The infamous affair involving a Russian “patriotic” youth camp in Zlatibor, Serbia, which was shut down by the local police in August 2018, highlighted Moscow’s growing attempts to spread its “Russian World” (“Russkiy Mir”) ideology to other countries while utilizing military-patriotic boot camps organized and sponsored by the Russian government (see Part One in EDM, October 24). Another notable albeit largely obfuscated detail pertaining to the incident in Serbia has been the reported link between the Zlatibor youth camp and one of Russia’s most notorious private military companies (PMC), E.N.O.T. Corp. (Enotcorp.org, accessed October 20).
It needs to be stressed that this PMC (which has explicitly been positioning itself as a “fighter for the Russian World”) was one of the initiators of the Russian Union of Donbas Volunteers (UDV) umbrella mercenary group, whose members took an active role in hostilities in southeastern Ukraine since 2014 (Chvk.info, accessed October 21). For their “bravery and military achievements,” members of this PMC were awarded special honors by Igor Girkin (a.k.a. Strelkov), the original “minister of defense” of the Moscow-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (Enotcorp.org, accessed October 21). In many ways, E.N.O.T. Corp. is unique among Russia’s PMCs: unlike others, this paramilitary company is not only concerned with “regular” tasks (including “missions abroad”), but also, according to its own website, it “allocates much attention to military-patriotic upbringing of the youth.” Among other things, this latter responsibility explicitly includes the “organization of boot camps and military-tactical exercises for young people,” E.N.O.T. Corp.’s promotional material proclaims (Enotcorp.org, accessed October 20).
In its official statement, the corporate leadership of this PMC denied providing direct support for the “patriotic” youth camp in Serbia, stating that the company “merely shared methodological experience… on how similar camps operate in Russia” (Krymr.com, August 24, 2018). Yet, this statement sharply contrasted with an article posted on E.N.O.T. Corp.’s official website: on a page entitled “Reconnaissance With Combat” (“Razvedka Boyem”), the Zlatibor camp in Serbia is described as the PMC’s “first official mission in Europe, which went surprisingly smoothly… [T]he camp was shut down after all its essential tasks had already been carried out.” The webpage also states, “[F]rom now on, we will be carrying out our operations in a much more clandestine manner… in countries that comprise the sphere of interest of the Russian World” (Enotcorp.org, accessed October 20).
On August 23, one of the co-organizers of the Zlatibor youth camp, Valery Shambarov, wrote an article in which he openly states that preparatory works as well as practical paramilitary training sessions were carried out by members of the E.N.O.T Corp. (in addition to Serbian instructors). Shambarov also highlights that “in spite of various difficulties and challenges, the Veterans of the Yugoslav War Society, headed by Željko Vukelić, has been bringing its young members to boot camps organized by E.N.O.T. in Russia, for two years in a row.” Importantly, the article points to the fact that Serbs are not the only participants of such camps: they additionally bring together “teams from Belarus, the Donetsk and Luhansk republics [sic], Transnistria, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as young volunteers from Italy, Bulgaria, Moldova, Armenia and Canada. Our experience is studied by those who come from Finland, Norway, South Ossetia [sic], Australia, France and other countries.” Moreover, Shambarov argues that the agenda of such camps is particularly appealing to those who are against “globalization and liberal influence destroying traditional systems of national and human values… against trans-national deceit and gay parades.” Such ultra-conservative ideological positions also constitute the backbone of the Yunarmia (Youth Army) movement, ardently supported inside Russia by the Ministry of Defense (see EDM, November 9, 2016).
Shambarov’s article ominously concludes that “Zlatibor is just one method of our actions abroad… new tactics will soon be demonstrated.” At the same time, the author poses a rhetorical question: “Are they really so naïve in the West to think that during this summer E.N.O.T. carried out only one such activity abroad…?” He concludes, “[I]n Serbia, our actions were deliberately conspicuous to mislead our opponents” (Zavtra.ru, August 23).
The events in Serbia spotlight one crucial trend that must not be overlooked. First, PMCs in Russia (legally prohibited and purportedly non-existent, yet which play an important role in the Kremlin’s policymaking—see Jamestown.org, July 13) may now be approaching a turning point in their development. Traditionally, these entities were tasked with carrying out non-linear military operations (such as the better-known Wagner Group) as well as the physical protection of important persons/infrastructure abroad (as famously in the case of PMC Patriot in Africa—see EDM, August 1). But the emergence of a new type of Russian PMC may now be taking place. In addition to undertaking specific, immediate objectives, this nascent type of PMC could, among other tasks, also be concerned with the military-patriotic upbringing of the next generation, thereby training a new cadre for the PMCs of the first two types. This idea has effectively already been articulated in an article entitled “The Future of Russian PMCs,” notably published on the E.N.O.T. Corp.’s website. The piece draws on two essential scenarios for the future development of Russian PMCs (Enotcorp.org, accessed October 21):
– Short- and mid-term agenda, which is concerned with strengthening “military-patriotic work with the youth.” If implemented properly, it is expected to result in the emergence of a “systemic PMC architecture” encompassing various stages (from education to subsequent “employment”);
– Long-term agenda, which will lead to the creation of an “international legion”—a structure tasked with hiring foreign nationals for various missions under the Russian umbrella. The piece argues that the best example of this policy is already reflected in “the nascent system of international military-patriotic boot camps organized and coordinated by E.N.O.T. on a regular, year-long basis.”
Russia’s policies prioritizing “military-patriotic work with the youth” as a response to the “moral and physical stagnation of the West,” combined with elaborate anti-globalist rhetoric (Rosbalt.ru, October 18, 2018) and the continued manipulation of the notion of “volunteers” (in effect, illegal militants), has already gained enormous popularity in the Balkans. In the city of Višegrad, Serbia, local authorities have erected a monument honoring Russian “volunteers” who fought on the Serbian side in 1993, during the Yugoslav wars (Srpska.ru, February 26). This lionization of “volunteers” alongside the promotion of the Russian World ideology abroad via “patriotic upbringing” camps run by Russian PMCs could become a decisive factor in Moscow’s success at building up its “soft-power” influence in the Balkans.