By promoting instability in southeastern Ukraine and becoming involved in the Syrian civil war, the Kremlin has shown growing resolve to militarily challenge the United States both within and beyond Russia’s self-proclaimed zone of “privileged interests.” Russian participation in these conflicts has also highlighted a new-old tool to fulfill Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions: the so-called Private Military Companies (PMC), irregular and de jure illegal private armies that directly or indirectly operate in the service of the Kremlin. PMCs have a deep historical legacy of helping Russia pursue state interests, and the sophistication and scope of Moscow’s use of this instrument continues to grow and evolve. Russian readiness to employ PMCs rests on “plausible deniability,” the commercialization of war, and the principle of asymmetricity. These three components have made PMCs an important, cost-effective means for Russia to act as the de facto key player in “gray zones”—both incidental and created by Moscow—and regional conflicts along its periphery as well as in places as far off as Central Africa and beyond.

Though a series of forthcoming reports, this project seeks to explore the issue of Russian PMCs through the lens of continuity and tradition. The main project investigator, Dr. Sergey Sukhankin, a Research Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, will employ a broad range of primary- and indigenous secondary-source data to explain how Russia employs these irregular formations and what the West should do about it.

Please find the latest reports in this series below:

Latest Articles

Russian PMCs and Irregulars: Past Battles and New Endeavors

Executive Summary 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... MORE

The ‘Hybrid’ Role of Russian Mercenaries, PMCs and Irregulars in Moscow’s Scramble for Africa

Executive Summary Russia’s “return” to Africa—preceded by a decade of near absence on the continent—is premised on two main aspects: 1) geo-economic interests (notably, securing rare natural resources possessed by African countries and expanding Russia’s export capabilities in non-raw materials), and 2) geo-political calculations (such... MORE

Unleashing the PMCs and Irregulars in Ukraine: Crimea and Donbas

Executive Summary The 2011 Arab Spring and the ensuing civil wars in Libya and Syria compelled Russia’s military-political leadership to reassess the role of irregular forces and non-state actors (as well as the principle of tactical and highly maneuverable groups) in so-called new-generation (“hybrid”) conflicts,... MORE