- Between 2014 and 2019, Russian mercenaries and irregulars have been spotted on three continents, and the number of countries where they have carried out operations is growing. Among the newly emerging and potential destinations, the countries of Latin America (Venezuela and Nicaragua), the Maghreb (Libya), and Sub-Saharan Africa (Mozambique) deserve particular attention.
- The tasks and functions performed by Russian private military companies (PMC) and other irregulars have evolved (in comparison with 2014) and gained additional complexity. Aside from (para)military functions—operations carried out as “shockwave troops” (Syria and Ukraine)—Russian irregulars are employed as paramilitary consultants, trainers for foreign militias and armed forces, and to carry out anti-insurgency operations in a host country.
- Despite their undisputed strengths, Russian PMCs have demonstrated certain weaknesses, especially when confronted by a technologically superior adversary and/or operating in unfamiliar terrain (desert, tropical/equatorial forests) and challenging conditions (lack of coordination with local forces and/or lack of assistance from the Russian Armed Forces).
- PMCs should not be looked at in isolation, but rather in conjunction with a) other irregular formations, b) Russia`s official governmental structures, as well as c) large corporations and Russian oligarchs close to the ruling elite.
- Given their international image and reputation, Russia might be willing to increase its use of PMCs (and other irregular formations) in information-psychological operations to exert additional pressure on Western countries.
The period between 2014 and 2018 drew international attention to a relatively new phenomenon—Russian Private Military Companies (PMC). De jure, they are non-existent organizations, legally prohibited by the Russian Penal Code; yet, de facto, they have for years been a rapidly developing sector at the intersection of business, security and military. Russian PMCs first emerged several years before the world took note: during the interim between 2011 (the outbreak of the civil wars in Syria and Libya) and 2014 (the Russian invasion of Ukraine). The most notorious and well-known entity of this sort today is almost certainly the Wagner Group. Created in May 2014, the Wagner PMC has taken part in conflicts in East Central Europe (Ukraine), the Middle East (Syria) and the Maghreb (Libya), and has more recently been spotted in Sub-Saharan Africa (the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan). Some indications also suggest it may have been deployed to other theaters, including possibly Venezuela and Nicaragua. And aside from the Wagner Group, Russian PMCs have appeared in other regions, including the strategically crucial, but troubled, Balkan region.
From 2011 to 2018, Russia’s PMCs collectively underwent a number of notable transformations. First, the industry transitioned from largely ill-organized and amateurish mercenary groups (as observed in Libya and some Sub-Saharan countries) into state-sponsored/controlled forces. Second, Russian PMCs expanded their geographical zone of operations, which now (allegedly) spans three continents. Third, the multifaceted nature of the PMCs’ functions—particularly, if taking into account Russian irregulars in general—presently includes both paramilitary and non-military tasks. Fourth, these groups offer both internal/domestic as well as external uses for the Russian state.
This paper, which concludes the “War by Other Means” project, aims to provide a summary of activities of Russian PMCs up to the present. At the same time, it will add some reflections on potential new (as well as already emerging) venues of operational activities, including in Libya, Mozambique, Venezuela and Nicaragua. The following study will also reflect on some of the main strengths and key weaknesses demonstrated by Russian mercenaries between 2014 and 2019.
Old and New Battlefields
When it comes to tracking the evolution of Russian PMC/irregular activities abroad, it is instructive to examine Russia’s indirect (and potential or suspected) involvement in three strategically important areas—the Maghreb (Libya), Sub-Saharan Africa (Mozambique) and Latin America (Nicaragua and Venezuela). Notably, each of these regions is shaken by internal conflicts/destabilization and has historically constituted an area within the Soviet sphere of influence/interest.
The fourth-largest country in Africa, Libya occupies a strategic location in the north-central part of the Maghreb region. The country—in part, by virtue of its historical experience of permanent tribal divisions—has historically constituted an area of geopolitical interest for the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), Italy and France. And during the Cold War, the Soviet Union perceived Libya as another arena where it could challenge the West. Despite its rich endowment of oil reserves, the ninth largest in the world, the former government of Libyan ruler Muamar Qaddafi (killed in October 2011) could not prevent the country from sliding into growing public discontent. As a result of the Arab Spring and ensuing civil war (which started in 2011), the country was torn apart and divided between rival factions; and the situation acquired additional complexity after the violent death of Muamar Qaddafi, with the country eventually splitting up between two major centers of power.
The so-called “western bloc” (nominally headed by Fayez al-Sarraj) is led by the Government of National Accord and supported by the military power of the Tripolitania militia “brigades.” This bloc, despite enjoying international recognition, suffers from relatively weak military capabilities and the lack of strong leadership, making Sarraj’s power rather nominal and quite illusory.
Conversely, the “eastern bloc” is led by a strong and experienced military leader, although a relatively weak diplomat, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is backed by a broad spectrum of military forces, including various tribal factions and mercenaries from Chad and Sudan. He has also received support from a host of Arab states—Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—along with France. Over the years, Haftar has developed long and complicated ties with both the United States (he fled to the country after his conflict with Qaddafi, following Libya’s unsuccessful war with Chad in 1986) and the Soviet Union/Russia (between 1977 and 1978, he received military training at Vystrel officer training courses; in 1983, at the M. V. Frunze Military Academy, in Moscow). Thus, given its past experience and growing involvement in other regional conflicts, Moscow did not stay completely out of the developments in Libya.
Three essential factors shaped Russian interests in Libya. First are geo-economic considerations. Libya, unlike many Soviet partners/allies, was one of the few ready to cover its expenses for weapons imports and military consulting in hard currency—a quality the Qaddafi regime notably preserved even after the end of the Cold War. In the 2000s, Libya concluded a number of lucrative deals encompassing various industries, including defense manufacturing, railways, roads and highways, hydrocarbons and related infrastructure. After the fall of the long-ruling regime in Tripoli, existing bilateral agreements were frozen, to the great irritation of the Russian side. Nonetheless, Moscow continues to harbor plans to not only restore those ties but to expand economic cooperation to new areas.
The second factor is Russia’s geopolitical interests. Libya, located some 353 kilometers from the European Union, became one of the main routes for illegal immigration into Europe following the collapse of Qaddafi’s government. Observing the impact of illegal immigration on the EU and many of its member states, Moscow found that the issue could be an extremely powerful tool of pressure and intimidation. In addition, Russia’s geopolitical interests in Libya are wrapped up in the political, economic and foreign policy aspects of oil. In effect, the Kremlin is not only ready to undertake extensive oil-exploration projects but also aims to preempt other countries—primarily, Italy—from doing so. In both cases, the objective is presumably to preserve the EU’s (especially the member states of Central and Southeastern Europe) strategic dependence on Russian hydrocarbons and preclude Brussels from being able to further diversify sources of energy imports for the political-economic bloc.
Third is ideology-driven interests. Russia’s fear of so-called “color revolutions” is no longer (and in effect, never truly has been) limited to the post-Soviet space. Thus, when the Arab Spring broke out in 2010/2011, Moscow claimed it to be yet another element in a long history of Western-inspired and -organized “color revolutions”—beginning with the Bulldozer Revolution in the former Yugoslavia (2000) and leading to the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003) and Orange Revolution Ukraine (2004)—as a purported “model” for emulating/testing potential “regime change” in Russia. Incidentally, then-president Dmitry Medvedev was harshly criticized by Russian conservative circles for “playing into the American game” and failing to provide an adequate response to the Arab Spring (nicknamed “an infectious germ”). According to those critics, Russia’s response should have included a much more proactive approach with respect to Libya, including, among other measures, direct support in terms of weapons deliveries and (para)military assistance to the Qaddafi regime. These policy options were, in fact, taken much more seriously by the Russian military-political leadership after the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis and Russia`s decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war (commenced in 2015); the two operations, in turn, led Moscow to undertake some practical new steps with respect to Libya.
In speaking about the involvement of Russian irregulars in Libya (an element applied by Russia quite successfully in other theaters after 2014), one should recall that the history of this trend is permeated with numerous complexities. It is interesting to note that toward the late 1980s, Soviet military advisors in Libya (unlike in other areas) essentially acted as mercenaries: they were employed by the Libyan government in the multiple border wars the country fought with neighboring states. After the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), however, many Soviet advisors (now, acting as citizens of the newly emerged Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus) chose to stay in the country and serve the Libyan government—both in military and paramilitary capacities. Though, at this point, the mercenary groups took on an overtly disorganized and haphazard form.
Following the outbreak of the Libyan civil war (February 2011), rumors of Russian mercenaries fighting in the country proliferated across Russian and international media. Specifically, in 2011, before the death of Qaddafi, Mahmoud Jibril el-Warfally, representing the Libyan National Transitional Council, stated on the “margins” of the United Nations General Assembly that “Russian mercenaries are fighting on the side of Muamar Qaddafi.” And in 2012, the Military Tribunal of Tripoli sentenced a Russian citizen, Alexander Shadrov (along with 19 Ukrainians and 3 Belarusians), to life imprisonment for rendering military support to the former Qaddafi regime. According to the court, a group of “professional military personnel […] headed by Shadrov, arrived in Libya to support Qaddafi’s forces.” Those arguments, however, were rejected by the convicted group’s members, who claimed to have been hired by the Russian-Libyan oil company Dakar.
After this incident, information about the potential involvement of Russian mercenaries in Libya mostly faded away, only to reappear in 2016, following reports that a Russian PMC, the RSB Group, was hired to perform sapper work in Libya. A specific number of personnel involved was never openly voiced. But some estimates suggested approximately 50 men may have been involved in demining a cement factory in Benghazi (located in the area controlled by Haftar’s forces), owned by the Libyan Cement Company (LCC), one of the leading businesses in Libya.
According to RSB Group head Oleg Krinitsin, a British firm “was also interested in performing this operation,” but his PMC’s success in securing the Libyan contract came down to the price: “[W]hile it would have taken $37.5 million for the Brits to accomplish the task, the Russians charged between $7.5 to $11.2 million.” Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that the RSB Group was involved in any military operations in Libya—at least, no information stating otherwise could be found in Russian or foreign sources. The RSB Group’s activities in Libya might, however, have been a part of a broader reconnaissance operation carried out by Russia to attain a better understanding of the local environment.
The situation, began to change dramatically in early 2017, when various sources reported on “units of Russian special forces equipped with UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]” being deployed to Sidi Barrani (some 240 kilometers from Tobruk, in eastern Libya, and 100 kilometers from the border with Egypt). According to Egyptian sources (cited by Russian outlets) six Russian elite military formations were reportedly transported to Egypt by military planes—a move that was preceded by Haftar’s visit to Moscow. This information, was, however, quickly shrugged off by both Egyptian and Russian military officials.
In this regard, it is important to note that all the major milestones of the Libyan civil war—specifically, military offensives launched by Haftar-led forces—have been inseparable from the field marshal’s meetings with the Russian officials. For instance, on November 7, 2018, Russian media reported on Haftar’s visit to Moscow, where he met with Sergei Shoigu and top-ranked Russian military officials. Based on published photos of the event, the meeting was also attended by Yevgeny Prigozhin (the alleged sponsor of the Wagner Group). Russian state-sponsored information outlets attempted to explain the oligarch’s presence by claiming “he [Prigozhin] was organizing the official dinner […] and the cultural program.” The following spring, in April 2019, Haftar launched a large military offensive against Tripoli, called Operation Flood of Dignity, apparently supported by approximately 200 Russian mercenaries, primarily snipers. Importantly, after the suspected arrival of Russian fighters, Libyan medical personnel discovered specific types of wounds known to be inflicted by Russian-produced rifles. Incidentally, the same wounds were also observed during active hostilities in the Donbas region in 2015. While Russian officials (including from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) brushed off reports of Russian mercenaries in Libya, both Western diplomats and Libyan officials confirmed their presence.
As argued by Libyan Express, the overall number of Russian mercenary forces deployed in Libya was more than 1,400 men by September 2019. As impressive as the number might seem on the surface, it is significantly below the number of Russian mercenaries fighting in the Syrian conflict (more than 2,000 men). That said, the figure also included “25 pilots, trainers and support crew”—an element that suggests a much deeper and more complex level of involvement in Libya than in Syria.
As of May 2020, this involvement of Russian PMCs has not resulted in an ultimate and decisive victory for Haftar. Aside from the Operation Flood of Dignity offensive coming to a halt on the outskirts of Tripoli, Russian mercenary forces have seemingly suffered some sizable losses, which, like in Syria, were caused by an aviation attack, allegedly conducted by Turkish forces.
One of the first sources of this information was in fact the former head of the Donbas separatist forces Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, who attested that “[in November 2019] 38 members of the Wagner Group [were] killed [in Libya] and transported by air to Russia.” Strelkov noted that he had received this information from “one of his friends fighting in [North] Africa.” This assertion was partly corroborated by an investigation carried out by Meduza, which claimed that the casualties suffered by Russian mercenaries in Libya numbered between 10 and 35 men, all of them coming from Krasnodar Krai as well as Sverdlovsk and Murmansk oblasts. This information was received from “four members of the Donbas Volunteer Union [Soyuz Dobrovoltsev Donbassa] and a veteran of the Federal Security Service (FSB) connected with PMC-related businesses.” In its report, Meduza collected some interesting insights from various experts/practitioners specializing in Russia’s involvement in Libya and the role of mercenary groups in the conflict. One (unnamed) source close to the FSB noted that “members of the Wagner Group are primarily concerned with all [logistical] transactions done by Haftar’s people.” An expert from the Moscow Higher School of Economics specializing in Libyan affairs, Grigori Lukyanov, stated that the main tasks performed by Russian mercenaries in Libya boil down to “military consultancy and training… [along with] reconnaissance operations.”
Commenting on the casualties, one of the Wagner Group veterans (who fought in North Africa) attributed the lack of positive results to the fact that in Libya, unlike in Syria, the PMC is acting alone, without support from the Russian military and with poor coordination with Haftar’s forces. Another member of Wagner (who also chose to remain anonymous) presented a somewhat different picture. He argued that two units that suffered casualties “were supposed to form the core of the assault ‘fist’ [kulak] spearheaded against Tripoli. However, how were they doing this without [heavy military equipment] is a mystery to me […] the strike was done by aviation [jet fighters], which caused these heavy casualties. Perhaps, there was a loss of information that Russian mercenaries were in sight.” According to Meduza’s investigation, which managed to ascertain the identities of four of the mercenaries killed, all of the victims of the strike had attained extensive combat experience by participating in regional conflicts (such as in Chechnya and Donbas) and were tightly connected with pseudo-Cossacks and private security structures.
That being said, as of early May 2020, Russia’s military support to Haftar (primarily rendered through sending irregulars) has not resulted in the field marshal fully achieving his objectives. In part, the Russian PMCs may have been hampered by the internal problems experienced by Haftar’s own forces. Additionally, Libya represents a significantly different operational environment compared to Syria, where Russian mercenaries regularly operate alongside the Moscow’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS).
A former Portuguese colony that gained independence in 1975, Mozambique has now become one of most significant objects of Russian interest in Sub-Saharan Africa. Russia’s current interest is inseparable from the Soviet past: during the Mozambican war of independence (1964–1977), Moscow rendered full and unconditional support to the Communist forces of the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique), which turned out to be a decisive factor in their ultimate victory. After the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR, Russia nearly completely withdrew from the country, which was still experiencing a protracted and exceptionally brutal period of civil war (1977–1992). Incidentally, that civil war came to a close with a political transition from a Marxist-Leninist ideology to a multi-party political system.
The process of transition, however, failed to resolve the southeast African country’s endemic corruption, poverty, and widespread disillusionment (especially among local youth); this facilitated the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalism domestically, especially in the internally complex Cabo Delgado region. After the civil war (1977–1992) and short period of piece, Cabo Delgado succumbed to a growing surge of Islamic radicalism (after 2017). The group Ansar al-Sunna reportedly played a driving role in this process, ultimately fueling an intense new internal conflict in Cabo Delgado—frequently referred to as a “civil war.” The authorities and the Mozambiquan Armed Forces turned out to be ill prepared to deal with this challenge, failing to extinguish the local insurgency. Russia has since stepped in to assist Mozambique in its fight against Islamic radicalism; but the gesture is hardly selfless or even preoccupied mainly with the need to combat extremism.
Russia’s key motivation in assisting Mozambique today is premised on hard geo-economic calculations. Though long considered a troubled place, Mozambique has begun to receive growing attention from potential foreign investors since 2010, when the Italian oil and natural gas corporation ENI discovered substantial gas fields in the Cabo Delgado region. The finding instantly pulled Mozambique into the top 14 countries in terms of natural gas deposits and ignited a “natural gas rush” by global energy producers Aside from the Italians, the US Anadarco Petroleum Corporation (as well as other international bidders) expressed vivid interest in developing the local gas deposits. However, due to endemic corruption and a lack of adequate planning, the country failed to convert this new investment into a source of sustainable growth. In an effort to shift the blame, the Mozambiquan government attributed this lack of success to “unjust terms of the gas extraction,” complaining of “foreign companies reaping all the benefits… [and] allotting only non-prestigious and low paid jobs for the locals.” On top of that, the continuing Islamic insurgency and growing distress in the gas-endowed province jeopardized operations (extraction and exploration) in the area.
In response to this crisis, the Mozambiquan authorities appear to have chosen Russia as a player capable of solving the country’s mounting problems. This became clearly visible after President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi’s official visit to Moscow, on August 21, 2019. During his meeting with Putin, Nyusi specifically highlighted “the huge role played by the USSR in liberating his country” and the fact that the Russian Federation has forgiven 90 percent of Mozambique’s debt, which, in his words, “makes us highly appreciative of such partners… [Russians] are always welcome in our country for various business projects.” Moreover, during the Russia-Mozambique business forum (August 21, 2019), Yuri Ushakov, the assistant to the Russian president responsible for international affairs, stated that Russian companies, such as Rosneft, UAZ, Kamaz, Inter-RAO, Rosgeologia and Gazprombank, have already expressed interest in beginning to work with Mozambique in various sectors.
As a means to secure its presence, the Russian side has decided (of course, on an unofficial level) to pursue the “Syrian model” of cooperation: providing security (including military services) in exchange for a share in the resource-rich sectors of the local economy. This information was first corroborated by a well-known Portuguese military journalist, Nuno Felix. On September 8, 2019, he stated (based on “a credible local military source”) that a group of Russian military personnel—he alleged, not members of any PMC, though it was later ascertained that they were, in fact, members of the Wagner Group—had landed at the Nacala Airport, in Mozambique. Another Portuguese journalist, José Milhazes, added that in Mozambique, Russia aims “to create a mobile GRU [military intelligence] base and a permanent naval military base.” But the first stage in this longer-term effort was specifically to bring in Russian mercenaries to deal with the Islamist fundamentalists in Cabo Delgado.
Importantly, other Russian sources have argued that in Mozambique—akin to the RSB Group’s commercial success in Libya—Russian PMCs managed to overcome other foreign bidders due to their economic affordability (charging five times less than other providers of security services) and flexible pricing policy. However, Dolf Dorfling (a former colonel in the South African army and the founder of the Black Hawk PMC) and John Gartner (a former Rhodesian soldier and head of the OAM PMC) contended that, “in Mozambique, the Wagner Group is likely to have serious problems.” According to various sources, Black Hawk and OAM were Wagner’s main competitors for security contracts in the country.
Indeed, as Dofling and Gartner warned, the Russian mercenaries began experiencing serious problems almost immediately upon their arrival: first, a local information outlet, Carta de Mocambique, reported that “at least six members of the Wagner Group were killed in early October .” Later, on October 10, Russian sources reported on the deaths of two Russian mercenaries, killed during an operation against local cells of the Islamic State. On October 27, five irregulars were killed (four of them were decapitated, whereas one died in a local hospital) alongside 20 members of the local armed forces.
At this juncture, two important aspects should be underscored. First, both of the deadly October 2019 episodes occurred in the same province of Cabo Delgado, which appears to have become the main operative theater for the Russian mercenaries in the country. Second, in each instance, casualties resulted from the Islamist militants’ effective ambush tactics, exacerbated by the lack of coordination between local armed forces and the Russian PMC units. As implied by both Gartner and Dorfling, the Mozambiquan authorities’ desire to skimp on paying for security assistances resulted in the above-mentioned problems. Namely, Dorfling suggested, “we [OAM] presented them with a first-class proposal in early August . We have so much experience in operating in Mozambique and know the tough environment very well. Trust me, we would have done an excellent job.”
These developments resulted in parsimonious, yet interesting, comments appearing in Russian information outlets regarding the “hard and protracted campaign” the Russian irregulars will have to wage in Mozambique against local rebels. For example, according to the deputy editor-in-chief of the academic journal Asia and Africa Today, Oleg Teterin, the possibility that Russian mercenaries are operating in Mozambique suggests (based on the similar observed situation in the Central African Republic) that
[Russian PMCs] are following the pattern of so-called Wild Geese […] fighting in Africa in the 1960s–1970s for money. At that time, the Soviet press and information outlets were writing: mercenaries are hindering the development of African countries. It now turns out that the Wagner Group is a reincarnation of Western mercenaries. However, their services were used by vulnerable [nezhiznesposobnyii] regimes that could not solve their internal problems. We [Russia] need to consider this historical experience. We must not meddle in [the] domestic affairs of African nations.”
Interestingly, some Russian information agencies claim that, having suffered defeat and “having failed to achieve the key goal of their three-month-long mission,” Russian mercenaries have, by late November 2019, already been pulled out of the Cabo Delgado area.
Central and South America
The Soviets extensively exploited the countries of Central and South America as a means to confront the United States in its own “backyard”; and today, the region appears to have become yet another operative theater for Russian irregulars. The trend is being driven by military-political calculations as well as geostrategic interests. In the first instance, both Russia and China are explicitly drawn to the region because it represents an ideal staging ground from which to challenge the US. And when it comes to the second, the region is notably endowed with various strategic natural resources and holds the possibility for hosting alternative communication/transportation infrastructure to carry global commerce.
Russia (in many ways in line with a pattern established in the Soviet period) sees Venezuela as its key regional partner in Latin America. Located in northern South America, the country (placed between Guyana, Colombia and Brazil) has access to the Atlantic Ocean. It covers an area of 912,050 square kilometers, while the population totals 31.3 million (2017 estimates). In terms of natural resources, the country is primarily endowed with the following:
- Gold (Venezuela has been ranked as the world’s 25th-largest gold reserve holder in the world);
- Metals (primarily nickel and iron ore);
- Diamonds (and other precious gems);
- Aluminum, bauxite and alumina;
- Natural gas;
- Crude petroleum (the Orinoco oil belt’s four main large areas encompass Ayacucho, Boyaca, Carabobo, and Junin; Venezuela accounts for 89 percent of the proven crude petroleum reserves of the Latin America region, nearly 25 percent of the total proven crude petroleum reserves of OPEC, and 18 percent of the world’s reserves).
Despite its incredible natural resource wealth, Venezuela has been torn apart by public protests since 2017, owing to excessive corruption, collapsing living standards, and the inability of the government of Nicolás Maduro (successor of Hugo Chavez) to implement critically important reforms. In January 2019, all major Venezuelan cities experienced a huge wave of public protests that were confronted by the army and the police. According to human rights organizations, the demonstrations resulted in at least 29 deaths among the protesters. Although their apparent origins were based on the transgressions of the Maduro government, the Venezuelan authorities attributed the demonstrations to “an attempt at forceful regime change organized by American imperialism.”
The regime’s actions were met with widespread international condemnation (together with nearly all Latin American countries); but several global players, including conspicuously Turkey, China and Russia, chose to support Venezuela. The backing from Ankara and Beijing took on a less pronounced form, whereas Moscow decided to act much more assertively. Namely, sources close to the Russian PMC market stated that Moscow sent to Venezuela a group of Russian mercenaries to provide physical protection for President Maduro, who is said to be partly distrustful of his own security services. Specifically, these sources claimed, the Russian contractors—who “had previously worked in Gabon and Sudan”—were apparently first transported to Venezuela via two charter planes to Havana, Cuba, from where they were flown to Caracas, arriving on site on January 22, 2019.
Mitya Aleshkovskii, the co-founder of the charitable foundation Help Needed (Nuzhna Pomosh) and director of the online research platform Such Affairs (Takiye Dela), managed to track the plane that allegedly transported the Wagner contractors to Venezuela. He noted, “The Il-96 RA-96019 of Rossiya Airlines flew from Moscow to Dakar on January 19, where it remained for two days. From Dakar, the airplane headed to Ciudad del Este [Paraguay], and later to Havana. The final destination—Caracas—was reached by regular commercial flight.” Later, it was ascertained (and confirmed by leading Russian media) that an Ilyushin Il-62 passenger jet and an Antonov An-124 military cargo plane arrived at Simón Bolívar International Airport, having departed from the Chkalovsky military airbase (with an intermediate stop in Syria). Carrying 35 tons of cargo, the two aircraft delivered 99 Russian military specialists, headed by the first deputy commander-in-chief of the Land Forces, Colonel General Vasily Tonkoshkurov. Later, other Russian sources revealed that, among “Russian military personnel, a number of cyber security experts were present.”
Given the atmosphere of complete secrecy, the genuine purpose (as well as some other specific details) of this visit/mission still remain unknown. A popular Russian military blogger, Semen Pegov, has urged his readers not to overestimate the results of this development, since it complies with the terms of a bilateral contract signed between Russia and Venezuela. But another analyst, Alexander Sharkovsky, asks, “If [Russia is simply engaging in] military-technical cooperation, why were military personnel sent instead of representatives of the defense-industrial complex?” Rather, he suggests that Moscow’s true goal in deploying its military personnel to Venezuela in January of 2019 was to land a “reconnaissance group” tasked with “general reconnaissance, planning and comprehensive preparation of the Venezuelan Armed Forces for a potential incursion by US Spetsnaz [Special Forces].” Interestingly enough, in April 2019, the island republic of Malta forbid two Russian aircraft destined for Venezuela from crossing its air space, forcing them to alter their flight paths—to the huge dissatisfaction of the Russian side. In June of the same year, the Russian Embassy in Venezuela reported that “Russian military technicians working in Venezuela left the country”; yet, no specifications/further details were provided.
Whether or not Wagner’s exit from Venezuela can be fully corroborated, two crucial aspects should be underscored. First, there is every reason to believe that Russia’s growing involvement in Venezuela—some military-political goals notwithstanding—is primarily motivated by geo-economic objectives of inter alia challenging the United States in Latin America. This may be corroborated with the following fact: in September 2019, it was reported that “Rosneft [Russian state oil corporation] has become the main trader of Venezuelan crude, shipping oil to buyers in China and India and helping Caracas offset the loss of traditional dealers who are avoiding it for fear of breaching US sanctions… Rosneft is not in breach of US sanctions because it takes oil as part of debt servicing agreements after lending Caracas money in previous years.” This practice, however, was challenged in March 2020 (much to Moscow’s chagrin), after the administration of US President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Rosneft for trading in Venezuelan oil and gas.
This episode is of crucial importance for several reasons. First, aside from helping Venezuela’s undemocratic regime evade US economic sanctions (and thereby prop up its support among local military and paramilitary groups as well as certain sectors close to the oil industry), Russia may now be assuming a key role in shipping local oil to external cash-rich customers, including China, thus cementing the partnership between Beijing and Moscow in the region (and arguably, beyond).
Second, while using the official military as a shield, Russia may have primarily relied on irregular formations to achieve some of its geo-economic objectives. This assumption is supported by an investigative report produced by Meduza, which suggests that Rosneft’s top management decided to “fortify [the] security of its Venezuela-based offices by bringing in professionals with extensive military experience.” As stated by three unnamed persons—a GRU veteran, a veteran of the FSB, and a person close to Russian private military contractors—a proposal to work in Venezuela was made, which included some security jobs related to the oil business. Others revealed that Russian contractors were allegedly paid approximately $2,500 per month and tasked with “repatriating documents belonging to locally operating Russian companies back to Russia.” Another source pointed out that the overall number of mercenaries who performed “more serious errands”—including, for example “recruiting whistleblowers in dangerous areas of Caracas”—did not exceed 60 men, with monthly payments around $3,700. Furthermore, based on its sources, the Meduza report argues (based on information provided by an unnamed officer of the GRU Spetsnaz, but not corroborated by any other Russian/foreign information outlet) that after the eruption of mass protests in the fall of 2018, aside from irregular forces, “at least one hundred members of the Special Operations Forces [the SOF] arrived to Venezuela […] but did not do anything significant out there.”
Incidentally, other sources claimed that Russian instructors might have been involved in training Venezuela’s National Police Action Force (FAES)—an elite formation created in 2017, whose sole purpose is the violent suppression of public discontent. The FAES has been blamed for multiple instances of violence against protestors, which lines up rather closely with the missions allegedly carried out by Russian mercenaries in Sudan.
That said, perhaps the most crucial detail of the aforementioned Meduza piece is the assertion (supposedly based on information obtained from a person identified as being “close to Yevgeny Prigozhin”) that the Venezuela mission did not, in fact, feature the direct participation of the Wagner Group. Instead, an emphasis was made on recruiting veterans of the GRU; “Zaslon” special forces (a unit of the Foreign Intelligence Service, SVR), which participated in the Syrian operation; as well as veterans of the Federal Protective Service (FSO). As of May 2020, however, this information still cannot be fully corroborated.
Another interesting, though rather hazy, case is Russia’s potential involvement in Nicaragua. The Central American state has a population 5.8 million. It is one of the poorest countries in the region, with a GDP per capita of approximately $2,222 per year. At the same time, however, it is in a strategic geopolitical location in Central America.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Cuba rendered extensive military support and training to local Marxist forces. At the time, a division of responsibilities could be observed between the two Communist powers: while Moscow was primarily responsible for equipping local militants with arms and military equipment, Havana was extensively involved in training and consulting. According to Russian sources, the overall amount of Soviet support rendered to Nicaragua exceeded $2 billion, which also included the creation of a “radar system unparalleled in complexity and sophistication to any regional analogues.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly emerged Russian Federation remained virtually absent in the region until 2007, when Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) became president. Between 2011 and 2014, Russia re-gained its former role as one of (if not the main) key partner of Nicaragua by rendering both humanitarian and military support. According to the Spanish media outlet El Confidencial, the heyday of bilateral ties between the two countries ensued after Nicaragua supported Moscow in the latter’s 2014 annexation of Crimea: apparently in exchange for this favor, Russia built the country a vaccine-production plant—the first such pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in Central America. Moreover, Russia established a GLONASS (satellite navigation) station on the territory of Nicaragua, which, despite its declarative “civilian purpose,” could be used for intelligence-gathering purposes. This increasing cooperation between the two countries led Spanish-language media to argue that Nicaragua was turning into “Russia’s Cuba of the 21st century.”
Interestingly, in 2013, the chief of Russia’s General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, inaugurated the opening of a Russian training center, named after Soviet Marshall Georgy Zhukov, on the territory of Nicaragua. And by 2016, close to 400 Russian military personnel were present in the country under the pretext of “joint military exercises,” “humanitarian and military operations training,” and “anti-drug trafficking.” Yet, there is every reason to believe that the presence of Russian “instructors” has had another purpose—containing “hybrid threats” (in particular, anti-government public protests). It is essential to point out that the revolt, which was brutally suppressed by the local police (trained in part by Russian instructors) claimed the lives of 350 protestors.
The use of Russian irregulars to train local forces in anti-protest actions to help defend the host regime, however, may be merely one side of the coin. According to Russian sources, growing protest movements have delayed China’s HKND Group from starting construction on the Nicaraguan canal to connect the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean. The planned waterway was supposed to be launched in 2019, but has now been postponed to 2022. This $50 billion project is designed by the Chinese as a means to reconfigure the transportation architecture in the Western Hemisphere (and apparently, globally as well) by challenging the importance of the Panama Canal, ultimately undermining the US position in global trade. Importantly, the Russian media has emphasized a certain formula in regard to the canal, voiced by conservative Colonel General (ret.) Leonid Ivashov: “Chinese money, Nicaraguan land and Russian security services.” This means that Russia—whose economic capabilities and level of expertise with such mega infrastructure projects are incomparable to China’s—is ready, should the decision on building the canal be officially made, to ensure the security-related aspect of the enterprise. Russian security operators would undertake “protection against various sorts of interventions, terrorist acts, [or] attempts of sabotage”—in other words, confront so-called “hybrid threats,” if they are to arise.
In a broader sense, in Latin America, Russia can be expected to continue relying on the Cuba-Venezuela-Nicaragua “axis” and utilize its irregular formations (including PMCs) as one of the key tools in maintaining its presence in the region.
Over the course of 2014–2019, Russian private military contractors and irregulars have made themselves visible around the world, drawing considerable attention from experts, investigative journalists, policymakers, and military specialists. Despite their formidable built-up reputation, the actual performance of Russian PMCs during this time has been rather uneven. In fact, analysis of their operations reveals the key strengths and weaknesses showcased by these Russian mercenary formations.
The main strength demonstrated by Russian irregulars is, arguably, their quasi-legal status, which makes them “non-existent,” yet quite useful for covert operations. The fact that PMCs do not officially exist in Russia grants Moscow (and the individuals or organizations managing these entities) the luxury of plausible deniability. In turn, that status—unlike was the case in Afghanistan or Chechnya—permits PMCs and irregular groupings to operate covertly; whereas, any casualties or defeats will not cast a shadow on the Kremlin (both domestically and externally) and/or impugn the reputation of the regular Russian Armed Forces.
Another crucial element of Russian mercenaries/irregulars’ success has been their universality and flexibility (they can act in both military and non-military capacities) as well the “packaging” of their services. Specifically, as demonstrated in Syria and the CAR, when hosting Russian PMCs, local regimes are acquiring the whole “package,” which includes an array of services ranging from military training/consultancy and (para)military operations to physical security and even (visible in sub-Saharan Africa) PR and information operations. Lastly, based on their legal status (or to be more precise, a lack thereof), services rendered by Russian PMCs are several times less expensive than those offered by legally operating Western or other foreign companies.
In the final analysis of the development of the Russian PMC industry between 1991 and 2019, Russia’s strategy in this realm can arguably be defined as an attempt to challenge the West by pursuing a “dumping” policy in the domain of private security services. Unlike Western firms and governments, however, Russia consciously mixes (geo)politics with business, which creates a complex and opaque phenomenon.
In contrast, the key weaknesses of Russian PMCs stem from three major factors. First, Russia’s mercenary/irregular units stand up poorly to a technologically superior adversary, especially on terrain ill-suited for partisan-like warfare. In this regard, two instances should be mentioned: first, the calamity in Syria (the battle near Deir ez-Zor, in early 2018), when Russian mercenaries suffered heavy casualties as a result of a US-led air strike; and second, the casualties incurred by Wagner in Libya (November 2019) as a result of an aerial attack allegedly carried out by Turkish aviation. In both cases, aside from the disadvantageous landscape, Russian PMCs confronted a highly motivated, technologically superior and ideologically strong enemy without the support of the Russian Armed Forces (the VKS and/or the SOF). Indeed, the main successes achieved by Russian mercenaries to date involved operations carried out against ideologically weak and demotivated (Ukraine) as well as technologically weak (Islamic State and other anti–Bashar al-Assad forces) opponents. Clashes with stronger players has (at least to date) led to serious casualties among Russian mercenary units.
The second factor contributing to poor showings by Russian PMCs has been these entities’ stagnating level of preparation, which, despite some arguments suggesting otherwise, still appears to be a problem. If this devolution of capabilities continues, the very idea of PMCs as a paramilitary tool of geopolitical confrontation will be undermined. Following the logic of Russia’s most renowned military thinkers, to be effective, PMCs (unlike other irregular formations, such as Cossacks) need to be comprised of elite forces—although (unlike the SOF) they need to remain semi-legal for Moscow to be able to maintain the advantage of plausible deniability.
The final issue degrading the effectiveness of Russian PMCs involves their attempts to undertake counter-insurgency operations in tropical/equatorial environments—a mission set that remains largely unknown for the Russian side. Despite the Soviet Union’s vast involvement in conflicts across Sub-Sharan Africa, those were primarily carried out against the colonial powers, meaning that the Soviet advisors (operating in conjunction with local rebels) were able to use the principle of asymmetricity in their favor. Now, the situation has been reversed: the African governments that hire/contract Russian mercenaries, expect them to successfully wage counter-insurgency operations (and/or train local armed forces for such operations)—an area where neither the Soviet, nor the Russian side has had much success locally. One of the most recent examples—the case of the Cabo Delgado province in the northern Mozambique—should be viewed as most relevant here. As noted by Al J. Venter (a South African war journalist and an Africa and Middle East correspondent for Jane’s International Defence Review), “…you have to realize this [Mozambique] is one of the toughest environments in the world… Wagner has almost no experience of this kind of primitive bush warfare being waged there. They are going to come very badly unstuck.”
All that said, in the short-to-medium run, the Russian side is highly unlikely to set aside homegrown PMCs (nor other irregular formations) as a tool for achieving its geopolitical, (to a lesser extent) paramilitary, and (as a means of deriving illicit/shadow economic profits) geo-economic objectives. The advantage of plausible deniability, coupled with the large number of willing PMC mercenaries (a trend unlikely to reverse given the aggravating economic conditions in Russia) as well as the compatible interests of various external players, all mean that Moscow will almost certainly not deviate from exploiting this phenomenon for the foreseeable future.
 Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu once obliquely referred to them as a “black cat in the dark room.” See: “Shoygu: soobshcheniya o sptsnaze iz FR na Ukraine – paranoya,” BBC, April 17, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/russian/rolling_news/2014/04/140417_rn_shoygu_ukraine_military.
 Sergey Sukhankin, “War, Business and Ideology: How Russian Private Military Contractors Pursue Moscow’s Interests,” Special program War by Other Means, The Jamestown Foundation, March 20, 2019, https://jamestown.org/program/war-business-and-ideology-how-russian-private-military-contractors-pursue-moscows-interests/.
 Sergey Sukhankin, “Mercenaries in the Desert: The Kremlin’s Libya Game,” Fair Observer, October 16, 2019, https://www.fairobserver.com/region/middle_east_north_africa/russia-policy-khalifa-haftar-libya-conflict-middle-east-security-news-99765/.
 N. Tatarenko, “Ya tochno pomnyu: voyna prodolzhalas 52 minuty,” Kommersant-Vlast: Analiticheskiy ezhenedelnik, № 4 (355) Moscow: 2000.
 Alla Hurska, “Lev Dengov: Ramzan Kadyrov’s Middleman in Libya,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 15, Issue 153, October 29, 2018, https://jamestown.org/program/lev-dengov-ramzan-kadyrovs-middleman-in-libya/.
 Christoph B. Schiltz, “Die EU ist ein Klub von Egoisten geworden,” Welt, August 31, 2015, https://www.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article145852230/Die-EU-ist-ein-Klub-von-Egoisten-geworden.htm.
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 Aleksandr Okorokov, Neizvestnye Voyny XX Veka. Sekretnye Voyny Sovetskogo Soyuza, Pervaya polnaya entsiklopediya, (Moskva: Eksmo, 2008).
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 “Glava PNS: Na storone Kaddafi srazhayutsya naemniki iz Rossii,” Rosbalt, September 24, 2011, https://www.rosbalt.ru/main/2011/09/24/893506.html.
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 “Putin otpravil sotni naemnikov ‘Wagnera’ na eshche odnu voynu,” Obozrevatel, November 6, 2019, https://www.obozrevatel.com/abroad/putin-otpravil-sotni-naemnikov-vagnera-na-esche-odnu-vojnu.htm .
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 “Vyveska and voyenkomatom. Otkuda v Livii rossiyskiye nayemniki i chto oni tam delayut,” Meduza, October 6, 2019, https://meduza.io/episodes/2019/10/06/vyveska-nad-voenkomatom-otkuda-v-livii-rossiyskie-naemniki-i-chto-oni-tam-delayut.
 The Donbas Volunteer Union has been accused of a number of crimes, including recruiting militants to fight in southeastern Ukraine as well as domestic banditry. For more information, see: “Vyveska and voyenkomatom. Otkuda v Livii rossiyskiye nayemniki i chto oni tam delayut,” Meduza, October 6, 2019, https://meduza.io/episodes/2019/10/06/vyveska-nad-voenkomatom-otkuda-v-livii-rossiyskie-naemniki-i-chto-oni-tam-delayut.
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 This was akin to the situation observed in Kaliningrad Oblast. See: Sergey Sukhankin, “Russian Irregulars and PMCs in the ‘Heart’ of Europe: The Case of Kaliningrad Oblast,” War By Other Means, The Jamestown Foundation, April 24, 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/russian-irregulars-and-pmcs-in-the-heart-of-europe-the-case-of-kaliningrad-oblast/.
 “Sovetskaya voyennaya pomoshch stranam Afrikanskogo kontinenta (1962–1979),” in Rossiya (SSSR) v voynakh vtoroy poloviny XX veka, (Moscow: Triada-farm, 2002), http://militera.lib.ru/h/20c2/11.html.
 The Cabo Degado region has a population of close to 1.6 million, made up mainly of the Makhuwa and Makonde peoples. Locally, the Islamic creed is combined with animism and tribalism, forming a complex ethno-national environment that is exceedingly difficult for outsiders to understand.
 Caleb Weiss, “ Long War Journal, June 4, 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/06/islamic-state-claims-first-attack-in-mozambique.php.
 “Russia, Mozambique to step up military-technical cooperation,” TASS, March 7, 2018, https://tass.com/defense/993217; Peter Fabricius, “A new armed group calling itself al-Shabaab is spreading fear in a usually jihad-free region,” Institute for Security Studies, October 27, 2017, https://issafrica.org/iss-today/mozambiques-first-islamist-attacks-shock-the-region.
 Francisco Júnior, “Mais um ataque em Mocimboa da Praia,” VOA, December 4, 2017, https://www.voaportugues.com/a/mais-ataque-mocimboa-praia/4148160.html.
 “Prezident Mozambika zayavil o novom etape v otnosheniyah z Rossiyey,” RBC, August 21, 2019, https://www.rbc.ru/politics/21/08/2019/5d5d000d9a7947070a1ff073.
 “V Mozambike razgromili russkuju bandu ‘Wagnera,’ ” Kavkazcenter.com, November 28, 2019, https://www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2019/11/28/118599/v-mozambike-razgromili-russkuyu-bandu-vagnera.shtml.
 Felix Nuno (@Felix_Nuno), “From the ground: Russian military personnel have just landed in Mozambique,” Twitter, September 8, 2019, https://twitter.com/Felix_Nuno/status/1170649715010080768.
 Sergey Sukhankin, “Russia Prepares a Foothold in Mozambique: Risks and Opportunities,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 16, Issue 142, October 15, 2019, https://jamestown.org/program/russia-prepares-a-foothold-in-mozambique-risks-and-opportunities/.
 “V Mozambike rossiyskie nayemniki iz ChVK Vagnera vytesnili iz strany takiye chastnye voyennye kompanii, kak Black Hawk i ОАМ.” Newsru.com, November 20, 2019, https://www.newsru.com/russia/20nov2019/rusmozambik.html.
 Pjotr Sauer, “In Push for Africa, Russia’s Wagner Mercenaries Are ‘Out of Their Depth’ in Mozambique,” The Moscow Times, November 19, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/11/19/in-push-for-africa-russias-wagner-mercenaries-are-out-of-their-depth-in-mozambique-a68220; “Inostranniye ChVKa pozhalovalis na porazheniye v konkurentsii z rossiyanami,” Vzgliad, November 19, 2019, https://vz.ru/news/2019/11/19/1009275.html.
 “Zverskaya rasprava: rossiyskim voyennym nayemnikam otrezali golovy v Mozambike,” Informatsionnoye Soprotivleniye, October 31, 2019, https://sprotyv.info/news/zverskaya-rasprava-rossijskim-voennym-naemnikam-otrezali-golovy-v-mozambike.
 “V Mozambike ubili pyaterykh Boytsov ChVK “Vagner’,” TVrain, October 31, 2019, https://tvrain.ru/news/v_mozambike_ubili_pjateryh_bojtsov_chvk_vagner-496489/.
 Pjotr Sauer, November 19, 2019.
 Vladimir Skosyrev, “Amerikantsy obnaruzhyli rossiyskih nayemnikov v Mozambike,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 1, 2019, http://www.ng.ru/world/2019-12-01/1_7740_mozambique.html?fbclid=IwAR1WIU8mYLZrMk73grBVpzHNJEGP4VqHgdoMXhLMkN3FCe0r2QgTOYqnJOU.
 “Nayemniki ChVK ‘Vagner’ s poteryami pokinuli odin iz rayonov Mozambika,” Informatsionnoye Soprotivleniye, November 25, 2019, https://sprotyv.info/news/naemniki-chvk-vagner-s-poteryami-pokinuli-odin-iz-rajonov-mozambika. This data still requires more substantive corroboration.
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