Reports of shadowy Russian mercenaries in unexpected locations have grown more frequent and alarming. Yet, western understanding of the Kremlin’s use of private contractors — useful to Moscow for their deniability and relatively low cost — remains limited. Policy responses can be complicated by the potential conflation of Russian organizations, like the Wagner Group, with the private military and security companies used by the United States and its allies.
At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts shone a spotlight on the Kremlin’s destabilizing use of mercenaries around the world, clarified the difference between Moscow’s approach and that of the United States and its allies, and reviewed efforts underway internationally, within the OSCE and elsewhere, to develop and promote norms that would govern the use of private security and military companies (PMSCs).
During the briefing, the audience heard from the RAND Corporation’s Dara Massicot, University of Denver Professor Dr. Deborah Avant, and recently retired U.S. Government technical expert on armed contractors Col. Christopher Mayer, U.S. Army retired. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Alex Tiersky.
Mr. Tiersky explained in his opening remarks that even though reports of Russian mercenaries have become more frequent and alarming, our understanding of the Kremlin’s use of private security contractors remains somewhat limited. He pointed to The New York Times’ headline from the day before, which confirmed suspicions of Russian mercenaries in Libya, as an example of the relevancy of the issue today.
Ms. Massicot began the panel with a broad overview about Russian PMSCs. She explained that there are two types of contracting groups in Russia: private security companies, which are legal entities in Russia that are more selective in their recruitment and types of missions, and private military companies (PMCs), which are illegal yet have proliferated in recent years. The most well-known Russian private military company is the Wagner Group, best known for its involvement in eastern Ukraine, Syria and Africa. Massicot also noted that Russian PMCs support both Russian grand strategy and the commercial interests of their owners.
Dr. Avant remarked on the double-edged sword of the flexibility of PMSCs. On the one hand, they provide services for unexpected or necessary demands. For example, if a government needed French-speaking troops but did not have many of them, they could hire a private security company who could provide those forces. On the other hand, they are managed outside of regular political and military channels, resulting in an increased risk of misbehavior by the contracting government and the PMSC personnel. Dr. Avant briefly delved into the work of the International Code of Conduct Association, which seeks to define appropriate behavior for PMSCs.
Col. Mayer spoke about the international and national efforts the United States government participated in to regulate the conduct of PMSCs. He specifically spoke about the Montreux Document, which details international legal obligations and good practices for states involved in the PMSC process, United States national laws that regulate PMSC conduct, and the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers. Col. Mayer also remarked on the current decrease of State Department and Defense Department involvement in international activity regarding PMSCs. This is concerning as it coincided with increased activity among mercenary groups, thereby threatening the gains made in the past 15 years by international agreements. However, Col. Mayer noted that there is hope for future United States reengagement, citing one promising initiative as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s recent resolution on PMSC activity.