The use of private military companies (PMCs) by Russia has exploded in recent years, most notably the Wagner Group, which was named after Hitler’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner. The Wagner Group is Russia’s largest and most capable PMC. Its home base is located in Goryachy Klyuch, Krasnodar Krai, Russia. Read more from “Moscow’s Mercenary Wars” at CSIS.org (abridged):
Moscow’s use of PMCs has exploded in recent years, reflecting lessons learned from earlier deployments, a growing expansionist mindset, and a desire for economic, geopolitical, and military gains. Ukraine served as one of the first proving grounds for PMCs, beginning in 2014. The Russians then refined the model as these private mercenaries worked with local forces in countries such as Syria and Libya. Over time, Moscow expanded the use of PMCs to sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and other regions—including countries such as Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Madagascar, and Venezuela. PMCs now fill various roles to undermine U.S. influence and support Russia’s expanding geopolitical, military, and economic interests.
With operations suspected or proven in as many as 30 countries across 4 continents and an increasingly refined and adaptable operational model, PMCs are likely to play a significant role in Russian strategic competition for the foreseeable future.
PMCs first began operating in Ukraine during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 before taking on a central role in Moscow’s ongoing covert war in Eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Operating independently or augmenting regular Russian forces, PMC personnel in Ukraine including from Wagner Group reached between 2,500-5,000 during peak of fighting in 2015.
PMCs provided Moscow an ideal tool through which to pursue its geopolitical, military, and ideological objectives in Ukraine: destabilizing then consolidating control over Crimea and Donbas, undermining and pressuring Kyiv and its Western backers for diplomatic concessions, and doing it all while denying any official Russian involvement. However, while PMCs enabled Moscow and its Donbas proxies to seize and secure control over new “independent” republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, their battlefield achievements largely stalled since 2015, rendering the frontlines of Eastern Ukraine another Russian-backed frozen conflict. Moreover, Russian attempts to maintain “plausible deniability” for their actions fooled few Western governments, resulting in sanctions on Kremlin and PMC officials and organizations.
Building off its experience in Ukraine, Russia again turned to PMCs in Syria to help achieve important goals—including stabilizing the Assad regime and countering efforts by the United States and its partners. In addition, PMCs played a crucial role capturing oil fields, refineries, gas plants, and other energy infrastructure from rebels. Russian PMCs played an increasingly direct role in pro-regime combat operations over the course of the Syrian civil war and were often synchronized with Russian economic priorities, including securing key energy infrastructure. PMC personnel in Syria reached up to 1,000-3,000 personnel, including contingents from Wagner Group, Vegacy, E.N.O.T., Vostok Battalion, and other PMCs.
Syria was an important testing ground for the application of a hybrid-PMC deployment model, which is now being exported to other battlegrounds. PMCs acted as a ground force with skill sets similar to Russian Spetsnaz through which Moscow could limit regular Russian military casualties and provide deniability for high-risk Russian actions. PMCs synchronized military advances with economic priorities: capitalizing on ground advances in oil- and gas-rich areas, securing key pipelines, oil fields, refineries, and gas plants to stage future ground advances and draw profits. The Wagner Group’s advance on the Conoco Plant in Dayr az Zawr in February 2018 demonstrates how Moscow used PMCs to take risks in a deniable manner. In this case, Wagner attempted to seize the U.S.- and partner-controlled Conoco gas plant both to secure an economically valuable site and test U.S. resolve.
With lessons learned from supporting the Assad regime in Syria, Russia deployed PMCs to Libya’s civil war to bolster General Khalifa Haftar, his Libyan National Army (LNA), and the eastern-based government in Tobruk. Since 2017, PMCs such as Wagner Group have been at the vanguard of Russian efforts, advising and enabling Haftar’s LNA offensive into western Syria and assault on the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli in 2019.
In Sudan, Russia used Wagner Group to provide military and political support to President Omar al-Bashir in exchange for gold mining concessions. Russia also had a strategic motive to seek basing rights in the Red Sea. In November 2017, Moscow facilitated a mining operations agreement for M Invest, a Russian company tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin. PMC troops, who arrived the following month, provided training and military assistance to local forces.
Central African Republic
Russia has followed a similar model in the Central African Republic, where the Wagner Group and Patriot—another Russian PMC—have reportedly been active. Beginning in January 2018, Russia exchanged military training and security—primarily for President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and mining operations—for access to gold, uranium, and diamonds. New CSIS imagery sheds light on the training camp these troops established southwest of Bangui in the ruins of the Palace of Berengo.
In early spring 2018, Wagner Group sent a small group of political analysts to Madagascar to support incumbent President Hery Rajaonarimampianina’s reelection bid in exchange for economic agreements on mining (chromite and gold), oil, agriculture, and the port of Toamasina. In April, additional troops arrived to provide security and military training, allegedly with the assistance of Federal Security Service and GRU officers. Though Rajaonarimampianina lost the election, he facilitated the promised agreements prior to leaving office. Ferrum Mining, a Russian company involved in one such deal, began operations on the island in October 2018 but soon paused due to strikes.
In Mozambique, Russia traded Wagner’s military support against Islamist insurgents in Cabo Delgado province for access to natural gas. Wagner troops arrived in early September 2019 but were unprepared for the mission. They had little experience conducting operations in the brush and difficulty coordinating with local forces. After significant losses, Wagner troops retreated south to Nacala in November 2019 to regroup. Despite sending additional equipment and troops in February and March 2020, Wagner was replaced in April by the Dyck Advisory Group, a South African PMC. It is unclear whether any Wagner troops remain in the country.
PMCs have been present in Venezuela since at least 2017 to guard Russian business interests and companies, such as Rosneft. Despite investments in the Venezuelan economy, Moscow’s relationship with Caracas is primarily driven by a geostrategic desire to reassert its influence in the region at the expense of the United States. In response to the Trump administration’s calling for the ouster for Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president in January 2019, Russia deployed approximately 100 security contractors, likely from Wagner, the same month to provide security to president Maduro amid political upheaval. These contractors conducted surveillance and cybersecurity protection in addition to physical security.