What Russia Gets About Warfare That the West Does Not

by Ruslan Trad

In 2018, three Russian investigative journalists were killed in the Central African Republic (CAR). The same year, dozens of fighters died in an exchange of fire in the desert regions of eastern Syria, and a Russian journalist was found dead –officially ruled as having fallen from his balcony in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Although these events appear unrelated, they all have one thing in common: Russian mercenaries. These events are significant among researchers because they confirm a new model for warfare in the twenty-first century, as well as the return of so-called invisible armies, as mercenary groups are also known. The main actor behind this change is the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin.

The ongoing conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and CAR show that we require a new understanding of the terminology that currently constitutes international law and conventional warfare. As some authors have rightly criticized, the West and its military strategists still live in the post-World War II era and see war as an act between two legitimate state powers. However, army-to-army battles are a thing of the past; warfare has changed and is changing faster than before. The Wagner mercenaries, which have become the most notorious group among the Russian private companies (PMCs) have been fighting in Syria on the side of the Bashar al-Assad regime and in eastern Ukraine on the side of pro-Russian separatists since 2014. They can also be found in Sudan, CAR, and Venezuela, countries the Kremlin considers to be partners. Mercenaries receive contracts and other financial benefits in exchange for political loyalty and support for state-sponsored adventures abroad. They allow states to commit war crimes, and other internationally unacceptable activities through private military organizations that can reduce the official casualty count and costs of Russian intervention. The best thing is that they officially do not exist.

Once deployed, mercenaries can invade, capture and exploit natural resources with deniability for the benefit of their Russian employers, who are oligarchs close to Putin and the security apparatus in Moscow. Over the last three years, my colleague Kiril Avramov and I have been tracking the evolution of the Russian mercenary model. The articles we wrote in that period, which became the basis for an upcoming book, confirmed our fears that mercenaries in today’s Russia are deeply connected to the state and are part of “a package of services,” so to speak. This package of services is part of Russia’s current  foreign policy strategy to expand its areas of influence and gain access to important resources, which is especially important for its economy due to international sanctions.

Deniability has also become a central aspect of warfare. In 2014, when Russians tested mercenary groups in Ukraine, this drew little global attention, and Moscow officials denied that they were using such groups, which are illegal in Russia. In Syria, international attention increased, and by the time mercenaries were deployed in Libya and sub-Saharan Africa, Russia could no longer deny their existence. The conflicts in Ukraine and Syria demonstrated how warfare had transformed, and Russia appeared to be more adaptive to the reality that waging conventional war was neither economically viable nor politically acceptable.

Sending mercenaries and semi-official fighters to Syria and Ukraine with unmarked uniforms creates the possibility of manageable chaos and a state of denial until Western strategists realize what is happening. Russia is also doing the same in its military adventures in Africa. As the West continues to repeat Cold War mantras, the Russians have long understood that they can wage war without a declared war. Paradoxically, in the Information Age, you don’t need hi-tech armies or aircraft carriers to win battles or spread influence when you can pay hi-tech militias in conflicts where the line between war and peace has been blurred. Some adapt to the new rules of war and others do not. The latter usually lose.

The decline of Western influence around the globe now allows regional powers to get away with behavior that the great powers would have prevented only a decade ago. Russia understands well that because of weak international leadership, it can play outside the rules and use every possible means to limit its rivals, even if it means working with criminal groups.

The current strategy of flooding social media with disinformation, conspiracy theories, and hate speech was first developed in Russia, and is very successful thanks to the lazy, apathetic, and delayed response by governments and technology giants, and other actors.

These new conflict trends, where the use of mercenaries has become more visible and frequent compared to the last two decades, raises the question of what war is today and what it is not. it also raises questions about how international law must change in order to be adequate for the twenty-first century. Russia understands that mercenaries and hybrid warfare can go hand in hand with soft power. In Syria, while Russian commanders deploy Wagner mercenaries, Russian foundations send humanitarian aid and influence Syrian youth. At the same time, the Kremlin is organizing a large-scale media campaign to justify its military interventions and influence democratic societies. The same strategy packet has been implemented everywhere Russia has interests.

It is no coincidence that Putin is finding more friends in Europe. Russia supports its allies from Armenia to Venezuela and fills the vacuum left by an uncertain U.S. and Western policies. What the West needs now is leadership capable of flexible strategies, and confident steps and the understanding that the world is so connected that a conflict or crisis in the Middle East, Africa, or Southeast Asia affects the security, and especially the strategic interests, of all. “Attack and deny after”— Russia understands this new rule of war well and the West must find a way to respond adequately.

This piece was republished from The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

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