A Wolf in Mercenary Clothing? Russian Contractors as Gray Zone Tool

Moscow may increasingly look toward private military companies (PMCs), known in Russia as Chastnye Voennie Companiy (ChVK), to exert plausibly deniable and economically and politically sustainable military influence abroad, according to experts speaking to The Cipher Brief. Unlike relying on proxies such as ragtag local militias or organized criminal groups in conflicts such as in Syria, Ukraine and Libya, Russian private military companies offer the promise of greater Kremlin control and combat effectiveness, all while sidestepping the potential domestic political backlash of Russian military casualties in far-off wars.

  • In Russia, the provision of “mercenary” services is illegal under Article 208 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation and the Russian defense ministry has shied away from officially utilizing PMCs due to fear of undermining the state’s monopoly on armed violence. But there has been a push to begin leveraging privatized military outfits in conflicts abroad, albeit quietly.
  • When asked about the possibility of using private military companies as indirect instruments of Russian influence abroad in 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by saying, “I believe that such companies are a way of implementing national interests without the direct involvement of the state.” He added, “I think we could consider this option.” Some point to 2008 laws allowing state energy firms Gazprom and Transneft to maintain extensive security forces as early precursors to legalizing private military companies in Russia.

David Shedd, Former Acting Director, Defense Intelligence Agency

“The Cipher Brief has become the most popular outlet for former intelligence officers; no media outlet is even a close second to The Cipher Brief in terms of the number of articles published by formers.” —Sept. 2018, Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 62

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