The All-Russian Officers’ Assembly, a national war veterans’ organization, published a document, on July 5, urging government officials to legalize so-called Private Military Companies (PMC). The document was signed by Colonel General (ret.) Leonid Ivashov (the president of the Academy for Geopolitical Problems), Colonel (ret.) Vladimir Petrov, and the ataman (head) of the “Khovrino” Cossack community, Evgeni Shabaev. The petitioners underscored the contradictory visible mismatch between Russian PMCs being technically illegal, while their members “[receive] medals and signs of military distinction from the Russian state” (Newsrbk.ru, July 6).
Specific demands outlined in the document include the following (Svoboda.org, July 6):
– The government must provide social and economic support as well as rehabilitation to Russian PMC members on par with contract soldiers;
– The government has to clearly establish legal, social, and economic mechanisms to guide the relationships between all governmental structures/agencies and PMCs;
– All members of PMCs that have taken part in combat need to be given the status of “participants in war” (uchastnik boyevih deystvii);
– Any form of prosecution/pressure against PMC members and their families by state structures and agencies or non-state organizations has to be stopped.
The document also mentions that in 2018 alone, Russian PMCs have been active “not only in Syria, but also in the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, Yemen, Libya and a number of other African and Arab countries” (Svoboda.org, July 6). This by and large confirms previous growing evidence that Russian PMCs have been expanding their areas of activity (see EDM, April 30).
Another notable aspect of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly’s document is the fact that, in addition to mentioning the well-known Wagner Group (which suffered heavy casualties in Syria in early 2018—see EDM, February 15), it also lists the, until now, virtually unknown PMC Patriot. The latter Russian military company has apparently been active in Syria since spring 2018. An overview of open-source material on Patriot suggests the following characteristics inherent to this PMC (Chvk.info, accessed July 27):
– Composition: The company is said to be primarily comprised of professional Russian military men with significant fighting experience;
– Payment policy: The salaries paid out by Patriot to its fighters ($6,300–15,800 per month) is said to be much more generous than Wagner ($2,500–3,500 per month). However, contracts offered usually do not exceed 1–2 months.
– Tasks and functions: Unlike the Wagner Group, which is concerned mainly with military operations, Patriot evidently specializes in providing physical protection for statesmen and important persons. This division of responsibilities (as well as disputes about contracts for protecting gold mines in the CAR) is apparently leading to growing animosity between the two PMCs as both look to expand their commercial opportunities (Ura.news, July 5).
– Command and Control (C2): Some experts have claimed the existence of strong ties between Patriot and the Russian Ministry of Defense, which was confirmed by Ataman Shabaev (one of the signatories to the PMC petition described above). Other sources provide information on existing connections between Patriot and the military intelligence service (GRU), which allegedly “packs” this PMC with members of the GRU Special Operation Forces (Graniru.org, July 5).
The reputable independent Russian news channel TV Rain (Dozhd) has partially corroborated the above description of Patriot. In an interview with this outlet, an unnamed defense ministry representative stated that, currently, a new Russian PMC (apparently, Patriot) is securing construction of a Russian military base in Burundi. The company and its activities are said to be “coordinated by the foreign ministry, the Aerospace Forces (VKS) and the FSB [Federal Security Service]” (Tvrain.ru, July 5). This detail is crucial—it is clear that Russian PMCs have, indeed, broadened the geographic scope of their operations to Africa.
These developments have triggered intense debate among Russian experts and individuals close to various PMCs, revealing a great deal of contradictory information that seems to exist pertaining to this matter. Speaking with reporters in July, Shabaev stated that Russian PMCs, though employed by the Russian state, “do not deal with military tasks per se”; rather, “these are acting in the interests of some businessmen.” He noted that PMCs are “a business project” that make money off the sacrificed lives of Russian people: “Here, we are dealing with the specific financial profit of specific people who have organized these structures” (Uazmi.net, July 8). However, Anton Mardasov, from the Moscow-based Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), instead underscored the state’s role: “It is no surprise that the Russian military would like to stand out, create some companies [PMCs] and start making money off of what they are being used for” (Newizv.ru, July 5).
Commenting on these developments, Colonel General Ivashov (another of the PMC petition signatories) dismissed information on Patriot taking any part in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar al-Assad. Nevertheless, he confirmed the company’s existence. Ivashov also shrugged off suggestions that the defense ministry had anything to do with Patriot, emphasizing that “this ministry does not need this PMC; it has its own forces for these types of operations.” The head of the international public organization Honor and Motherland (Tchest i Rodina), Vladimir Petrov, offered the same assessment (Tsargrad.tv, July 5).
Alexander Perendzhiev, a member of the expert council of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Officers of Russia, offered an interesting comment on the debate to legalize PMCs in Russia, calling it “merely political games.” He argued, “PMCs have already been turned into a rather effective tool, employed to pursue the government’s interests in so-called ‘grey zones,’ without the application of any legal governmental mechanisms…” adding, “this situation satisfies everyone’s interests. The fact that the activities of these structures do not fall within any legal sphere […] allows the government to distance itself from these formations, when necessary” (Chvk.info, accessed July 27).
The case of Patriot reveals three important conclusions. First, the destruction of Wagner Group forces in Syria earlier this year has had no noticeable effect on Russia’s stance vis-à-vis PMCs or on their given tasks (see Jamestown.org, July 13). Second, there are many more Russian PMCs and they operate in a much broader geographic area than appears based on most reporting. Third, Russia is engaging in a “race for Africa,” with PMCs serving as a key tool for expanding and promoting Russian interests there (see EDM, April 9, 17, 30, May 15, June 14). Additional stories and revelations on these developing trends are, thus, inevitable.