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Russia to expand private militaries in broader Middle East amid staffing crisis

As it wages a full-scale war in Ukraine, Russia wants to reform its army while being chronically short of security personnel, and increasingly dependent on mercenaries
This grab taken from AFP video footage shows a member of Ukraine's military looking away as a rocket launcher fires on the outskirts of Soledar, whose fate was uncertain after Russian Wagner group claimed it controlled the town, Ukraine, Jan. 11, 2023.

During the Syrian military campaign, the problems within the Russian army units were strictly visible to specialists. But in Ukraine, where Moscow and Kyiv operate large units on a nearly two thousand-mile-long frontline, those difficulties have been demonstrated more acutely, and are prompting the Kremlin to lean more heavily on private military companies (PMCs) in the fighting. 

One of the most fierce and public critics of the actions of the General Staff of the Russian army, which oversees operational command of the armed forces, is restaurateur Yevgeny Prigozhin. The oligarch and close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has emerged, even in the highly censored Russian media climate, as a core critic of the forces and of individual generals.

After years of denial,  Prigozhin finally revealed last September his role as the owner of the mercenary Wagner Group, reported.

Ironically, Wagner was originally established in 2014 on the recommendation of the General Staff that Prigozhin now criticizes. The group has morphed into an infamous mercenary network that operates in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and across the African continent. 

Prigozhin and the Russian military have had conflicts in the past over different approaches and actions in Syrian and Libyan wars. But even with numerous disagreements, more recently over Ukraine, and despite being legally banned by Russian law, the private military companies (PMCs) including Wagner, have managed to become an indispensable resource of the Kremlin's foreign policy, including in the Middle East and North Africa. 

At a December annual meeting of the Defense Ministry Board in Moscow, when the agency traditionally summarizes the activities of the armed forces, Putin urged that the experience of combat operations in Ukraine be taken into account in all military planning. In turn, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu acknowledged the need for structural reforms in the army. 

First, Shoigu announced plans to establish new formations in the troops, including new motorized rifle and airborne assault divisions. He also declared a dramatic increase in the number of army aviation (helicopters) and reformatting the existing smaller brigades into more powerful divisions.

In line with these changes, Retired Lt. Gen. Andrei Gurulev, a deputy in the Duma from the ruling United Russia party and former commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army, revealed on Telegram a decision to deploy at least 17 new army divisions throughout Russia. 

Second, Shoigu announced an increase in the total number of troops to 1.5 million (currently it is 1.151 million) and possibly raising the draft age and the upper age limit, making it 21-30, rather than the current range of 18-27.

Russia's personnel shortages

In a nutshell, the Russian military leadership, is being confronted with the reality of war in Ukraine, and is abandoning the reforms of former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov nearly a decade ago. Those prioritized the army's participation in anti-terrorist operations and low-intensity conflicts such as Syria, and returning to the mobilization model of the Soviet army. 

However, funding the new ambitious reforms during wartime and after the annexation of new Ukrainian territories, raise questions about the implementation process. It is not just the huge number of weapons and military equipment that will be needed to equip the new and modernized divisions and the new infrastructure needed for their deployment and operation, but also the shortage of personnel in Russia. 

Even though quite loyal to the Russian authorities, military observers admit a serious personnel gap, which leads to the fact that during the war in Ukraine,  lieutenant (officer) epaulets are often given to soldiers and sergeants without any training. Most likely, the under staffing will continue, and some new units will be deployed in full only in the warlords' reports

A similar situation is developing in the Russian police force. Last December, Putin signed a decree in December to  increase the staffing of the Ministry of Internal Affairs by 922 thousand people by 2023, and by 2025 - to almost 940 thousand.

This comes after the police chief Gen. Vladimir Kolokoltsev acknowledged in November a serious staffing drain in recent years and the halving of the required number of police officers in Moscow. 

In other words, Russia, is waging a full-scale war, annexing new territories and planning a major transformation of its army, while it's chronically short of security personnel. The Kremlin still maintains a military contingent in Syria, demonstrating that its foreign policy priorities remain unchanged, but it has been optimized in favor of sending the most experienced officers to Ukraine. 

Against this background, it is no coincidence that the Russian Defense Ministry is developing an amendment to a bill that will soon allow peacekeeping missions to be manned not only by contract servicemen, but by any servicemen “on a voluntary basis who have completed special training.”

Officially this wording is explained as opening the possibility of involving conscripts in similar operations abroad, which Russia may conduct under the auspices of regional organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, as was the case in Kazakhstan last year. 

Unofficially, it means opening the door for the deployment of the PMC mercenaries. For example, as can be seen from published materials by Russian human rights activists at the organization, mercenaries were instructed during the announcement of mobilization in Russia last year, to behave as if they are in Syria.Those instructions went to Redut, another less known Russian PMC. 

You “are properly in Syria” and “have appropriate marks,” as “according to all the documents the Redut PMC is considered as part of the 45th Special Forces Brigade of the Airborne Forces," said the video. 

It is well known that the Wagner Group has long ago expanded beyond Syria, Libya and the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Al-Monitor already wrote that it was Prigozhin's forces who negotiated on behalf of the Russian Defense Ministry to build a military facility in Sudan, but was later suspended.

It is also known that the Wagner Group tried to establish closer contact with Hezbollah before the war in Ukraine, and then even attempted to recruit Shia fighters in Lebanon on its own, but in the end these efforts also failed. 

The war in Ukraine is a new phase in the legalization of mercenary activities in Russia outside the legal practice. It was the Redut PMC that the General Staff, according to independent investigations, relied on at the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. The Wagner Group has belatedly entered into combat operations in Ukraine, but Prigozhin's mercenaries quickly expanded the operational space for independent operations, acquiring their own artillery and medical units and even aircraft cells

Growing influence for the PMCs

Given the scale of the activities of these groups of mercenaries and connections of their leaders with the Kremlin, many Russian experts believe that the influence of PMCs will only grow in the Russian vertical of power. As Lt. Gen. Andrei Gurulev wrote on Telegram last week, the Wagner Group will “have a lot of work even after the war in Ukraine. I think that there will be a lot of work both outside the country and with us here [in Russia].”

The trend toward wider use of mercenary groups by Moscow is growing, Russian political analyst Igor Subbotin told Al-Monitor. "Widespread use primarily in geographical terms, because it would go in the logic of the gradual legalization of this phenomenon in Russia and, as a consequence, acquiring the use of PMCs in the Middle East and Africa more clear contours," he said. 

Despite the fact that recently Russian senator Andrei Klishas said that there is allegedly no public request for legislative regulation of PMCs in Russia, sooner or later the question of developing a legislative framework will arise.

“Perhaps this will open a window of opportunity for Prigozhin's opponents in the Russian elite, who would like to replicate his role in politics abroad," Subbotin noted.

Kirill Semenov, nonresident expert of the Russian International Affairs Council, believes that in case of a hypothetical aggravation of the situation in Syria, the Russian ground presence would be strengthened by PMCs, in light of the current difficult situation of the Russian army in Ukraine.

“Of course, the use of such groups carries certain risks given the presence of American and Turkish troops in Syria, but after the 2018 massacre, when the Wagner Group along with pro-Iranian paramilitaries were hit by American artillery and aircraft, certain conclusions have already been drawn so that such a situation will not happen again,” Semenov told Al-Monitor. 

According to Semenov, in Libya, where Russian mercenaries were also active before Ukraine, the situation will depend on the further uneasy relations between Moscow and eastern Libyan military chief  Khalifa Hifter.

“On the one hand, [Hifter] is losing influence, and on the other hand, [he] pursues an increasingly aggressive line against Seif al-Islam Gadhafi and his supporters," Semenov argued.

“Nevertheless, the expansion of the client list of Russian PMCs, for example, to protect the fields, looks quite probable,” he added. 

However, Russia's foreign policy dependency on mercenaries is also fraught with maneuvers on the part of those who until recently were heavily dependent on the Kremlin. For instance, the Assad regime, recently in a wave of strengthening ties with the United Arab Emirates and increasing willingness to cooperate on the part of the Turkish authorities, seems to have already begun to reconsider its previous informal agreements with Russia.

As it became known from a published audio recording last month, the authenticity of which has been confirmed by many sources, one of the commanders of the Redut PMC visited Syria after the start of the war in Ukraine to hold “tough negotiations.” Those were set to happen in Damascus with the local Al-Maham security company, owned by Syrian businessman Hussam Qaterji, CEO of the Qaterji Company.  

From that very audio recording it follows that the Syrian company, providing security services to the Russians at the oil and gas fields — “after four years of free services” — has demanded from Moscow at least to start paying for its work. This episode, along with other scandals surrounding the presence of Russian PMCs in Syria and other countries, clearly demonstrates the vulnerability of the usual backroom deals for the Russian foreign policy.

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