Thousands of Russian private military contractors are reportedly fighting in Syria, and there are increasing reports about such contractors being killed in action. Despite a Russian ban on the use of mercenaries, Moscow has turned to private military contractors as part of its assertive foreign policy. In an email interview, Michael Kofman, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, discusses Russia’s use of contractors in Syria, and the risks and opportunities they pose for the Kremlin.
WPR: Russia is reportedly using private military contractors in Syria. How do such contractors figure into Russia’s general operational approach, and how does that differ from the way the U.S., for instance, uses military contractors?
Michael Kofman: Russia has expanded its use of private military contractors, or PMCs, in recent years as a relatively inexpensive supplement to local forces on the battlefield, one with minimal political costs. The current preference is to use local forces and proxies followed by PMCs, while employing conventional military power for decisive effect on the battlefield. However, while private security companies are legal in Russia, PMCs are not, and are all typically registered offshore. Therefore, PMCs operate with the consent of the state, in support of its political objectives, but are not legitimate commercial entities in Russia.