Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Kremlin Talks about ‘Mercenaries’ to Keep Russians from Focusing on Syrian Losses and Others from Focusing on Real Role of Russian Army, Pastukhov Says

Paul Goble

            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 (

            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.”

A Caste of Those Beyond the Reach of Law Arising in Russia, ‘Voyennoye Obozreniye’ Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 28 – Russians have long accepted that their supreme leader must be beyond the reach of the legal system or even criticism, Roman Skomorokhov says; but they now face the rise of a larger group of people at the top of the Russian political pyramid who want to enjoy the same “untouchable” status.

            The Voyennoye obozreniye commentator notes that deputies in the Duma have long been taking steps to put themselves in this position and that officers of the security services are also trying to put themselves beyond the reach of the law or at least soften its application to them (

            In recent months, Skomorokhov says, there have been “dozens of cases across the country” in which officers of the FSB and other security agencies have either avoided charges, been able to bring them against their accusers and escaping justice, or being let off with a slap on the wrist for crimes that would bring what the Russians call “real jail time.”

All this recalls, the Voyennoye obozreniye commentator says, the tsarist system when those in the upper strata (sosloviya) were judged by entirely different legal codes than those applied to the overwhelming majority of the population in the lower ones. Russia isn’t in 1937 people like to say. No, it is something even more archaic, Skomorokhov says

It is too bad in fact that this is not 1937, he continues. Then no one was beyond being charged. “Anyone could be taken.”  But now, that isn’t the case: The new tsar is above the law of course, but he has apparently decided to allow those who are his immediate servants to enjoys some of the benefits he does to ensure their loyalty.

That leads to two questions, Skomorokhov says. How many people will be given such an above the law status? And how long will everyone else be willing to put up with this?   Russian history suggests there are few limits on the former but quite severe ones as far as the latter is concerned.

“People say that we have another six years of stability ahead of us,” the commentator for the influential military affairs portal says.  “We will see for whom” there will be stability and for whom there won’t be.

From Polonium to Urine to Cocaine – the Changing Face of Russia’s Security State

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 28 – “Each nation chooses for itself its own epithet,” the poet said; but more often than not, it doesn’t always get to do that but instead has one selected for it as a result of its own actions – and quite often the epithet that sticks to it longest is one that is anything but flattering and that its people and government would be pleased to dispense with.

            That is what has been happening with Russia, Igor Yakovenko says. “If Russia’s FSB earlier was associated with polonium” its officers used to kill a Kremlin opponent  “and more recently almost exclusively with urine” used to hide Moscow’s massive doping effort, “now when the Russian foreign ministry is mentioned, only one association comes to mind – cocaine” (

            Russian officials both at the foreign ministry and the Presidential Administration have done what they do best – lying and shifting the blame from one place to another – in an effort to quiet the scandal about the attempted shipment of 389 kilograms of cocaine via diplomatic post from Argentina to Moscow, the Russian commentator says.

            But the Russian officials ran into an enemy they haven’t been able to defeat: Argentina has a free press and officials who don’t feel the need to lie to conform to what the Russian leadership wants, all the latter’s complaints about “fake news” notwithstanding.  Moscow’s statements collapsed in the face of pictures and reports in both.

            (The Russian authorities were able to close down Russian sites that reported too much and too accurately about what the Russian diplomats and officials had been doing: the RussianPlanes portal was shuttered after it posted a picture of “the Russian ‘cocaine’ plane in Argentina.)

            It may very well be that the world will soon look away from this scandal as other ones appear; but cocaine is the kind of thing, like radioactive polonium and contaminated urine, that is just too hard for many to forget; and so Russia may retain this new epithet for a long time to come.