By Paul Goble
Many analysts have pointed out that governments which have professional armies rather than draft-based ones are typically less constrained in the use of force abroad than those that do because regimes have to worry about the kind of losses than can reduce the willingness of its people to serve in the military.
Some fear that if as expected Moscow adopts a law allowing private military companies, the same thing will prove true for the Kremlin because, Irek Murtazin of Novaya gazeta says, “the legalization of private military companies will free the state from responsibility for the loss of its citizens abroad” (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/01/21/75221-sluzhu-otechestvu-dorogo).
But he points out that Moscow has more immediate concerns: In Russia today, private military companies are illegal. Those that do exist operate outside the law domestically as well as internationally, and that has set up intense bureaucratic fights between the defense ministry and the FSB.
Conflicts between those two powerful agencies killed an effort to legalize such companies in 2014, when “the Duma rejected the draft of a law ‘Concerning Military-Security Companies.” Now, however, the Russian government is trying again. There is a draft law on the table, and on Tuesday it is slated to be sent for expert evaluation.
Because there is no legal framework for such organizations to operate, those functioning abroad “remain in a semi-legal position, and over their fighters constantly hangs the sword of Damocles” of being charged with a crime. As of October 2013, Murtazin says, 267 Russians were serving time for violating the law against mercenaries.
The issue has come up again because the Vagner Private Military Company sent “several thousand” of its employees to fight in Syria. They were nominally financed by Euro Police, a company controlled by St. Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is known as “the cook.”
Vagner units there were supplied with guns and ammunition by the defense ministry which also imposed command on some but perhaps not all of the company’s people. After Putin invited its leaders to the Kremlin without clearing that with the defense ministry, relations between Vagner and the MOD deteriorated sharply.
Unlike the 2014 draft, the proposed new law puts the defense ministry rather than the FSB in charge of the private military companies, something the former is undoubtedly pleased about while the latter is certainly less so. But given the shadowy nature of such operations abroad, the FSB will likely still play a major role.
Some observers, Murtazin suggests in his article, don’t think that the new law is about conflicts at all but rather about money, about allowing Russian private military companies to hire themselves out to firms which need to be protected abroad. That such an interest exists is certain; that it is the only one is unlikely.
The Novaya gazeta commentator suggests that the new draft may be opposed by those it is supposed to benefit: the private military companies themselves. They may prefer, he says, to remain in the shadows where they can operate with fewer constraints and controls. That however may be yet another reason for the push now to adopt a law on them.