Russian MPs are expected within weeks to submit a new draft law regulating private military companies. There is a global market for such services, and some argue Russia is missing out by keeping citizens in a legal minefield.
Private military companies (PMC) are the modern-day incarnation of the ages-old institution of mercenary companies – professional soldiers ready to prop up a regular fighting force for a few chests of gold. ‘Wild Geese’, as they’re known, saw a relative decline as national governments rose in power and pushed the private players on to the sidelines – both legally and geographically. The 20th-century common wisdom about waging wars was that it’s a job for nations, while adventurers were tolerated only in places like Sierra Leone or Libya.
Then came the end of Cold War. The downsizing of the standing armies generated a large pool of people with fighting skills to recruit from while the absence of a bipolar world with its checks and balances opened a larger market for their services. And after 9/11 the situation changed for mercenaries even more dramatically. The US government was more than willing to relinquish an increasing number of duties previously reserved for the regular troops to civilian hirelings – who conveniently didn’t end up in casualty statistics of Washington’s wars.
Today, PMCs are paid for services ranging from guarding freighter ships from pirates and catching traffickers at borders to clearing minefield and training troops of more-or-less legitimate authorities with the deep pocket. And also likely fighting battles – just like the fabled companies of Swiss landsknechts did in the Renaissance – although that part of the gray area in which modern mercenaries operate is a bit too close to practices still condemned officially.
Russia is somewhat lagging in taking a prominent place in the PMC service market, even though the country generates its share of recruits. This may be due to Moscow’s general suspicion of how the world’s security architecture went after 1991 or the inherent ‘loose cannon’ aspect of private soldiers. Reflecting this suspicion is the fact that hiring and training mercenaries, as well as being one, is a criminal offence in Russia. Sure, getting sentenced for this crime is a real challenge – the first (and apparently only) case to end in a conviction happened in 2014. But there are many people saying Russia needs the legal basis for operating PMCs of its own, because there is no way it can wish them into non-existence.
“The situation in Syria demonstrated the need for private military companies, which are well-suited for such local conflicts,” told RT Mikhail Emelyanov, deputy chair of the parliamentary Committee for State Building and Legislation. He said a new draft law regulating PMCs may be submitted within a month.
“The law would allow hiring employees of PMCs to take part in counterterrorist operations in foreign nations, protect allied nations from foreign aggression. And also to guard infrastructure objects like oil and gas fields or railroads,” he said.
The draft law would be the third attempt to make PMCs legal in Russia. In fact, the first draft suggested in 2012 was publicly supported by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. But no legislation has materialized since. Russian PMCs, which do exist, have to register in jurisdictions of other nations and their employees are always under the threat of prosecution in their home country. This understandably makes them reluctant to seek help from the Russian authorities when in trouble and arguably pushes the industry deeper towards the criminal fringe.
The only criminal case highlights the problem. The two convicts, Vadim Gusev and Evgeny Sidorov, were among the executives of a firm called Moran Security Group specializing in anti-piracy missions. Their trial was held behind closed doors, so there is little information about what they did. According to media reports, in 2013, Moran hired over 260 Russians to guard an “energy industry site” in Syria, but failed to pay them for the job, which proved far more dangerous than promised.
Some reports said the Russian mercenary company’s ultimate employer turned out to be a local warlord fighting against Damascus. Others said they worked for Syrian Oil Ministry or a shady Russian oil firm, which failed to inform them that it needed foot soldiers to capture an oilfield, not guards to protect it. Insider reports in the industry say the firm was actually set up by their competitors in the ship protection market. There is little transparency in the semi-illegal environment, in which such stories happen.
Whatever is true, a Russian court sentenced the two men to three years in prison each. None of the soldiers they hired was apparently charged in this case.
Proponents of legalizing PMCs say Russia’s reluctance to embrace the phenomenon simply puts Russian citizens at disadvantage.
“Those who want to work for PMCs need legal protection. It will ensure they are paid their due compensation, are covered by pension system and healthcare, that their families get aid if the man gets killed,” Anton Morozov, a member of the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, told RT.
The same argument about Russian citizens not being given due legal protection was voiced on Monday by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.
PMCs operating legally in Russia’s jurisdiction will become much stronger competitors in the multibillion-dollar sector, said military journalist Aleksey Leonkov. “If we have PMCs of our own, there will be interest in their service in many countries. The skills and capabilities of our military specialists are valued in the entire world.”