich, only four have accepted. That’s how Prigozhin intended to gain more power, he adds. The bid to rein in Wagner has also led to a crackdown on Patriot, the Prizoghin-controlled media empire. Last Saturday, Moscow blacklisted at least five media outlets linked to the group.

Tishkevich’s extensive list of paramilitary groups includes names that are much less well-known than Wagner’s, such as Cossacks, United Security Forces Veterans, Imperial Legion or Tsar’s Wolves. Most operate simultaneously in Ukraine and in other territories.

Prigozhin’s increasing hostility towards Russia’s top military brass — aimed at discrediting the army — ended with the uprising on June 24. It was brought to a stop that same day, after the mediation of Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko. That managed to put an end to the aspirations of Prigozhin, who refused to let his soldiers sign contracts with the Defense Ministry, which was meant to happen by July 1. In addition to losing political influence due to the failed uprising, there is also the possibility that Prigozhin will lose up to half of his income if other paramilitary companies take over Wagner’s contracts in Africa to protect oil fields and mining operations, says Tishkevich.

During a meeting with the military on Monday, Shoigu said that Prigozhin’s rebellion failed due to the “loyalty” shown by members of the army and that the mutiny will not affect the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine. It was his first statement after thousands of Wagner mercenaries captured the city of Rostov-on-Don without facing any opposition. Nor were they stopped when they set out to march to Moscow. Ukraine welcomed the crisis in Russia, which showed Putin has little control over the mercenaries. The Russian president was not even able to keep his promise that the mercenaries would feel the full weight of the law. Instead, they were given the option of going with Prigozhin to Belarus, joining the army or laying down arms. Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities announced Monday that progress was being made in the counteroffensive, with troops last week recovering 3.5 square miles in the Donetsk region (east) and 10.8 square miles in the Zaporizhzhia region.

The failure of Prigozhin’s plan has cut him off from the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities, the head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, and various experts consulted believe he will no longer play a role in the current armed conflict. Nor will he work in Russia, as stated by Andrey Kartapolov, the head of the Defense Committee of Russia’s Parliament, the State Duma.

But that is not going to solve the problem posed by the existence of parallel armies controlled by the upper echelons of power in Moscow, including large corporations with international interests, says Tishkevich, who presented a report last Wednesday in Kyiv on the impact and rise of private military companies (PMCs).

The presence of mercenary groups in armed conflicts is not new, nor is it limited to Russia. In the Iraq war, the United States relied on mercenary companies such as the now-defunct Blackwater — which helped inspire the industry in Russia. But Wagner’s tentacles are long. Born a decade ago in the shadow of the war in eastern Ukraine and in Syria, the mercenary group is responsible for diverse tasks in many different countries. It offers security to mining and industrial operations, as well as private buildings; it escorts and protects valuable goods; carries out military and security training; performs military and police missions, provides sharpshooters and undertakes espionage work.

That’s why being left out of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine does not mean that Wagner has come to an end. The group currently has 25,000 troops, according to Prigozhin. But he also acknowledged that they have suffered heavy casualties, with 20,000 soldiers dying just in the battle of Bakhmut (Donetsk), one of the bloodiest of the war in Ukraine.

A few large Russian corporations also have their own international security organizations, which, in some cases, are closely linked to Kremlin agencies. For example, the Russian oil company Lukoil works with the security firm Lukom A, which was created by agents linked to the KGB, the intelligence service — today known as the FSB — where Putin began his career as a foreign intelligence officer. Lukom A’s job is not only to protect Lukoil, but also to carry out espionage work for the benefit of the state, which, according to Tishkevich, makes the group a kind of mini-KGB. Russia’s largest oil company, Rosneft, also has its own private military company. As does the tech giant Rostec and the state-owned energy company Gazprom. No one will “ever” get rid of private military companies, says Tishkevich.

When a state realizes that it has to carry out an operation that may be criticized if it came to light, it usually resorts to the PMC. Authorities do this to achieve political, economic or other objectives. It has been standard practice in Russia, which has been led by Putin since the beginning of the 21st century. Beyond Ukraine and Syria, the agents of these companies have carried out missions in around 30 countries on four continents, including Venezuela, Libya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Sudan, Mali, Mozambique and Afghanistan.

On Saturday during a meeting with several media, including EL PAÍS, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned that Belarus — which offered refuge to Prigozhin — may be a new source of tension. Mercenaries “may prepare attacks from [Belarus]” or organize “sabotage groups” that not only put Ukraine at risk, but also NATO countries such as Poland and Lithuania, he warned. Zelenskiy estimated that the Ukrainian army has killed around 21,000 of Wagner’s Russian paramilitaries, and wounded another 80,000. Lukashenko, Putin’s ally and architect of the agreement that stopped Wagner’s uprising, has opened the doors of his country to Prigozhin’s mercenaries. On Friday, he even said he would be delighted if they trained Belarus’ forces.

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