Bottom Line: Moscow’s increasingly assertive military activity in Eastern Europe and the Middle East seeks to project the power of a resurgent Russia in relation to a retreating United States, while concealing its economic and political fragility at home. In doing so, the Kremlin walks a fine line between escalation with the West and the gradual growth of influence abroad. These realities have required the Kremlin to pursue unconventional and deniable means, sometimes complimented with a small overt military footprint to accomplish its political and military objectives.
Background: Russia’s doctrine of deception – known as Maskirovka, Russian for “masking” or “camouflage” – is a foundational component of Russia’s strategic mindset.
Using decoys, clandestine actions and disinformation, Russia aims to increase ambiguity and indecision in opposing forces. The tools of Russia’s doctrine of deception broadly include psychological operations; manipulation of media, disinformation and propaganda; electronic and cyber warfare; irregular forces not in uniform; private military contractors; proxies; and physical deception through camouflaged military maneuver. While not necessarily a new doctrine of warfare, its modern iteration takes place at the seams of conventional conflict – the gray zone between peace and war.
A notable development in Russia’s extraterritorial operations and unconventional action is the creation of the Special Operations Command (KSSO) under the General Staff’s command, announced in March 2013. These units are different from the more conventional Spetsnaz units housed under Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). The new units are estimated to total 2,000 combat personnel and have been deployed in Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, Syria and the North Caucasus. Referred to as “little green men” or “polite people” during their annexation of Crimea, these units at times operate without clear Russian military insignia for Kremlin deniability. KSSO operatives have also taken a prominent role in Syria since deploying in September 2015, including the battle against ISIS for Palmyra and during Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s push to retake Aleppo. There are also reports of KSSO deployments to western Egypt to potentially engage in operations across the border in eastern Libya.
The doctrine of Maskirovka goes beyond fostering doubt to present an alternative (– and often false) – narrative. Russia has used this doctrine to pursue geostrategic objectives under the guise of international cooperation. Perhaps the most prominent example is Russia’s positioning itself as a counterterrorism partner to the West in Syria – andLibya to a lesser extent – as it seeks to extend its influence in the Middle East. Russia’s overt air campaign in Syria provides a convenient distraction from its clandestine ground forces in Syria and continuing military operations in Ukraine. It also allows Russia to present itself as a strategic ally to the international community in the war against ISIS. But while Russia may occasionally target ISIS in Syria, its primary objectives in the country have been to bolster the Assad regime and destroy the Western-backed opposition so as to undermine the prospect of a pro-U.S. entity in Syria.
“Russia’s goals are broad acknowledgement by Washington of Moscow’s revitalized role as a key player on the world stage, particularly in the Middle East; recognition that Russia has legitimate policy and security interests in former Soviet territories, the so-called ‘near abroad,’ to include Ukraine and the NATO-member Baltic states; an end to sanctions imposed on Moscow as a result of its carving off a part of Georgia, seizing Crimea and fomenting war in eastern Ukraine; and an end to further NATO expansion to the East. All these goals reflect longstanding Russian grievances and indicate both the authoritarian mindset and the post-Soviet ‘revisionist’ historiography predominant in the minds of Russian President Vladimir Putin and those around him. All are anathema to U.S. interests.”
“Maskirovka is a key element in the current Russian doctrine of ‘hybrid’ warfare as articulated by a number of senior Russian officials and dubbed the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine. This doctrine calls for the integration of information operations, cyber, proxies, overt economic and political influence and clandestine influence agents to support the military objective. Ideally, this leads to the creation of conditions for the achievement of the military objective without the need for overt military action.”
Issue: During its military adventurism, Russia has generated uncertainty and plausible deniability regarding its role in clandestine operations, such as in Crimea, which has helped the Kremlin sidestep the imposition of meaningful repercussions by the West or international community. The growth of Russia’s reliance on private military companies (PMC) – which provide a cheap, politically convenient, controllable and capable avenue to deploy forces in conflict zones around the world – is quickly becoming a prominent feature of this doctrine.
PMCs are expeditionary, offensively oriented private entities hired by nation-states and private companies to engage in combat, deter opponents and potentially gain territory. Unlike the mercenaries of old, PMCs are structured as multinational corporations, often with a web of subsidiaries and shell companies in various legal jurisdictions around the globe.
While the provision of “mercenary” services is technically illegal under Article 208 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, the Russian defense ministry has nonetheless covertly leveraged privatized military outfits in conflicts abroad, with its illegality at home lending a level of deniability to the Kremlin’s actions.
Russian PMCs, known in Russia as Chastnye Voennie Companiy (ChVK), offer the promise of greater Kremlin control and combat effectiveness while sidestepping the potential domestic political backlash for Russian military casualties in far-off wars. They are an effective tool in support of state-sponsored insurgency or unconventional warfare because they are deniable and disposable. They operate with state support and sanction, but in a legal grey area.
An estimated 260 Russian contractors employed by Slavonic Corps were deployed to protect Assad regime assets in 2013 under an agreement brokered by the Hong Kong-registered company Moran. Their supposed mission, blessed by the primary Russian intelligence agency, the FSB, was to guard oil and gas facilities to free up Syrian army resources for an offensive against ISIS. Instead, however, the Russian contractors were tasked with fighting to take control of the facilities from ISIS, leading to ill-fated skirmishes against the terrorist group and the public outing of the company.
The Wagner Group, a Russian PMC, has deployed units to both Ukraine and Syria reportedly under the direction and funding of Russian military intelligence, the GRU, to test the effectiveness of privatized proxies. Wagner seemingly acts as an arm of Russian statecraft and was heavily involved in the fighting in Donbas, Ukraine as well as in Palmyra, Syria, in 2015. Much of the confusion about the scale and nature of Russia’s direct commitment to ground battles in Ukraine and Syria may be linked to the veneer of deniability generated by private military companies.
Moscow may increasingly look to private military companies as an exploratory wing to gauge future involvement in conflicts around the globe. A Russian firm called RSB-Group sent a group of military contractors to eastern Libya in late 2017 to conduct a de-mining mission in support of the controversial Libyan military commander General Khalifa Haftar. The rogue general is vying for a greater leadership role of Libya as his forces employ brutal tactics in the country’s volatile east, independent of the UN-backed government in Tripoli. The use of a private firm in this instance allows the Kremlin to insulate itself from claims that it is supporting a strongman rather than the internationally-recognized government.