Opinion - Does Russia risk major conflict by fighting wars with private armed forces?

Posted on: 19 April 2018 by Ulrich Petersohn in 2018 posts

Toy soldiers on a map
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Does Russia risk major conflict by fighting wars with private armed forces? Ulrich Petersohn explores the murky world of Russian mercenaries and the risks this brings.

Russian and Syrian troops carried out a ground assault on a military base in Deir ez-Zor, Syria on February 7. However the base was occupied by US soldiers, and the attackers were beaten back by a US air strike. Around 100 Russians were ultimately killed. And yet, diplomatically speaking, almost nothing happened: no threats, no sanctions, no war of words.

What prevented the situation from escalating was the fact that the attackers were not in fact members of the Russian armed forces, but private military and security contractors (PMSCs). This gave both sides the benefit of plausible deniability. Russia pretended not to know about Russians in the area, while the US denied any knowledge of Russian involvement.

Private combat providers are back in business

But while the encounter didn’t escalate, one thing is clear: private combat providers are back in business, and are not only deployed in domestic conflicts against rebels. They are also starting to take part in interstate rivalries. The former practice might be controversial, yet it is unlikely to escalate into interstate war. The latter, however, risks further inflaming interstate rivalries.

Before the 19th century, rulers used mercenaries and privateers on a regular basis to exploit as much leeway as they could with a minimum of responsibility. This meant major powers could deploy force against their rivals while plausibly denying any involvement; the specific association between an adversary and the attacking force would be unclear.

This is still a useful advantage today.

Unlike regular armed forces, private actors can be hired and fired quickly, and their authorisation to use violence issued and withdrawn swiftly. But while the resulting uncertainty provides cover for adventurous policies, it also increases the risk that conflicts will escalate and that major powers will be dragged into wars.

Resisted by the international community

This was a crucial reason why the international community resisted a resurgence of combat providers for hire in the first decade of the 2000s. The services on the market for force were intentionally limited to armed security services, and specific rules for contracting were drafted, as were guidelines for PMSCs’ conduct. Since then, the overwhelming majority of the industry has usually refrained from combat services.

But in recent years, a small number of commercial organisations have been providing exactly these services to governments. In 2013, the Nigerian government employed a PMSC to support its combat operations against Boko Haram, while the United Arab Emirates hired a private company to build up a 800-member battalion of foreign troops to conduct “urban combat” or “destroy enemy equipment and personnel”.

Although controversial, PMSCs are either deployed alongside or integrated into states’ armed forces. That doesn’t entail the same risk of escalation as the practices of combat in international rivalries prior to the 19th century. But Russia has taken things further: it has deployed combat PMSCs to fight against other states.

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