“After Syria, Where Will Putin’s Secret Armies Go Next?” by Own Matthews, Newsweek, January 21 (https://www.msn.com/en-ca/news/world/after-syria-where-will-putins-secret-armies-go-next/ar-AAuPmZC?li=AAacUQk&ocid=spartanntp):
…The use of mercenaries is illegal under Russian law. But since at least the 1990s, Moscow has used them as deniable proxies for its military interventions abroad. … Over the past four years, however, President Vladimir Putin has dramatically ramped up the use of private military contractors as a crucial part of his foreign policy, using them to extend Russian power in eastern Ukraine and Syria.
The shift began at dawn on March 18, 2014, when units of regular Russian servicemen, their insignia removed from their uniforms, moved out from a base at Sevastopol to occupy key military targets across the Ukrainian province of Crimea. Backing these soldiers was a motley group of unidentified fighters who swooped into radio stations and local government buildings. Some were pro-Moscow Ukrainian policemen, others were local gangsters – but many, according to Western analysts and the Security Service of Ukraine, were paid mercenaries.
Later that summer, as war flared in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s military intelligence agency, known as the GRU, began sending much larger and better-organized units of ex-Russian servicemen, recruited mostly from the North Caucasus, to fight in the Donbass [sic]. Since then, mercenaries have become “a central element of the Kremlin’s geopolitical adventures, whether in Ukraine or, even more clearly, Syria,” says Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations, a Prague-based think tank.
Outsourcing fighting to mercenaries has allowed the Kremlin to covertly participate in conflicts like the war in Ukraine, where it officially claims it is not involved. …