Ukraine war: Ukraine war: Kremlin attempt to control private militaries like Wagner Group fails to address rivalry between factions

One of the most notable features of Russia’s war in Ukraine has been Moscow’s increasing reliance on what are known as private military companies. Forces such as the Wagner Group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin have borne the brunt of much of the fiercest fighting, especially during the bloody battle for Bakhmut.

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In June 2023, the ministry of defence – apparently with the backing of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin – announced it would bring these irregular forces and militias under its direct control.

At a recent press conference, deputy defence minister Nikolai Pankov extolled the virtues of serving in “volunteer formations and organisations”. He claimed that there had been a significant increase in citizens who wanted to “defend the motherland” in these groups and set out details of how to sign up.

The announcement was seen as an indication of Russia’s desperate need for manpower and the Kremlin’s desire to avoid full-scale mobilisation of the population.

It was also taken as further evidence of the animosity between Prigozhin and defence minister, Sergei Shoigu. Prigozhin flatly refused to sign a contract, but the Akhmat group of Chechen forces became one of the first to sign up.

Pankov’s announcement is significant. It wasn’t until Putin signed changes to defence regulations in November 2022 that the inclusion of “volunteer formations” was legalised for the first time.

Changing the law

Previously, Article 13 of the constitution of the Russian Federation had explicitly banned “the creation and activities of public associations, the goals and actions of which are aimed at creating armed formations”.

Article 71 of the constitution also states that issues of defence and security, war and peace, foreign policy,and international relations are the prerogative of the state, and therefore private companies cannot be involved.

The criminal code also identifies mercenary activity as a crime, including the “recruitment, financing or other material support of a mercenary” as well as the use or participation of mercenaries in armed conflict.

Putin’s amendments to the Law on Defence appear to change this. The amendments were implemented by Shoigu’s order of 15 February 2023, which set out the procedure for providing volunteer formations with weapons, military equipment and logistics as well as setting out conditions of service.

There have been signs of increasing prominence and acceptance of private forces within Russia. In April 2023, the deputy governor of Novosibirsk announced that employees of private military companies would be able to use the rehabilitation certificate issued to state military veterans of the Ukraine war to access a range of services.

There have also been reports in the Russian media that Wagner recruitment centres have opened in 42 cities across the country (the Wagner Group notoriously recruited heavily from Russian prisons.

There are a range of irregular forces operating in Ukraine, including Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen forces, the Kadyrovtsy, which officially come under the command of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya), alongside private forces such as Wagner, Redut, Patriot and Potok.

These volunteer formations offer a more flexible force than conventional military forces which operate under a notoriously rigid chain of command.

They also provide a convenient “cut-out” for the Russian state: private groups and individuals bear the human, financial and political costs that would otherwise be borne by the government. And the Kremlin can fudge the list of official military casualties, otherwise a source of considerable public anxiety directed at the government and its leader.

A force at war with itself

But the increasing visibility of these groups in Ukraine and the public infighting between the ministry of defence and the groups’ leadership is a reminder of the system of patronage and fealty that characterises political culture in today’s Russia.

Turf wars are common, as rivals compete for resources, influence and, of course, the ear of Vladimir Putin himself. You only have to look at the insults hurled at each other by Prigozhin and Shoigu.

Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin in military buniform making a 'v' sign.
Fighting talk: Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, has openly criticised Russia’s military leadership for its conduct of the war.
Press service of Prigozhin/ Credit: UPI/Alamy Live News

Prigozhin has been very vocal in his criticism of Shoigu and the Russian generals running the war, frequently accusing them of incompetence and corruption. The long-running acrimony between the pair reportedly stems from the defence minister cutting off Prigozhin’s access to profitable defence contracts.

This rivalry serves Putin’s interests to a certain extent. As long as any potential challengers are busy fighting each other, they pose little threat to his position. But it also hinders the country’s combat effectiveness as the fragmentation of forces makes command and control difficult, and means there is little unity of effort.

The move by the Russian defence ministry to bring “volunteer formations” under its control must be understood against this backdrop of fragmentation and in-fighting, as well as the ongoing conscription round. The current conscription window, which opened on April 1, closes on July 15, has a stated goal of recruiting 147,000 soldiers.

The Kremlin is keen to avoid full-scale mobilisation and has been exploring all options to sustain its war in Ukraine. Taking control of private forces may allow Putin to put off full-scale mobilisation for a little longer.

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