Russia’s reliance on mercenaries exposes the weakness of its military in Ukraine and lays bare Putin’s strategy to deflect blame

A former position of Russian soldiers captured by the Ukrainian Armed Forces during a counter-offensive operation, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, in this handheld photo released on September 11, 2022. Press service of the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces/Handout via REUTERS/File (UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES/)

Ukrainian forces are gaining ground in the war against Russia. Since the beginning of September 2022, they have launched a massive counter-offensive in the northeastern Ukrainian region of Kharkiv, retaking large swathes of territory.

The sudden offensive – probably the result of several factors, including the effectiveness of war games and Russian military incompetence– has caused the optimism about Ukraine’s ability to push Russia back of the Ukrainian territory.

Russia is now on the defensive in northeastern Ukraine. And an important dynamic in the run-up to the Ukrainian counteroffensive was the Russia’s growing reliance on private military companies in warfare. It is clear that Russia is increasing the use of these groups, but it is not known exactly to what extent.

Like many other countries, including the United States, Russia has for years used private military companies, which are for-profit organizations that provide military services during war.. It has increasingly turned to these mercenaries to help fight wars and participate in counterterrorism efforts in places like Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic.

As an academic who researches private military companies, I believe that the growing visibility of these groups in Ukraine reveals the tenuous state of Russia’s military efforts, as well as the unstable internal political situation in Moscow.

Ultimately, the use of these groups shows that Russia’s labor shortage has become a drag on its war in Ukraine.

Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner Group mercenary, poses during an interview with Reuters in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, France May 9, 2022. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/File
Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner Group mercenary, poses during an interview with Reuters in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, France May 9, 2022. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/File (CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/)

How Private Military Companies Work

It is not a new phenomenon for governments like Russia and the United States to use private military companies to help increase their power during conflicts.

These groups are generally “conflict entrepreneurs” seeking to profit during the war offering a variety of services to the highest bidders.

Most of the time it is the governments that hire these groups to reinforce their warlike capabilities and assist them in a multitude of military tasks, from providing intelligence to fighting front-line operations. Sometimes, private military companies are used because they are cheaper in the long runas they do not require governments to pay soldiers’ pensions and health benefits, for example.

In other cases, governments such as Russia hire private military companies because their armies lack enough power to wage war or because they see a strategic value in it.

However, Russian private military companies – groups like the Wagner Group and similar organizations like Patriot– are something of an anomaly in the private security market in general.

wagner popasna group
Members of the Wagner Group

A key reason is that private military companies are technically illegal in Russia. They can only operate thanks to their direct connections with the Kremlin.

For example, the Wagner Group – Russia’s best-known private military company – is financed by a wealthy Russian oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhinwhat’s wrong with it deep ties to the Kremlin. The Wagner Group’s main base in Russia is also shared with Russian special forces units.

Russia’s use of the Wagner Group in Ukraine dates back to when Russia forcibly annexed Crimea in 2014. While the Wagner Group was formed around that time, Russia’s private military industry has been booming since the early 1990s. from 1990.

Now, the group’s increased visibility in Russia’s “special military operation,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin has called it, signals a major shift in the Ukraine war.

Fill a void for Russian soldiers

The Russian military has simply been less effective in combat than many expected.a byproduct of poor training, logistics, and strategy.

In addition, many Russian soldiers have been injured or killed. In general, “the Russians have probably suffered 70,000 or 80,000 casualties in less than six months“, said Colin KahlUnited States Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, in August 2022.

Sensitive image.  Corpses of two Russian soldiers in Irpin, near kyiv.  EFE/EPA/ROMAN PILIPEY/Archive
Sensitive image. Corpses of two Russian soldiers in Irpin, near kyiv. EFE/EPA/ROMAN PILIPEY/File (ROMAN PILIPEY/)

Assessments from the US military and intelligence community also note that as of early August 2022, Russia was losing more than 500 soldiers a day. Ukrainian officials, for their part, reported the loss of between 100 and 200 soldiers a day around that time.

Battlefield losses have put pressure on Putin, who recently ordered a largest military recruitment in Russia. Russia is trying to add nearly 140,000 new soldiers to its current 900,000 active-duty troops by early 2023.

Meanwhile, Russia’s reliance on private military companies, which succeeded in capturing Ukrainian territory where other forces could not, provides the Kremlin with a partial and short-term remedy for its personnel deficiencies.

A cover for Moscow

Moscow’s employment of soldiers from the Wagner Group also appears to be a politically strategic move.

Fighters from private military groups, who are often better paid than the regular army, can “allow the Kremlin to gather more soldiers without altering the internal situation of the country”, that is, the political order and support for Putin. Let Putin promote the false narrative that this is not a war. This is important because the continued loss of Russian soldiers poses a political risk to Putin, for example when dead Russian soldiers return in body bags from Ukraine.

Putin wants to maintain positive public sentiment about the war and avoid a draft, which would be highly unpopular in Russia. The Kremlin has not detailed how it plans to increase its troops without a draft.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.  AFP/File
Russian President Vladimir Putin. AFP/File

Research also shows that people are often less sensitive to contractor casualties than military personnel deaths.

Finally, resorting to auxiliary forces such as private military companies gives Moscow some potential cover as more independent reports show Russian soldiers have committed human rights abuses in Ukraine.

Research shows that governments can use auxiliary forces like the Wagner Group to deflect responsibility for sexual violence and other atrocities of war that occur during the conflict.

This is the exact playbook the Kremlin is using in the Central African Republic and Maliwhere violence against civilians has skyrocketed since Wagner’s forces arrived to support Russia’s counterterrorism efforts in these countries in 2017 and 2021, respectively.

wagner popasna group
Wagner Group

Caught in the spotlight

Ukraine accused Wagner’s mercenaries of murdering civilians in May 2022. German intelligence also intercepted radio communications implicating the Wagner Group in the Bucha massacre in late March 2022.

Wagner’s recent recruiting efforts, which now include drawing on the prison population of dozens of Russian penal colonies, have increased fears of increased war crimes, including violence against civilians.

Observers estimate that they have been recruited among 7,000 and 10,000 convicts since Juneand a video has recently come to light in which you can see Prigozhin personally appealing to prisoners to join Wagner’s ranks. The increased number of criminals and poorly educated people joining Wagner will certainly affect its operational effectiveness.

However, for the time being – and especially given the recent Ukrainian counter-offensive – it appears that Russia will continue to rely on Wagner to supplement its armed forces.

This strategy has its risks, including exacerbating grievances in the Russian military, where morale continues to drop. These frictions may be good for Ukraine’s war effort, but Russia’s continued reliance on private military companies could make the war worse for civilians caught in the crosshairs.

Article originally published in The Conversation- Christopher Michael Faulkner is Adjunct Professor of National Security Affairs in the College of Distance Education, US Naval War College

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