17 September 2019

Hybrid forces – mercenaries, private armies

Sergiu Medar

Private armies formed out of mercenary are a way for some governments who do not want to become officially involved in conflicts in some areas of the world to reach their goals. Although this method to achieve political or economic goals is as old as war itself, it was brought back to the forefront through the use of Russia’s private armies in Ukraine and Syria and, probably in the future, in Venezuela and Iran. The fighting actions carried out by these hybrid forces show the hidden and violent side of the hybrid war.

Image source: Mediafax

Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 was, in fact, the validation by combat of the modern hybrid war’s concept. A lot has been written and said about the hybrid war in the past 7-8 years. It has been associated especially with the information and cybernetic warfare and less with the fighting actions of mercenaries, militias, special ops forces or private armies which act with the approval, financing, but without the formal involvement of the governments of great powers. These forces which are more likely in the grey than the legal area are named by some analysts as hybrid forces. They act, usually, in favour of dictatorships or authoritarian regimes. They are also used, however, by some states with great financial power, in order to intervene in environments where the official involvement of the governments would affect their prestige and credibility.

The hybrid forces are made out of very professional former soldiers who, for different reasons, left the active structures of the national army or intelligence services. They sign contracts or receive missions from private persons or governments, always through a proxy.

In a piece published by the Russian Military-Industrial Courier in July 2018, the commander of Russia’s Southern Military District, Gen. Col. Aleksandr Dvornikov, hero of the Russian Federation, praised the success in using Russian mercenaries without uniforms, local militias as well as regular troops in order to eliminate Syrian rebels which acted against the Assad regime. In his book The Staff of Future Wars, Dvornikov stated that the techniques and tactics used by the Russian hybrid forces in Syria are an example of the way in which Putin will act against liberation forces in any spot in the world. These types of forces were deemed by the Russian general as cheap expeditionary forces.

Analysing Dvornikov’s book, Mark Voyger, the former advisor to the commander of the United States Army Europe, Gen. LT. Ben Hodges, said that it is an actual manual of using mercenaries, militias and undercover tactics “to win wars not against the US, European or NATO armies, but against people’s revolts such as the one in Syria”.

This combination of special forces, mercenaries and militias formed of local forces make up wat Dvornikov named integrated groups which, according to him, were also used by the US in Yugoslavia and Iraq. In the Balkans, the case of American company MPRI, formed out of former US troops, instructing the Croatian army is well-known.

The statements in Dvornikov’s book bring to mind the famous piece written by the Russian Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Gerasimov, on the hybrid war, known as the Gerasimov Doctrine. British research Mark Galleoti, a professor at the Royal United Services Institute, said that the Russian Army chief was inspired in these actions by the way in which the US acted to control the governments of some countries in areas of strategic interest.

Hybrid forces are made out of integrated groups which mainly used local human resources, grouped based on their opposition principles against the antagonist forces, extremist nationalists or confessional groups.  They are organized in paramilitary structures led by former soldiers employed by private companies. Most of the times, the military actions are led even by the Special Forces from the active army, as in the example of the participation of Russian Special Forces in Syria, in support of Assad, starting with 2015.

Presenting the modus operandi of hybrid forces in Syria, Dvornikov discredits the Syrian army, insisting on its weaknesses to highlight, in fact, the success of integrated groups which actioned, by proxy, under Russian command.

The main directions of actions for Syrian hybrid forces were:

- launching strikes with the purpose of reducing the economic potential of forces opposing Assad, so that the latter would not have sufficient financial resources to finance actions against the government;

- carrying out psychological and misinformation actions targeting militant leaders, in order to discourage them and also limit their capacity to command;

- improving the mobility and manoeuvrability of destruction forces in the directions which interested and favoured the Assad regime;

- making efficient use of urban guerrilla warfare tactics: underground passages, tunnels, specialized comms, means of destruction and adequate constructions equipment;

- involvement in high-mobility actions of light Tachanka type vehicles;

- the use of mobile equipment to launch tactical cybernetic attacks, as well as jamming equipment for both communications as well as radio-triggered detonation systems for improvised explosive devices.

The manner in which Russian hybrid forces acted in Syria can be an example of how conflicts will be carried out in the near future. One piece of evidence in this regard is the group of approximately 100 soldiers led by a general of the Russian land forces general, which arrived at the airport in Caracas, Venezuela to offer the necessary support for dictator Maduro. The Russian mercenaries who played their part in Syria have become specialized in using hybrid tactics, which they can apply, based on a contract, in any part of the world, including Venezuela.

Activating them can be done by contracting private companies, who only receive the mission, with the way it is accomplished being totally up to the contractor, without taking into account legal restrictions.

One of the most efficient mercenary companies which are currently active in Syria and other parts of the world where Russia has strategic interests is Wagner Group.

Wagner is the code name of former GRU officer, Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin, the company’s founder, with the group founded by Evgeny Prigozin, a friend of Putin, who is also on the list of US sanctions against Russia.

The Wagner company became known through the missions it carried out in Ukraine in 2014 and, starting with 2015, in Syria. The fighters are recruited from among the Russian Army, especially from those who took part in combat missions both within Russia and abroad. The mercenaries are subjected to immense risks, with even their existence in certain areas of the world being denied by Russian government officials.

According to public information, in order to attract recruits, Wagner offers monthly wages of RUB250,000 (approximately USD4,000), way more than the salary of a Russian professional soldier. However, the risk is also high. It is known that several Russian mercenaries were killed in February 2018 during an attack of a rebel military base in Syria, which also hosted US military forces. It was the first engagement between Russian and US armed forces in Syria. Russia denied, however, that the mercenaries who took part in the battle had any ties with Russian authorities.

Without publishing official data, it is presumed that approximately 2,000 Wagner combatants are currently active in Syria.

The missions of Wagner mercenaries are primarily subordinated to the Russian army’s operative plans, participating where the level of danger is the highest. At the same time, they also receive commands from private individuals on economic objectives or the proception of individuals in a hostile area. For example, Wagner must occupy and protect oil extraction areas in Syria, based on Prigozin’s commands and funding, as he has business in this area. The businessman also provides equipment for the mercenaries, with highly destructive weapons but also dirty bombs.

The mercenary component in Russia’s hybrid forces can serve Putin’s goals by carrying out clandestine military incursions without a certain author, in territories of neighbouring states, preparing proxy force to de-stabilize the democratic governments of states of interest or decisive actions on some possible Russian groups which are hostile to Putin.

The combat and destruction actions carried out by hybrid forces, through clandestine operations and which are in the impossibility of being attributed to a certain government, are a new form of hybrid warfare which can be overlapped with the other ways of manifesting the modern war.

Translated by Ionut Preda