Staunton, February 28 – Pro-Kremlin outlets are talking more about private military units than are opposition ones, Vladimir Pastukhov points out, arguing that this reflects the fact that the Kremlin hopes to prevent Russians from drawing parallels between losses in Putin’s war in Syria and those in earlier wars such as Chechnya and Ukraine.
And in addition, the Britain-based Russian historian says, all the regime’s talk about mercenaries is intended to obscure a still more disturbing truth: Units of the Russian military itself suffered a crushing defeat when they went up against the army of the “main enemy,” the United States (bbc.com/russian/blog-pastoukhov-43214176).
The Kremlin’s calculation about how Russians view the losses among “mercenaries” is at least in part justified. Their deaths have not generated much sympathy among Russians or led to comparisons between the Russian losses in Syria and those in earlier conflicts like Chechnya or Ukraine.
As a result, Pastukhov says, “a military defeat unprecedented in modern Russian history in a clash with the ‘main’ foreign opponent has passed so far for the authorities without particular consequences: People are discussing the details, many are arguing about the number of victims, but they are not reflecting about the essence of what happened.”
Pastukhov suggests that in reality “the private military company ‘Vagner’ is a political and media phantom, a myth consciously put out with the goal of concealing a still more unwelcome truth” than talk about seizing oil field for the oligarchs.
And that truth, he says, is that “in essence there were no ‘mercenary’ Vagner soldiers. That is simply how they look today in the era of the hybrid wars of the Russian army. Precisely this army and not some mythical mercenaries suffered a crushing defeat near Deir az-Zor” in Syria.
In the contemporary world and especially in Russia, Pastukhov continues, “the border between military personnel and mercenaries in present-day armies is extremely conditional.” In Russia in particular, there are both draftees and professionals in the military, the latter being paid for their services just as mercenaries are.
What this means, he argues, is that a mercenary is just the same as a contract soldier, with just one difference: the contract soldier reaches an agreement directly with the state while the mercenary does so with a nominally private company than in the case of Russia is simply a front for the state.
Groups can be moved from one category to another as needed, be it in Ukraine or now in Syria where contract troops become regular army units or alternatively regular army units become contractors depending on what the situation requires. If the Kremlin wants to avoid responsibility, it simply labels its troops contractors or in this case mercenaries.
The ease with which the Kremlin makes this shift “is explained by the fact that no mercenaries or private military companies which they recruit exist in reality” in Russia. The government controls them all whatever it may say.
“The unprecedented mystification of the so-called private military company Vagner and the demonization of its supposed protector Prigozhin,” who at the same time was caught up in the scandal of Russian interference in the American elections, may make it more difficult to sort things out; but it does not preclude that.
According to Pastukhov, the available evidence shows that the Vagner company doesn’t exist. It is not an example of outsourcing because “outsourcing presupposes the use of some really existing external resource which the state doesn’t have.” That is not what is going on in this case.
“The state pays, instructs, sends off to the point of service, kills and compensates the heirs of those killed,” he says. “A private military company is needed only to mask the state’s participation.” Therefore, talk about legalizing such entities in Russia is “nonsense” as one can’t legalize something which does not exist.
Those involved in such activities are in reality state employees at one remove; and this is “the very essence of Russian ‘hybrid war,’” be it in the Donbass or in Syria. One can call these groupings “’an army’” only by stretching the truth. They are simply “a convenient myth and successful marketing move.”
What is most unsettling in the current situation has been the willingness of the US to accept the notion that its forces were fighting with Russian mercenaries analogous to private American military companies. Indeed, it appears that “someone in the White House very much wants to help the Kremlin save face” and to avoid confronting the more dangerous reality.”