One of the clearest indications of the potential importance of any new innovation is the level to which various power centers fight to control it. As such, it is quite significant that the Federal Security Service (FSB) as well as Russian military intelligence (GRU) have both been stepping up their efforts to gain control over the country’s private military companies (PMC). These entities are still technically illegal in Russia. And yet, mercenary forces have been a noteworthy part of Russia’s military operations abroad, and they are frequently trained and commanded by the Ministry of Defense. Clearly, the country’s two main intelligence agencies believe PMCs are going to play an ever more important role in Russian actions beyond its borders and want to make sure that they, rather than the defense ministry, control them.
As is so often the case in this kind of intra-elite competition in Russia, the standoff between the military and the FSB/GRU is not being driven by them directly, but rather by two nominally independent groups, which are in fact surrogates for the two sides: the defense ministry–connected Voluntary Society for Supporting the Army, Airforce and Fleet (DOSAAF) and the FSB/GRU-linked Union of Donbas Volunteers. Both organizations are taking the lead in promoting the legalization of PMCs by the Duma (lower house of parliament). If PMCs are legalized in one particular way, that will tilt control away from the defense ministry; if in another, it will ensure that the ministry retains a dominant position.
According to Moscow-based military expert Aleksey Tarazevich, the fight over such new legislation, which remained in the background during the presidential campaign, is now set to become public with new force (Dailystorm.ru, March 22; Newizv.ru), March 23). “Formally,” he writes, “DOSAAF is a non-governmental organization, which, nevertheless, is connected with the state” and especially the defense ministry. Earlier this month, DOSAAF’s deputy head, Nikolay Staskov, “indirectly confirmed” both that it has the capacity to train private military companies and has developed its own draft legislation to legalize them (Omvesti.ru, March 3).
Other pieces of draft legislation, including some prepared by those close to the Union of Donbas Volunteers, which is close to the intelligence agencies, have been floating around for some time. According to Tarasevich, neither the pro–defense ministry version offered by DOSAAF, nor the pro-FSB or pro-GRU versions offered by the Union of Donbas Volunteers gained much traction in the Duma, because the Kremlin did not want the issue to surface during the presidential campaign lest it raise questions about Vladimir Putin’s intentions. Now with that campaign over, the situation has changed.
The former “prime minister” of the Moscow-backed so-called Donetsk Peoples’ Republic, Aleksandr Boroday, has emerged as a spokesman for the anti-DOSAAF group. He says he “doubts that the DOSAAF is capable of organizing the necessary preparation [of cadres for private military companies] at its present level of development.” Besides, he says, “I am not certain that such preparation is necessary in principle: most of those who theoretically join private military companies are military-trained specialists” (Chvk.info, March 23).
According to Tarasevich, “it is no secret” that there are squabbles among the GRU, the FSB and the air force as to who will become “the curators of this or that private military company […] after legalization.” Some believe control will be divided, with DOSAAF responsible for attack troops, while the FSB continues to control “voluntary organizations” and the GRU in command of the “Vagnerite” forces. (The Vagner PMC recently attracted broad media attention after its forces were eliminated by the United States military in a clash in eastern Syria earlier this year—see below.) But that arrangement is unlikely to be stable for long.
Petr Fefelov, a veteran of the Vityaz special forces group, told the military expert that, “as always, there are several structures that, let us call things by their own name, are interested in having control, including over the budgets of these entities. Therefore,” he continues, “I think now there will be a struggle among two or three structures that want to control these processes,” at least in part because so much money and so much political influence will go to whoever wins.
But driving that process, Fefelov continued, is a fundamental reality: there must exist a single command for such private military companies lest they pass beyond the control of the center and begin to act in contradictory ways. He does not openly say so, but his words suggest there may be concerns that if control over the PMCs is divided, these mercenary forces could be used by their various masters for political purposes not only abroad but at home. And such a development could clearly threaten Russia’s national security.
What government agency controls this or that “private military company may not matter much for those in the ranks, especially if the new law provides such mercenaries with government protection, insurance and pensions. But Fefelov noted, it matters a great deal how they will be used. If the defense ministry gains the upper hand, that will make them part and parcel of the army, whatever terms are employed; but if they are controlled by the FSB or the GRU, they will constitute a military force that Moscow can deploy where it wants, even if that conflicts with conventional military plans.
Just how potentially dangerous that could be was highlighted earlier this year when US forces (informed by the Russian military that there were no Russians east of the Euphrates River in Syria) killed some 200 advancing Russian mercenaries. The incident created a fresh crisis between Moscow and Washington—and one within the Russian capital as well (see EDM, February 15).