Russia has increasingly used private military companies (PMCs) such as the Wagner Group and others over the past decade to advance its strategic interests in places where official Russian government intervention is perceived to be too costly. PMC “proxy” forces allow the Russian government and affiliated Russian oligarchs to expand their influence and financial gain in developing countries while avoiding attribution through continuous use of disinformation, deception, and propaganda. In other words, PMCs allow the Russian government to operate in places where it could not openly do so — at least not without drawing international retribution or sanctions.
The Department of Defense (DoD) and U.S. military leaders must plan for this increased PMC presence. What measures must be taken to protect American forces and safeguard U.S. interests? And what procedures could the U.S. military implement to effectively counter PMC operations in certain countries around the world?
A shadowy network
PMCs are private companies (we’ll focus on Russian ones here) that provide a variety of services to the countries where they are deployed: protective security, military tactical support, capacity building, information operations, and advising to senior leaders. They became prominent in 2014 in Ukraine, and have become increasingly prevalent in the Middle East, Africa, and even in Latin America. Wagner, one of the most well-known Russian PMCs, is led by the oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who was implicated by the Mueller investigation for his suspected role in influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Prigozhin’s deep connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin empower him to interlace his company’s financial investments with those of the Russian state.
While many countries have PMCs, Russian PMCs are unique in that they are specifically prohibited by Russian penal code. Since Russian laws prohibit PMCs, they resort to shadow-like independent operations outside of Russia under the guise of providing security services to states and groups close to Russia. It is believed that President Putin uses this precarious status to exert control over PMCs to project power and influence where he does not have the desire or the ability to expend government resources. PMCs are thus a double-edged sword: Putin and the Kremlin can manipulate these groups’ activities to their advantage, but could not openly intervene if a PMC oversteps under international scrutiny without showing Moscow’s complicities.
Russia has greatly stepped up the use of PMCs as proxies to protect its interests around the world during the past decade, with Russian PMC presence doubling between 2015 and 2020, based on open-source reporting. They operate outside of state rules to train foreign security and military forces, deliver weapons to countries and groups under international sanctions, and partner with local government forces and militias. The ambiguity and constant deception associated with PMCs make them hard to deal with on the international stage. While Russian PMC hiring, recruitment, training, and deployment may somewhat resemble its American counterparts, its relationships with the Russian state and host governments are intentionally opaque and misleading. In fact, the extent of the command relationship between the Kremlin and PMCs is not fully known. This helps the Kremlin control the narrative, manage the risks of escalation by denying official involvement, and avoid attribution while employing them more effectively to promote its interests around the world.
The Syrian connection
The war in Syria reveals that Wagner and other Russian PMCs work closely with the Russian military. These groups have been training local Syrian pro-government forces and militias since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. In February 2018, Russia used Wagner-supported local militias in Syria to test the resolve of U.S. forces near Deir el-Zour, when they attempted to cross previously agreed-upon deconfliction lines between U.S. and Russian forces. The outcome of that engagement was devastating for the Syrian forces and their Wagner backers, as casualties were reported to be in the hundreds. The Russian government initially denied reports of Russian casualties, but social media accounts revealed otherwise in the days after. The Kremlin denied official Russian involvement, indicating its preference not to escalate.
But what if such an engagement were to escalate to a direct military confrontation between U.S. and PMC forces? It is conceivable that undercover Russian PMC forces could intervene in the Baltic states to “protect” ethnic Russians near the border from a perceived or made-up threat, which may not necessarily trigger a NATO Article 5 response but still lead to U.S. intervention. Or a situation may emerge in developing countries where attempts by Russia and its oligarchs to expand and protect their burgeoning financial investments could bring about a humanitarian emergency or induce a refugee crisis requiring international intervention. Or even less dramatic and unexpected, U.S. military forces on episodic deployments for training could find themselves collocated and in conflict with PMCs, whether accidentally or through malign design. With PMCs operating in dozens of countries — most not as prominent as Ukraine, Syria, or Libya — the lack of awareness and chance of stumbling into conflict increases the risks to U.S. military operations and requires proactive planning.
Research shows that PMCs are likely to increase in numbers and locations in the coming years, and the U.S. military must plan for future interaction with such groups to minimize risks to its forces and to its mission when deployed to countries and regions PMCs are known to be present.
Plan and prepare
DoD and U.S. military leaders must account for this threat in their operational planning. At a minimum, they should ensure deployed commanders and forces have clear guidance on designations and rules of engagement regarding PMC contractors before conflict arises. U.S. forces should establish significant deconfliction measures in the early stages of a military deployment or a security cooperation engagement in a foreign country to deter maligned PMC employment on the ground. The U.S. should also heighten its security posture to account for potential cyber, sabotage, subversion, and disinformation threats from PMCs operating in the same country or region.
At some point, U.S. policymakers will, and rightfully should, conclude that Russian PMCs represent a threat to U.S. national interests abroad and hold the Russian government accountable for PMC conduct. The DoD should be prepared to support an interagency and coalition effort to counter PMC activity; that could include efforts in the domains of information, cyber, space, security cooperation, and special warfare capabilities, among others. The U.S. military could also be asked to support specific efforts to publicize illicit PMC conduct, expose financial and control linkages to the Russian government, or disrupt and frustrate PMC activities.
Currently, PMCs enable the Kremlin to inexpensively shape geopolitical outcomes in competition with the United States, while increasing its financial ties to countries abundant in natural resources or with high levels of debt. As a result, the Russian government has little to no incentive to reduce or cease its use of PMCs; on the contrary, the Kremlin is expected to continue employing such groups during the next decade. Unless the U.S. and the international community increase risk and impose enough costs on this practice, PMC activity will persist and potentially grow in regions where the Russian government has interests. Hence, DoD and military leaders should expect to intersect with and encounter PMC contractors while deployed. Proper planning now, informed by proactive and timely intelligence, will better arm the U.S. military to deal with and confront such groups in the future.
The views expressed are the authors’ alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Marine Corps, U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
On April 30, Vanda Felbab-Brown joins the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft for a discussion on “Ending the Forever War: President Biden’s Decision to Withdraw U.S. Troops from Afghanistan.”