Members of the Wagner Group in Syria. Photo: Twitter

Since the turn of the century, private military and security companies (PMSCs) have played an increasingly important role in conflict zones. Because the lines between private military companies and private security companies are often blurred, the all-encompassing PMSC term is used to describe them.

While PMSCs became more prominent in the immediate post-Cold War era, it was the US-led “war on terror” that saw them become major actors.

During the peak of the US military campaign in Iraq in 2007, for example, the 160,000 troops deployed by Washington were outnumbered by more than 180,000 contractors working there. Additionally, contractor deaths exceeded those of American military personnel during the US campaign in Afghanistan.

But after several high-profile incidents involving US PMSCs, particularly the company formerly known as Blackwater, which is now called Academi, Western PMSCs came under heavier public scrutiny. The 2008 Montreux Document, since signed by almost 60 countries, was put forward to regulate the growing PMSC industry and provided limitations on their use in armed conflicts.

Russia is one of many countries yet to sign the document, but Russian PMSCs have existed for decades. The earliest modern Russian variants developed in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union underwent economic reform.

Amid rising criminal and militant activity, the crumbling Soviet security state was unable to manage privatization and enforce financial agreements, leading to further acceleration of this process as security structures were significantly downsized after the Soviet collapse.

Then-president Boris Yeltsin granted Russian security and detective firms increased weapons and arrest powers throughout the 1990s and by the end of the decade, there were “6,775 private security firms and 4,612 armed security services … registered in Russia.” Often, Russian PMSCs were little more than protection rackets run by organized crime.

But though PMSCs were legalized in Russia for domestic purposes, their use in conflict zones was not. The Kremlin sought to avoid creating friction with the country’s armed forces, as well as potentially balkanizing Russia’s security structures into smaller factions.

To bypass this, Russian PMSCs were simply registered overseas. Russian PMSCs sent thousands of personnel to fight in the Yugoslav wars and in conflicts across the former Soviet Union, but their effects were limited.

The Kremlin re-established a strong security state in Russia after Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000. But observing the use and legitimization of PMSCs during the “war on terror,” the Kremlin again began to entertain the possibility of using PMSCs to promote Russian foreign policy.

While not committing to legalization, Putin stated in 2012 that “such companies are a way of implementing national interests without the direct involvement of the state.” By avoiding legalization, Russia also did not have to admit it was employing PMSCs or did not need to publish information about their deaths.

Russia’s major resource companies had also already been granted exemptions from employing PMSCs abroad. In 2008, Transneft and Gazprom were permitted to use armed force to protect their assets, with some limitations “concerning the kind of weapons these forces might use.”

The Kremlin’s first major experiment with PMSCs under Putin was in Syria. The Moran Security Group had been aiding the Syrian government after the start of the country’s civil war in 2011, and set up a new entity, the Slavonic Corps, to fight Islamic State (ISIS) in 2013. Its mission, however, proved unsuccessful, and the Slavonic Corps was disbanded shortly after.

But after the initial outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin leaned heavily on Russian PMSCs to support its war effort. The Wagner Group, a Russian PMSC believed to have been created that year, took a central role in taking Crimea. And as Russia attempted to play down its role in the war in the Donbas region, Russian PMSCs became notable for operating on the front line.

Russian PMSCs have recruited citizens from across Europe and beyond to fill their ranks. In addition, Wagner personnel were used to help keep other pro-Kremlin militias operating in Ukraine in line, granting them the nickname “the cleaners.”

The success of Wagner and other Russian PMSCs in Ukraine played heavily into the Kremlin’s decision to redeploy them to Syria in 2015. Shortly after the beginning of the Russian military intervention, Wagner personnel began to be deployed on Russian military planes, and they have become integral to the Kremlin’s war effort.

In one instance in 2018, hundreds of Wagner personnel were killed by a US air strike in Syria after they attacked a base occupied by the US and allied militants. Despite this setback, Wagner has managed to find significant success in the war. Its contractors were essential to retaking the city of Palmyra in Syria and have been granted partial rights over Syrian oil and gas facilities that were reclaimed from ISIS and other rebel groups.

Russian PMSCs have also helped Russia expand its presence in Africa, a continent typically dominated by British, French, American, and Chinese interests.

In Libya, Russian PMSCs have supported military commander General Khalifa Haftar and helped the Kremlin expand its influence in the country. Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic, and other African countries have also hosted and employed Wagner personnel and those from other Russian PMSCs.

As Russia significantly escalated its military involvement in Ukraine this year, it again turned to PMSCs to achieve its objectives. Wagner has recruited across Syria and beyond to bring troops to fight in Ukraine’s Donbas region, with the company’s ranks swelling by the thousands since the beginning of the invasion.

But this suggests that other countries may seek to help Ukraine by sending their own PMSCs. Ukraine has used its own private military companies to fight back against Russian forces for years, while American and European contractors have also shown renewed interest in deployment opportunities in Ukraine since February.

The risks of clashes between the West and Russia through PMSCs should not be overlooked. Besides the battle between the US military and Wagner in Syria in 2018, close to 100 Wagner troops were sent to Venezuela in 2019 to help support President Nicolás Maduro’s government.

Erik Prince, the creator of Blackwater, meanwhile, suggested using US PMSCs to topple Maduro, according to a 2019 Reuters article, demonstrating the increasing likelihood of interference by such companies in trying to influence policy decisions as the profiles of PMSCs continue to grow.

Preparing for confrontation (and de-escalation) between Western and Russian military forces and PMSCs should therefore be a priority for political and military leaders. Failing to do so could result in the war in Ukraine spiraling into a more direct conflict between nuclear powers as private actors increase their roles in the war.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

John P Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, DC. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign-affairs publications. His book Budget Superpower: How Russia Challenges the West with an Economy Smaller than Texas’ was published in December 2022.