How Russia is outsourcing its war effort
to paramilitary groups
9th May 2023
A member of the militia of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic outside the headquarters of regional administration in the city of Donetsk, in a file photo from April 2014. (Photo: Avedis Hadjian)
In a recent interview with an American news channel, a Ukrainian intelligence officer said that Russia was moving to bring the myriad of paramilitary groups under the control of the General Staff. Regardless of the accuracy, or not, of the comment—which we cannot verify—the comment points to a peculiarity of the Russian war effort: its reliance on private military companies (PMC) and regional militias.
The Wagner group of Yevgeny Prigozhin has garnered most of the attention, especially after an expletive-laden video message addressed to the Russian government, warning that his group would withdraw from Bakhmut by May 10 for lack of ammunition (he withdrew the threat after Russia promised to ship the war materiel needed). In the clip, Prigozhin stood amid corpses of Wagner fighters lying in a field which according to the BBC appears to be about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the centre of the besieged Ukrainian city.
Yet other PMCs are also active in the Ukrainian theatre of war. In addition to Wagner, there is Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s militia, the 141st Special Motorized Regiment which in fact is a paramilitary group known as the ‘kadyrovtsy,’ more noted for their brutality than military prowess.
Ukrainian intelligence is also reporting that Gazprom, the state-owned natural gas company, has set up its own PMC. Its purview will be protecting something perhaps as valuable as territory: the energy resources of Russia.
Another important component of the Russian war machine are the units of Cossacks. Richard Arnold, one of the very few authors who has devoted consistent attention to the issue of the ‘paramilitarization’ of Russia and its consequences, says that the reliance on Cossack fighters appears intended to add a layer of legitimacy to the war, as Cossacks, as an autochthonous group, could allege historical grievances for their participation in the war on the side of Russia.
Arnold adds that up to 19 autonomous republics of the Russian Federation have formed their volunteer units. He also points out that the troops of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Eastern Ukraine have seen their ranks swell with the arrival of Russian nationalist and foreign volunteers. Training provided by the Russian army has also enhanced their combat readiness.
As there are no complete or reliable statistics on the paramilitary component of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is difficult to form an accurate picture of the reality on the ground. For the same reasons, drawing conclusions based on this evidence would be venturing into highly speculative terrain. To paraphrase Churchill on pre-revolutionary Russia, ‘there are wheels within wheels’.
Yet a couple of observations are in order. As Arnold says, military coups are a rare occurrence in the history of Russian statehood (including the Soviet period, which came to an end in December 1991 shortly after a putsch against the government of Mikhail Gorbachev in August of that year ended in fiasco).
Still, the outsourcing of the state’s power of coercion to paramilitary units could contribute to centrifugal forces. As Forbes contributor Ariel Cohen says, this proliferation of militias points to a process of ‘parallelism’: the setup of armed groups to protect the leaders of autocratic states or dictatorships (Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard in Iraq being a case in point in recent history), while at the same time pitting those militias against each other, complicating the potential building of a united front to bring about regime change from within. The discipline and loyalties of these PMCs are dubious. The consequences for a country with actual and potential ethnic and geographic fault lines can be dire. While the coup d’État may be unusual in Russian history, civil war is less so.
Moreover, thousands of common criminals were released from Russian prisons to be recruited into Wagner and other paramilitary groups, which raises serious questions about their return to freedom—as they were promised—once the conflict ends and they rejoin civil society. They have received military training and have endured brutalization in the battlefield, in addition to their prison experience, which cannot have been benign. To say the least, none of this bodes well for postwar Russia.