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An experimental playground: The footprint of Russian private military companies in Syria

By Kiril Avramov and Ruslan Trad

Life comes at you fast.

One minute in 2015 Kiril Shadrin was a loyal Russian infantryman; the next, he was a ‘volunteer’ in the Donbass; and then in 2017 he suddenly left for Syria, where he re-emerged as a member of a Syrian paramilitary pro-government organization under the supervision of the Syrian Department of General Intelligence. In conflicts across the world, there are now many Kirils – Russian soldiers occupying a grey zone between serviceman, mercenary and spook.

Regardless of the Kremlin’s official denial of their existence, the presence of such personnel becomes painfully evident as incidents unfold in the prolonged and bloody Syrian conflict. There, Russia is experimenting with hybrid proxy warfare, blurring the lines between official foreign policy and private groups, Russian action and that of independent parties. It is already including what it has learned in its playbook for gray zone conflict.

As the armed conflict in Syria transformed from a full-blown civil war to a brutal proxy war, the main actors involved began to experiment with hybrid approaches to proxy warfare. Russia has taken advantage of the chaos on the ground to test combining official, direct military involvement with opaque private military companies (PMCs). Syria has proven to be an excellent laboratory for testing the operational potential and “deniability” of a mix of official and unofficial efforts.

As Russia is a relative newcomer at using PMCs abroad for deniability and force augmentation, the results of this “cooperation” are likely to have a deep impact both in Syria and elsewhere. This experiment has strategic, tactical and legal implications both on the battlefield and abroad, for Russia and for the potential targets of hybridized proxy war.

Shifting Russian attitudes towards PMCs

While mercenary activity has a long history in Russia, the use of modern PMCs is a new and novel development, emerging both from internal political and public pressure, and legal and strategic concerns. Prior to 2014, mercenary activity was suppressed by the various state security organs, due to fears of rivalry between the official security apparatus and the PMCs, the loss of supervision and control over PMC activities, and a possible competition over state funding.

However, the expansionist appetite of Russian foreign policy in the Middle East and military involvement abroad in general, coupled with lobbying pressure from oil and gas sector operators, created a situation where the legal void needed to be filled even by partial means. But another driving factor was the Kremlin’s evolving understanding of PMCs’ flexibility and deployability in the course of hybrid warfare.

After a bill legalizing PMCs failed in 2014, amendments to the federal law concerning conscription and military service rapidly passed in 2016. The new bill struck a tricky balance, legalizing the Russian PMCs’ personnel operating abroad without necessarily settling the legality of the PMCs themselves, as the amendments allow for “participation in activities to maintain or restore international peace and security” (limited to a year) and “suppression of international terrorist activities outside the territory of the Russian Federation.”

This shift in the official Russian administration’s attitude towards contractors resulted from several different factors, namely President Vladimir Putin’s desire for more flexible military policy options, domestic economic interests (of both the PMCs themselves and their customers), and the relative ease and efficiency of modernizing private-sector units, compared to Russia’s troubled military modernization project. Providing legal cover for PMCs also gives Russian authorities more latitude to spin information for the public and generally to reduce domestic pressure in crises involving captured soldiers and casualties.

Out of the post-Soviet chaos …

In the past several years dozens of Russian PMCs have popped up, many of them short-lived. When a PMC goes defunct, its personnel often splinter into new groups and proliferate, as in the case of Tigr Top-Rent Security that was established in 2005 and went defunct the very next year.

In Ukraine, PMC personnel (a large portion of them ex-military) can be easily traced in groups such as RSB-Group, E.N.O.T Corp. and Moran Security Group. Members of these groups are often veterans of Russian efforts in Yugoslavia, the Caucasus, Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have been spotted not only in Ukraine but also in Syria. These groups, born in the chaos of the post-Soviet transition and early Russian efforts abroad, were the early beginnings of a Russian PMC foreign business outreach.

Throughout the 2000s, Russian entities such as Tigr Top-Rent Security and Redut-Antiterror have used Iraq, Afghanistan and certain African countries to test the waters of the modern PMC business. Some of the more established PMCs (alongside other Russian militias) used Eastern Ukraine as a training ground before deployment to Syria. Volunteers from the so-called Novorossiya with close connections to Russian PMCs were tested in Ukraine before moving on to Syria.

Results of these early efforts were mixed, as can been seen in the stories of two of the most notorious PMCs: The Slavonic Corps and Wagner. The so-called Slavonic Corps, a 267-strong unit founded under the auspices of Moran Security Group’s head – Vyacheslav Kalashnikov, a lieutenant colonel in the Federal Security Service (FSB) reserves – was sent to Syria after signing a contract with the government and began to provide security for key Syrian energy sites. As it turned out upon arrival in Syria, the Corps were probably contracted by a local kingpin, possibly on direct orders from Bashar al-Assad’s government, and were used as an offensive force to recapture the very oil fields that they were supposed to guard.

Their story – while one of utter fiasco, as they were inadequately equipped, poorly managed and able to execute only a single ill-fated combat operation – still illustrates the dynamics and direction of Russian efforts.

PMC Wagner and the ISIS Hunters

Whereas the Slavonic Corps met disaster, Wagner – started by a former lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Spetznaz (Special Forces) Brigade of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) who was working for Moran and then the Corps – began as a small contractor but is now effectively a private army. Wagner makes heavy use of mercenaries and probably has about 2,500 people distributed in different operational units that provide security for key Syrian infrastructure and energy sites.

Prior to their departure to Syria, the new Wagner recruits were trained at the base of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) 10th Special Mission’s brigade in Molokino, near the southern Russian city of Krasnodar. Publicly, their designation was solely security provision, however as it became evident in 2018, for the past two years, the company has been very actively involved in training, intelligence collection and forward operations on behalf of Assad’s army. On paper, no official links between the Russian forces in Syria and Wagner exist. In essence the Wagner personnel are actively augmenting the Russian troops on the ground in execution of their “special tasks.”

Case in point would be the successful recapture of Palmyra 2016, where Wagner personnel augmented the advance of regular troops. One might argue that the active engagement of Wagner in the Middle East is suspiciously coincidental with the mass deployment of Russian armed forces in Syria in 2015, thus advancing the idea that Wagner is a thin cover for the special operations units of the regular armed forces.

If not an integral part of the armed forces, then certainly the two entities act in concert, where Wagner is carefully curated by elements of GRU and FSB.

While early Russian PMCs began outside of Syria and bear some resemblance to Western contractors, Russia’s efforts in Syria have spawned units tailored to fighting in the Middle East, such as the “ISIS Hunters” that serve as valuable asset on the propaganda and psychological warfare front at home and for designated foreign audiences.

The Hunters (a spinoff of circles close to Wagner) were used in Russian propaganda efforts at home and in the West. The unit gained visibility in March 2017, when information on a special unit augmenting the Syrian government forces and with a particular focus on operations against ISIS has appeared in Russian media. It was quickly replicated by media outlets tightly connected with Russian propaganda abroad known to reproduce and spread “controlled leaks” in “target countries,” such as Bulgaria, designated for disinformation offensives.

Monument to Russian military contractors in Syria
A monument claimed to be in Syria to Russia military contractors. It reads “In everlasting memory of fighters … dead and missing in the Syrian Arab Republic – Voin [Warrior], Palach [Executioner], Didyay, Damzay, Arakul [Oracle], Solovey [Nightingale], Sunzha, Skorpion [Scorpion], Gafur”

Although the Hunters strive to portray themselves as a local phenomenon, they never managed to get rid of the halo of a Russian creation, and probably because of this, their popularity does not extend beyond the Russian media and certain Western outlets sympathetic to Russian concerns. However, the ISIS Hunters do have an additional function that is far from being portrayed as “the scourge of ISIS.”

One of their main tasks is security provision for the Syrian army’s strategic sites, such as gas and oil fields, overlapping with Euro Polis, a company connected to a close Putin confidant. While the details regarding the Syrian contracts of Euro Polis are protected as a commercial secret, it is clear that the ISIS Hunters are an important part of the company’s activities, as the company is linked business moguls close to Wagner. These in turn are connected directly to the Russian government and personally to Putin.

A tested model to export

Syria has proved to be the perfect application of a hybrid military-PMC deployment model, and it is now ready to be exported elsewhere. Russia’s deployments of its own forces abroad operating alongside PMCs are on the rise. This suggests that the hybrid operational concept has moved beyond the experimental phase and is ready for wider export outside Syria, perhaps to Libya, Egypt and possibly Sudan, where there are specific Russian geopolitical and security interests connected to the former Soviet security presence in the Middle East and Africa.

The footprint of Russian PMCs in Syria is significant and has demonstrated the capacity of the Kremlin to apply military pressure abroad without officially deploying regular troops. PMCs give the Kremlin a way to limit its exposure to domestic pressures while still applying force abroad. The case of Kiril Shadrin – the soldier turned paramilitary contractor – is illustrative of probably hundreds of Russian citizens and citizens of Central Asian countries who have participated in operations in Syria.

The widely-publicized capture of Roman Vasilievich Zabolotny and Grigorii Mihailovich Surkanov by ISIS sheds additional light on the interaction between the Russian Armed Forces and Russian PMCs abroad, where the boundary between public and private becomes blurred in the name of claiming official armed forces operational successes, while reducing the body count via PMCs.

As Putin triumphantly announced Russia’s withdrawal from Syria for the third time, it is obvious that Russia has no real intention to abandon the region. Certain elements of the regular Russian forces may now be withdrawing, but Russian PMCs in Syria and other locations in the Middle East and Africa are in for the long haul.

Dr Kiril Aramov

Dr. Kiril Avramov is a post-doctoral fellow at the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science and former Vice-Rector of the New Bulgarian University in Sofia and a former Senior Fulbright Visiting Researcher at CREEES, UT Austin, Texas.

You can follow him on Twitter: @avramovok.

Ruslan Trad

Ruslan Trad is a freelance journalist and analyst with over ten years’ experience covering and analysis of MENA, Balkans and Turkey regional issues; co-founder of De Re Militari Journal; and author of the book “The Murder of a Revolution” (2017).

You can follow him on Twitter: @ruslantrad.

All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.

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