September 8, 2017

Moscow’s mercenaries who fight for money a serious threat in Ukraine

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Well-paid private Russian military companies are an increasingly important component of Moscow’s strategy in the Donbas and elsewhere, providing the Kremlin with a serious force that it can use as it likes and then plausibly deny whenever that suits its purposes, according to Radio Free Europe’s Andrey Dikhtaryenko.

Among the many such companies are Vagner, MAR, Yenoty and the Slavyansky Korpus, whose mercenaries make from $2,500 to $6,000 (U.S.) a month – far more than Russian soldiers are paid and thus at least in principle far more ready to do whatever they are ordered to against non-Russians or against insubordinate Russian forces (

Such firms, Russian military commentator Pavel Felgenhauer says, are “cheaper and less responsible. The Defense Ministry can always say: we know nothing about them; these are not our losses.” And in times of confusion, many will accept that, rather than asking the important questions about who pays such firms and thus who controls them.

But these enterprises do not always turn out well. Sometimes the mercenaries talk too much or run afoul of powerful groups within the Donbas militants or the Russian power structures themselves. In such cases, Mr. Dikhtaryenko says, serious retribution may follow and the mercenaries may land in jail or worse.

That outcome, however, is more the exception than the rule. According to Mr. Felgenhauer, these private mercenary firms are now in almost all cases well-integrated into the chain of command in the pro-Moscow forces in the Donbas. Indeed, he says, they represent a clearly defined “hybrid structure.”

Such mercenaries may become a serious problem in the future if Moscow changes course. In that event, they could split with the other Russian forces there and even fall victim to Russian laws prohibiting independent military actions – or, alternatively, they could be used by Moscow to maintain pressure on Ukraine even as the Kremlin denied that it was doing so.

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