The army of the wild geese

Why it's better for Russia to conduct foreign military operations illegally. 
Origin source
They have dozens of definitions: "wild geese", "soldiers of fortune", "polite people" finally "ihtamnety" (Rus., "they-are-not-there"). Their history has been unfolding in our country since the time of Ivan the Terrible: it is no coincidence that the autocrat sent not an official army, but a private team of Ermak Timofeevich, the ancestor of our contemporary Wagner, to conquer Siberia. Someone is trying to call them mercenaries and put the "ihtamnetov" into the Procrustean bed of the law, saying they are mere gangsters. But would the authorities agree?

The surname of Ermak Timofeevich who put Siberia at the feet of the Russian czar, has never been known. However, the famous Wagner, who fought with his "Slavic Corps" in Syria, then participated in the "Crimean Spring" and helped the militia of Donbass, not so long ago revealed himself by arriving at the Kremlin reception in honor of the heroes of the Fatherland Day. So his name, Dmitry Utkin, became known. We must pay tribute to the leadership of the Russian government: by chance the heroes (and that they are heroes, there's no doubt: Full Cavaliers of the Order of Courage and Heroes of Russia) were finally "legalized" by the photo session with the president in the Kremlin interiors. It seems that now all questions must disappear. Photos with Vladimir Putin may be the final recognition of their undoubted merits. However, accusations followed immediately: the Kremlin approved of the mercenaries! And so as soon as possible the State Duma should adopt a law on private military companies. Formally a "man with gun" when acting outside the legal framework is a bandit and murderer. Mercenary. End of story.

If there's law, there's the responsibility. But what for?

Under Russian law, the mercenary activities are a criminal offense according to Article 359 of the Criminal Code. And then there is Article 208: the organization of an illegal armed formation. At the same time, the liberals suggest that if the deputies adopt a law on private military companies (PMCs), thereby legalizing Wagner and others like him, it will be a different matter. Who wishes to do some fighting in the Donbas might in due order get their "license to kill". There lies a trap: if the PMCs to fit into the Procrustean bed of the law, their existence will no longer make any sense. In fact, the "soldiers of fortune" will turn into the ordinary military, and the fine line that allows them to do what the military can't, will evaporate by itself. This subtlety, it seems, is not clear for politicians like Gennady Nosovko, a pioneer of this initiative, stubbornly advocating the enactment of the law PMCs. "We want the best, we want our children to not be perceived as mercenaries fighting outside the law!"

The British created over a hundred of successful military companies, but still have no such law, and is not, although the British parliamentarians have been discussing it for half a century.
However, what says the international law? Article 47 (2) of the first additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions dated 12 August 1949 defines a mercenary as a person who "participated in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain." And if a man is fighting for an idea, is he, in fact, a mercenary? There is another subtlety: "According to international law and national legislation, PMCs can not take part in hostilities as part of the regular armed forces," said the director of the independent research fund Institute for security and sustainable development, Viktor Ananiev. "But they have the right to use weapons in the provision of military services, as stipulated in the contract with the customer, for self-defense and security of the facilities, equipment and people."


Both the Americans and the British are bogged down in such chicanery. The British, as mentioned above, still have no such law, and why would they need it, if its adoption would only prune "wild geese" wings? "Not by chance at the domestic level PMCs  are legally regulated only in some countries, and even there rather loosely," said Victor Ananiev. "In most cases PMCs operate exclusively within the framework of corporate codes of conduct, compliance with which is required by the company in the provision of military services, but not the law."

Sergey Kanchukov,  reserve Major General, GRU veteran:
- Everything written by the Russian media about private military companies, is often idle speculation. I suspect that there's no accurate data on this subject even in the Ministry of Defence. Here is an example: recently, there was an information leak that the Russian PMC only in the Syrian province of Latakia could have up to 20 thousand people.. Some experts rebelled: it is impossible, they say, to hire that number of soldiers in Russia! However, my analysis shows that it is entirely possible and, in fact, can be many times more. Much depends on the approach to this issue primarily by the government. Today, we have barely begun to discuss the issue of the expediency of having PMCs. There is no law regulating the activities of PMCs, not enough understanding of how everything shall be controlled, financed, etc. Do we need a law on PMCs? More practical would be to initially establish at least some control of the Ministry of Defense over the PMCs, I believe.

International organizations are not satisfied with such solutions, and they are trying to reverse the situation, but so far without much success. For example, in 2005 the UN Commission on Human Rights established a working group on the use of military mercenaries, and by the summer of 2009, the group had created a kind of project of an international convention on the control, supervision and monitoring of private military and security companies. In theory, this paper established some standards for regulating the activities of PMCs and their personnel, as well as in the formation of an international oversight mechanism. But so far the project has been shoved under the carpet: it just was not needed for anyone, at least of all by Washington and London. And today, summarizes Victor Ananiev, neither at the national nor at the international level, "there is no legal mechanism to monitor the activities of PMCs." So our "ihtamnety" technically not violate any laws. And it means, they cannot be punished for anything. At least, for now.

Nevertheless, the State Duma deputies are not appeased, and in the near future promise to push through a law on the PMC. Although, as experts note, the MPs, in general, have little influence. "Approval of such a law should be of an obvious interest for the security forces, which ambiguously perceive the prospect of its adoption," explains the expert of the Strategic Conjuncture Center, Vladimir Neyolov. "But in 2012 - when the law first began began to be discussed on the initiative of the Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin - there has been no special progress. And the government does not, quite frankly, insist on its adoption."

"It can be assumed that at this stage the use of such tools of conducting hybrid wars as PMCs, is more useful within the indeterminate status, rather than full-fledged mode of legal regulation of activity," suggests the director of the Center for Military and Political Journalism, Boris Rozhin. "And it is not known how the story of the "deanonimization" of Utkin-Wagner will affect the adoption of the law on the PMCs."

By the way, Wagner-Utkin and his group are not perceived by the Russian professionals from PMC as their colleagues. For example, Oleg Krinitsyn, who heads one of the most famous Russian PMCs, RSB-Group, explains: "Wagner's PMC is not a private military company, but a paramilitary organization without official status. And no standards and unwritten laws of PMCs are applicable to them." Meanwhile, it does not prevent Wagner's to perform the most delicate tasks in Syria and Ukraine. But the same RSB Group cannot be given a task in the Donbass: the professionals are afraid of losing their foreign contracts. At the same time, RBC Agency says that behind the scenes, Wagner Group is supervised by the GRU, which is unimaginable for RSB or Morgan Security. However, this may be a coincidence: the Wagner's base is located in the Krasnodar region on the Molkino farm literally side by side with a separate brigade of GRU. Just neighbors?

The growing use of mercenaries can be explained by the fact that their potential death will not cause any court processes, media reaction or social unrest.
"Paramilitary organization without legal status" is easy and simple to use in any environment. In late December, the Western media published photos of the Lebanese "Hezbollah" fighters, examining the battlefield in Aleppo. A closer look at camouflage of the "Lebanese" revealed stripes with inscriptions in pure Russian: "Bad", "Roger", etc. And on the sleeves there were recognizable chevrons of the "polite people" with machine gunners, stroking a cat. However, the Americans act in a similar manner, using a disguise of the Kurdish militia. And since we are talking about the Americans, a year ago, the US Air Force signed contracts with 15 PMCs to carry out "operations to combat global threats to national security" in the United States and abroad. The total amount of contracts is 975 million dollars. Term contracts expire in January 2025. And there's no legal framework for it is under discussion. At the same time the Americans have almost the most equipped and efficient army in the world, spending hundreds of billions of dollars on it, so why do they need the PMCs?

The fact that the war in Vietnam revealed a certain negative dependence: as soon as the soldiers begin to die en masse at some distant war, the people no longer trust the authorities. Russia has its own example: Afghanistan. While victims were comparatively few, the people kept silent. But as soon as the number of the victims reached thousands, the situation changed fundamentally. The Americans, it must be admitted, made proper conclusions first, beginning to engage not soldiers and officers, but the "wild geese" in the bloodiest conflicts. Who would be there to count how many of them were killed, and in general, how many of them flocked to the next hot spot? The military, however, would be calculated by their own bosses and meticulous human rights defenders.

"The loss of officers and soldiers in external operations will always be painfully perceived by public opinion which believes in the possibility of war without dead," writes in Politico Mr. Walter Bruyere-Ostels, researcher at the Sorbonne and one of the most influential French military experts. Relatives of dead soldiers file lawsuits against the government and win fabulous compensations, while nothing has been demanded for the death of a "wild goose" so far. Isn't that state of affairs beneficial to the state? "The growing use of mercenaries can be explained by the fact that their potential death will not cause any court processes, media reaction or social unrest." In addition, the use of PMCs is much cheaper than the army. "History shows that to solve the problems abroad it is easier to use volunteers rather than the military," Oleg Krinitsyn agrees with the French expert. "They can, if anything, be always disowned".

And there are some interesting things the French expert told about the legislative framework of mercenaries: it appears that in France, just as in Russia, there are laws for punishing mercenary activities. However, as Walter-Ostels Bruyere, noted, "they are used rather selectively", just as we have in Russia. For example, before Paris obliged the French shipowners to hire marines for protection against the pirates. If you want to be safe, recruit the military. But in 2014, they were allowed to use the PMCs instead of the military, though part of the French believe them to be "bandits and murderers." Doesn't it remind of something?

Homeless warriors

Probably it is still necessary to regulate the activities of private military companies somehow, but that doesn't actually mean a "civil" law. It can be done as in the United States. Over the ocean, the "wild goose" are traditionally under the control of Pentagon, namely the Central Command (USCENTCOM). At the same time, the Central Command counts its "soldiers of fortune" around the world. This is a relatively recent data: there are 43 781 "wild goose" operating worldwide and 17 564 of them are Americans. There's no separate count for the Russians, but together with other citizens of the CIS countries there are about 15 thousand people.

By the way, they say that the Russian "ihtamnety" soon will appear in Libya: at least, the rumors about the military support of the Libyan National Army of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar by the Russians have been circulating for about a month.


There is a suspicion that the law on private military companies is lobbied by large Russian corporations in their own interests: the owners of many of them probably would like to get their own armies. However, as practice shows, those who wanted to create such armies have created them without waiting for the adoption of legislative base. For example, there is a Lukom-A department of LUKOIL. It showed up in Iraq  : its fighters are usually veterans of special services, in particular the famous Vympel, engaged in the protection of deposits and pipelines, delivery of goods and the escort.

Rumor has it that the enactment of the law on PMCs is profitable for those who would like doing this difficult business without an unnecessary contact with the security forces. It is known that the security forces today control almost all the issues related to the functioning of the PMCs. But if it is adopted by the relevant law, the effect of private military entities will determined by the legislation, and not interested members of the Interior Ministry, FSB, etc. Today, the vast majority of PMCs has "curators" in the power structures. For E.N.O.T. Corp and PMC MAR it is, presumably, the FSB, "Antiterror-Orel" and "RSB Group" are possibly supervised by the GRU, and the "Redoubt-Antiterror" is likely to have high patrons in the Ministry of Defense.