The Kremlin has been unable to conceal its use of mercenaries for its military interventions because the nationalist fringe — which supplies many of the soldiers for hire – openly discusses their role. That and other considerations make it likely that Russia will eventually admit it’s using private troops.
On Thursday, Yevgeny Shabayev, a far-left nationalist activist who heads a “Cossack” group in Moscow, demanded that private military company fighters who take part in operations in Syria, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya be officially recognized as veterans. At the moment, the Russian government won’t even admit the existence of the companies.
The statement, co-signed by two other nationalist figures, Leonid Ivashov, a retired general, and Vladimir Petrov, a retired colonel, claimed that “the heads of private military companies (Patriot, Wagner, and others) receive state awards personally from the Russian president.” Yet even though the companies receive profitable business concessions with the Kremlin’s help in the countries where they are deployed, their fighters get no help from the government if they’re wounded in combat. Instead, the statement claimed, police and domestic counterintelligence services keep an eye on them, and the families of the dead fighters are pressured into silence.
Shabayev, one of several nationalist activists who disclosed the death of many Russian mercenaries in a clash with U.S. forces in Syria in February, claimed that cronies of President Vladimir Putin were setting up the military companies for personal profit but using the resources of Russia’s military and law enforcement agencies to arm and train the private armies.
Russian nationalists are a major source of volunteers for the private military companies and the informal units fighting under the Kremlin’s loose control in eastern Ukraine. Many of the nationalists have combat experience or at least have served in the military; they fight not only for the money but also because they support Russia’s policies. That’s fine with the Kremlin: It needs deniable, dedicated cannon fodder for its military adventures. The only catch is that the nationalists aren’t true Putin fans: They consider his regime too venal and cowardly in defending Russian national interests. That’s why they can’t be expected to shut up about what they do in countries where Russian troops aren’t supposed to be.
The Kremlin, of course, has another important source of deniable manpower for its operations: military personnel sent to unofficial war theaters while “on vacation.” These troops aren’t prone to complaining because, as soldiers, they are entitled to decent medical treatment and other benefits. But they — and the families of those killed in the wars — won’t necessarily keep mum, either.
After an initial period of denial, tombstones have appeared on the graves of Russian paratroopers killed in Ukraine with photographs showing them in uniform and listing dates that betray unequivocally where they perished. On July 4, Oleg Leontiev, an officer who is being tried for negligence that led to a soldier’s death, asked for leniency on the grounds that he had taken part in military action “on the territory of a neighboring country where we supposedly weren’t present.”
Russia’s experience waging wars that involve irregulars and “vacationing” service members shows that deniability is a fiction. Sooner or later, the government’s participation comes to light. And when that happens, all the Russian forces involved in a conflict tend to be lumped together. It’s easy for the U.S., for example, to assume that all Russians in a combat zone belong to the Russian military, even though the U.S. military won’t officially say so.
In Syria, U.S. troops continue to clash occasionally with forces they say they can’t identify. In such cases, they go to the Russian military command for deconfliction.
It could be in Putin’s interest to stop trying to keep open secrets and to recognize the existence of the private military companies. Separating them clearly from the official armed forces could be beneficial for deconfliction purposes. It might also help create a new, more plausible deniability, a line between private initiatives, such as it is, and government interest in areas where the distinction is murky now. The U.S., after all, doesn’t try to hide its private military companies.
On Friday, Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov said that if the Kremlin receives an official request to recognize private military company fighters as veterans, it will send it on to the Defense Ministry “so some ground rules can be developed.” That’s a long way from official recognition, and the Russian law that criminalizes mercenary work would need to be changed to clear the way for any new rules. But it’s a sign that the Kremlin isn’t adamant about continuing to deny an important part of its military strategy.