16 August 2019

Nothing clear on the Eastern front: Russian mercenaries

Sergiu Medar

After Berlin’s Wall fall, all world’s states have embraced the private security campaigns, mostly the physical security ones. Then, these got to documents’ protection, intelligence systems’ protection, communication and personnel’s protection, including bodyguards or convoy and people deployed in different hostile security environments.

Image source: Mediafax

International organizations or private equipment and services providers, whose presence in the theatres of operations was urgent, have appealed, starting with 1960, to Private Military Companies (PMC), composed of highly professional fighters, to ensure their protection. These solutions were used, lately, in all TOs.

Private missions’ tasks got slowly more and more complex, both inside or outside the law, getting to establish private armies, involved in small-scale conflicts, however to have a great intensity, as well as in medium magnitude conflicts, together with governmental fight structures.

PMC’s actions have both political governmental objectives and private economic ones. For the political objectives, PMCs are joining governmental or independent structures in military actions, planned by regular army structures. For the economic ones, the military intervention supports, additionally, different companies developing businesses in hostile environments.

PMCs have their own information collection capacities needed in the developed operations, however, sometimes, in certain countries, they are receiving information also from special governmental structures.

War by proxy

Back in the 90’s, in the post-Soviet space, it emerged the waR by proxy principle, whereby mercenaries belonging to PMCs are participating, de facto, in military operations. This method is especially developed in the Russian-speaker space, but also outside of it. Although their planning and objectives are established by Moscow, it is, de jure, outside the hostilities. The financing is quite rare developed directly through contracts between PMC and Russia’s government, being more often developed through companies which have contracts, with huge or fictive prices, with companies belonging to the military industrial complex, consisting of maintenance services, catering, training etc.

During the Trans-Dniester conflict, in its last March-June 1992 phase, the separatist forces were built by Trans-Dniester armed locals and trained by the active forces of the 14th Army, positioned to Bender, on Dniester’s coast. These forces were integrated in structures created by mercenaries. This true private army was created by Afghani people, veterans of the Afghanistan war and had 200-300 fighters subordinated by lieutenant-colonel Kostenko. After the active phase of the conflict ended, when Moscow reached its goals, Kostenko was killed and its group was eliminated. This way of ending an operation led by PMC, wherein commanders are killed, it seems that it has become a cliché we can find in other situations as well. In Donbass, a series of fighters and commanders were killed after the end of an operational phase.

Mercenaries were also the ones to accomplish Kremlin’s interests during the conflict between Sukhumi (rebellious Abkhazia capital) and Tbilisi, where they contribute much more to separatists’ victory. Russian nationalist mercenaries, one of them coming from Trans-Dniester, acted across the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of Caucasus, a private and military independent group.

Russian authorities have never admitted Russian mercenaries’ existence, but they were extremely vocal when talking about foreign mercenaries in the post-Soviet space.

The news magazine, Voennaya Misl/Military Thinking, edited by the Russian Military Sciences Academy, published an entire PMCs list belonging to other states, which acted or are acting in different local conflict areas, in former Soviet states. On this list, there are also Ukrainian mercenaries who operated in Trans-Dniester, in 1992, within the Argo group, the involvement of Israeli Defence Shield PMC in the Georgian conflict and a preemptive American-Polish PMC in East of Ukraine, in 2014.

Starting with 1990, Russian mercenaries have found a huge market for activities and services contracting, related to their field, in Africa. Such agreement is different from the political one, presented above, being more like a risky, professional activity developed based on a contract. The clients are the African states or political groups that want to get the power. Sometimes, these actions have economic reasons belonging to both private companies and Russia’s government.

After communist bloc’s demise from East Europe, many militaries, some of them highly proseffesional, left the army and entered these private fight groups. These were actively involved in conflicts in Africa. Contracts were signed with non-state groups, but also with governments which needed to train their own troops. Familiar to Soviet equipment, but also the equipment of some Eastern Europe states, mercenaries have trained the members of the army created after 1990, in Africa.

In a study related to this topic, made by the Strategic Research Institute of the Military School, from France, Emmanuel Dryfus quotes Bob Denard, the well-known French mercenary who, while confirming the above mentioned, stated: “The main reason has to do with unemployment, which had suddenly hit thousands of highly qualified military personnel [...] Suddenly, a lot of officers found themselves on the street [...], and they didn’t know how to do anything else but fight. It’s easy to become a mercenary. To cross the borders, all you have to do is come as a tourist [...] Forty years ago, the Africans, the locals, didn’t know how to fight, and they needed the support of white mercenaries…among other things to maintain armoured vehicles and aircraft: in Africa, there is still a lot of heavy weaponry from the Soviet Union and Russia.”

Hundreds of Russian or Serbian mercenaries fought in 1997 to support Mobutu Sese Seko, in Zair. Also, Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries fought alongside Pascal Lissouba, during the 1997 Brazzaville coup.

In 1998, several hundred Russian mercenaries fought alongside the Ethiopian forces, in the conflict between Addis Ababa and Asmara (Eritrea’s capital). There were Russian senior officers who led Ethiopian combat units. For example: General Yakim Yanakov was hired by the Ethiopian government as advisor for the Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian Air Force.

In Angola, Russian mercenaries fought on both the Luanda government forces side and the UNITA rebel forces.

According to Dreyfus, in his work Private Military Companies in Russia: Not So Quiet on The Eastern Front, even US or British private military companies have hired Russian mercenaries for Iraqi missions in Iraqi Freedom operation. Since 2004, dozens of Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries have been used by British PMC Erynis.

Russian legislation. Flexible with mercenary services.

Mercenary activity in Russia is neither prohibited, nor permitted. The legislation is ambiguous and this version is favoring the PMC. Art. 359 of the Russian Penal Code defines the mercenary as "a person who acts for the purpose of receiving a financial gain, and is not a citizen of the country he operates in, in armed operations" and provides punishments between 3 to 7 years in prison for those who carry out mercenary activities and 4 to 8 years for the people who train or hire mercenaries.

 According to public data, until now, this law was only applied in one case, in 2014, when Vadim Gusev and Yevgeniy Sidorov, founders of Slavonic Group, were sentenced to 3 years in prison for recruiting 250 mercenaries who were, apparently, sent to defend drilling facilities in Syria but, in fact, they participated, along with Syrian government forces, in battles in the Deir Ez-Zor area.

According to current legislation, although dozens of Private Military Companies (PMCs) operate in Russia, these are all illegal.

Countries outside Russia, where many PMCs are also operating, are: US, UK and France. The legislation regarding their functioning differs from state to state. The clearest is in the US, where, starting with 2003, the PMCs must receive a license from the Defence Trade Control Office.

In UK, regulations started with a law issued in 2003, which states that PMCs registration is voluntary. They can also be registered at the Security Industry Authority.

In France, the situation is a little more confusing. According to a law that came into force in 2003, mercenary activity is prohibited, but PMC’s can work as long as they do not get involved in fight missions. These companies are not subjected to any control.

PMC’s activity is not clearly regulated at international level either. Although these companies were created back in the 1960s, an international law, the Montreaux Document, was issued only in 2008. It was elaborated due to the large participation of PMCs in Afghanistan and Iraq operations. The document was signed by 40 states, Russia being one of the signatories.

Translated by Andreea Soare