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Russian mercenaries, serving Russia’s greater influence in the world

Russian private security companies are present in at least 30 countries on four continents

Private military companies, such as the Wagner Group, have in recent years become a vital tool with which Russia expands its influence in the world while defending its interests. Currently, there is a presence of Russian mercenaries in at least 30 countries on four continents, which shows the expansion of this phenomenon that had its first trial in the Ukraine conflict in 2014.

Although mercenary ventures are technically illegal under the Russian Constitution, the truth is that they have become a key component of Moscow’s “hybrid warfare” strategy, offering Russian President Vladimir Putin a means of the one to “execute its political goals and advance Russian national security interests around the world,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) noted in a recent report.

In general, according to the authors of ‘The Wars of the Moscow Mercenaries’, these security firms are in the hands of oligarchs close to the Kremlin, such as the owner of the Wagner Group, Yevgeni Prigozhin, who is very close to Putin and who is subject to sanctions by the United States.

One of its main tasks is to underpin Russian foreign policy and expand its influence worldwide, since thanks to the mercenaries Moscow can support certain countries or partners.

From a military point of view, given the capabilities of these mercenaries –generally former members of the security forces– allies can be reinforced, while establishing a military presence in scenarios where there was none, and even going as far as possible. upsetting the balance of power in certain conflicts “while maintaining a plausible degree of denial by the Kremlin,” the authors note.

Furthermore, mercenaries are more expendable and their use is less risky than the deployment of Russian soldiers, especially in case they die in combat or during training missions. The members of the security companies have also become a source for gathering intelligence information, in addition to being able to carry out covert actions and clandestine activities, according to the CSIS.

Security contractors receive training before being sent abroad, in some cases even within military bases and with the likely support of the Army and intelligence services. For example, according to the report, the Wagner Group trains its men in two camps next to an Intelligence Services (GRU) base in Molkino, in the Krasnodar region.

On the other hand, mercenary companies and related firms in the field of energy, mines, security and logistics also offer the Russian Government a way to “expand its commercial and economic influence in developing countries and build new income streams. , especially oil, gas and mineral extraction, to reduce the impact of the sanctions, “the report highlights.

Regarding the tasks they perform, their main task is to train and equip the security forces of the host country or a local militia, which includes training in specialized combat tasks, such as the use of snipers or anti-aircraft defense. In addition, they work to protect local authorities, even becoming the bodyguards of presidents, as is the case of the Central African Republic.

On some occasions, according to the report, mercenaries linked to the GRU recruit human assets in addition to carrying out surveillance and reconnaissance tasks and carrying out actions of political warfare, sabotage and other covert missions.

Mercenaries are also deployed to protect key energy infrastructure or mines for both host countries and Russian companies. In addition, both they and the media organizations linked to their companies help to disseminate messages in favor of Russia. In this case, the Prigozhin-owned ‘troll farm’, also sanctioned by the United States, is particularly famous.

Ukraine was the first country in which Russian mercenaries made an appearance. Prior to their central role in the conflict in the still active Donbas region, they were already present at the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. According to the CSIS, at the height of the conflict between separatists and Ukrainian forces there were between 2,500 and 5,000 Russian mercenaries, including from the Wagner Group.

His role was to “destabilize and then consolidate control over Crimea and Donbas, weighing down and pressuring Kiev and its western allies to make diplomatic concessions”, all “denying any official Russian involvement,” the expert authors of the report underline. Despite this, the conflict has ended up becoming a “frozen conflict” from which Russia has nevertheless been able to draw some lessons to apply in other settings.

Syria has been one of them. Here, Russian mercenaries have been key in propping up the Bashar al Assad regime and slowing down the efforts of the United States and its allies. In addition, they have been crucial in taking over oil fields, refineries, gas plants and other infrastructure that were in the hands of the rebels.

According to CSIS, in this country there have come to be between 1,000 and 3,000 Russian mercenaries from different firms, including the Wagner Group, who have played an increasingly direct role in the combat operations of the Syrian regime and often synchronized with priorities. Moscow economics. This country has also served as a testing ground for a hybrid deployment model that includes state forces and mercenaries.

In the case of Libya, the support of the mercenaries has not been for the government recognized by the international community, but for General Khalifa Haftar, whose forces it has trained and supported in their offensive to take Tripoli. The role of the 800 to 1,200 mercenaries, mainly from the Wagner Group, has also included defending Russian interests in the country.

“Russia saw a power vacuum and an opportunity to exploit instability to expand Russian influence, using mercenaries to strengthen Haftar, turn the conflict in his favor and take the reward,” the report’s authors stress. In addition, Russian mercenaries have strengthened “the geostrategic position and diplomatic influence” in Libya, giving Russia a role in any solution to the conflict.

There is also a presence of Russian mercenaries in sub-Saharan Africa. At RCA, they have been training the security forces, in addition to protecting its president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and mining operations. Mozambique has been, however, a failure.

The Wagner Group mercenaries who arrived to support the government in its fight against jihadists in Cabo Delgado “had little experience in carrying out operations in the forests and had difficulty coordinating with local forces,” according to CSIS. Arrived in September 2019, they were replaced last April by merceraries from the South African firm Dyck Advisory Group.

Furthermore, Russian mercenaries have also crossed the Atlantic. Since 2017, they have been present in Venezuela, which has one of its greatest allies in Moscow, to guard the interests of Russia and its companies, including Rosneft. In addition, since January 2019, around a hundred of them were deployed to protect the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, after Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself president-in-charge.

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