Arguably, some of the best work on the topic was produced by Norwegian researchers Åse Gilje Østensen and Tor Bukkvoll, well before PMCs became the hot topic they are today. My first two recommendations are authored by them. Their 2020 paper The Emergence of Russian Private Military Companies: A New Tool of Clandestine Warfare provides a thorough overview of the landscape and issues surrounding Russian PMCs. The second paper — Private military companies – Russian great power politics on the cheap? — was published in 2022, covers some of the same ground, but focuses more on the rationale behind the Russian state using them. If you only read two papers on the topic, then you could do worse than picking these two.
Much better known in Western policy circles is the work of Kimberley Marten — another scholar whose research precedes the contemporary media circus around the topic. Her 2019 paper Russia’s use of semi-state security forces: the case of the Wagner Group focuses (as the title suggests!) more specifically on Wagner. It is a little bit more descriptive than the work of Østensen and Bukkvoll, but no less worth your time as a result, and goes into depth on Wagner operations up to that point in Nigeria, Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Her 2018 article The Puzzle of Russian Behavior in Deir Al-Zour for War on the Rocks is also valuable for shedding light on how PMCs and formal parts of the Russian state do not exactly work in perfect harmony all the time.
Another article to consider the question of Russia’s motivations is the 2019 Carnegie publication Mercenaries: Patronage, Geopolitics, and the Wagner Group. I’m not entirely persuaded by the anti-comparison with Western PMCs — which are much more closely linked to Western states than the article implies — but there are plenty of valuable points that warrant consideration in the article.
A more recent publication is one that I’ve featured previously in this newsletter (see the 23 February 2023 edition of Threatologist Eurasia): A 2023 report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime entitled The grey zone: Russia's military, mercenary and criminal engagement in Africa. This is, again, entirely focused on Wagner, and conceptually blurs the lines between PMCs and other parts of the business and media empire run by its owner, Yevgeniy Prigozhin. Nevertheless, it provides a solid overview of Wagner operations across the continent, including shedding light on some lesser-covered areas of activity.
There are more Russian PMCs than Wagner. But there are also non-Russian PMCs operating in Eurasia. Thus, my final recommendation is another War on the Rocks article, this time by Matt Powers, which was published in 2021. Making Sense of Sadat, Turkey’s Private Military Company provides an in-depth look at an important Turkish PMC with links to the Erdoğan government.