The status of PMCs is in the news again, but intra-elite competition prevents legalisation

20 July 2023: What are the obstacles to Russia legalising PMCs?


Proposals to legalise private military companies (PMCs) in Russia frequently appear in the news, and the issue has come up again this week. This raises the question of what is stopping the Kremlin from resolving PMC’s ambiguous legal status. The most plausible answer appears to be intra-elite competition and the difficulties of deciding who gets to control a valuable resource stream.

Wagner, owned by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, has built a prominent public profile in recent years, and it is undoubtedly the best known of the Russian PMCs. Some of the recent developments around the group have related to efforts to provide it with a more solid legal foundation. For example, a legal entity by the name of “PMC Wagner” was registered with the Russian Unified State Registry, and a PMC Wagner Centre opened in St Petersburg (see the 26 January edition of this newsletter). Nevertheless, PMCs, unlike private security companies remain illegal in Russia. Proposals emerge on a regular basis to resolve the paradox of organisations that simultaneously do and do not exist by regularising the legal status of PMCs in Russia. Just Russia leader Sergey Mironov, for example, has advocated legalisation and generally championed Wagner in the public domain (again, see the 26 January edition).


The Kremlin has frequently alluded to its willingness to consider legalising PMCs. Just this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed with business daily Kommersant his three-hour meeting with Wagner commanders, which was first reported on 10 July but actually took place on 29 June. When asked whether Wagner would be maintained as a single military entity, Putin responded that “Wagner does not exist. We do not have a law about private military organisations.” He went on to clarify that “there is [such a] group, but legally it does not exist,” and that legalisation was “not an easy question” but should be discussed by the State Duma (1). The following day, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitriy Peskov, said that “the question of the legal status of such companies is a sufficiently complicated one that should be studied.” He shied away from promising legislative changes, but said “at least this question will be considered” (2).


What, then, are the obstacles to legalisation? Official protestations of the legal complexity of the matter notwithstanding, the main ones appear to be political, rather than legal. Of these, intra-elite competition stands out as the most persuasive. The Federal Security Service (FSB), the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU), and the Foreign Ministry all notionally compete for control over PMCs (5) — though the Foreign Ministry has the weakest hand in this particular game. No group appears willing to cede control — and the considerable access to resources that it brings with it (see the 6 July edition of this newsletter) — to another. This intra-elite competition has previously had a direct impact on the battlefield. In a notorious incident in Deir al-Zor, Syria, US forces carried out a strike on Wagner troops that were attacking its Kurdish allies. The Russian military appeared to have had ample opportunity to intervene, but declined to do so — giving rise to suspicions that the military command wanted to punish a group linked at the time to a different section of the elite (6). A lack of legal foundation also creates levers for controlling the PMCs themselves (4), since criminal violations can readily be found to discipline those actors that step out of line.


Other oft-mentioned motives for employing PMCs are possible but less persuasive. PMCs offer a degree of plausible deniability, allowing Russia to reduce the visibility of its foreign commitments, minimise political and reputational costs when things go awry, and avoid hostile domestic reactions at home to Russian casualties (3). Even where the plausible part of plausible deniability is tenuous, Russia’s refusal to provide PMCs with a legal foundation in domestic law provides a useful cover for this argument (4). Nevertheless, this explanation has limits: The Russian state could maintain the same level of plausible deniability by citing their separate corporate identity even if they were legal.

Other stories of interest
  • BBC Russian Service published an interview with a low-ranking Wagner commander, who highlights the confusion and lack of clear goals during the 24 June ‘mutiny’ (7).
  • A court has sentenced a Dagestani man to five and a half years in prison for participating in the Islamic State and providing money to its members (8).
  • RTVI claims that companies linked to Prigozhin received contracts worth more than a billion rubles even after the 24 June mutiny (9).
  • The Russian Ministry of Defence has reported that more than 2,000 pieces of military equipment, 2,500 tonnes of ammunition, and 20,000 firearms have been transferred to its control from Wagner (10).
  • The Central District Military Court has sentenced three Ufa residents to 11, 12, and 16 years in prison for membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir (11).
  • The Belarusian Ministry of Defence has reported that Wagner fighters have now arrived in the country and are training Belarusian military personnel. Wagner were offered sanctuary in the country after the 24 June mutiny (12).
  • Telegram channels report that Wagner will close its base near Molkino, Krasnodar Kray, and that some fighters from the group are continuing to relocate to Belarus (13).
  • Human rights organisation Memorial reports that the security services in Dagestan continue to maintain lists of suspected extremists despite official claims to the contrary (14).
  • Police have detained a 25-year-old Kyrgyzstan citizen on suspicion of murdering two Wagner fighters in Voronezh Oblast. The suspect was also reportedly a Wagner member and killed the men for refusing to participate in the 24 June mutiny (15).
Source list

1. Kommersant. 13 July 2023. Путин рассказал «Ъ» подробности встречи с бойцами ЧВК «Вагнер».

2. Interfax. 14 July 2023. Песков не исключил законодательного решения вопроса с ЧВК.

3. Eugenio Cusumano and Christopher Kinsey. 2022. 'Advancing private security studies: introduction to the special issue.' Small Wars & Insurgencies 33 (1-2): 1-21.

4. Åse Gilje Østensen and Tor Bukkvoll. 2022. 'Private military companies – Russian great power politics on the cheap?' Small Wars & Insurgencies 33 (1-2): 130-151.

5. Åse Gilje Østensen and Tor Bukkvoll. 2018. 'Russian Use of Private Military and Security Companies — The Implications for European and Norwegian Security.' FFI-Rapport 18/01300, Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.

6. Kimberly Marten. 2019. 'Russia’s use of semi-state security forces: the case of the Wagner Group.' Post-Soviet Affairs 35 (3): 181-204. 

7. BBC Russian Service. 11 July 2023. «Мы из телеграма всё узнавали, как и вы». Командир ЧВК «Вагнер» рассказывает, как для них прошел мятеж и что будет с наемниками дальше.

8. Caucasian Knot. 12 July 2023. Житель Дагестана осужден за финансирование терроризма.

9. RTVI. 12 July 2023. Компании Пригожина после военного мятежа заключили контракты на поставку питания на миллиард рублей.

10. Meduza. 12 July 2023. Минобороны РФ объявило, что получило всю военную технику и боеприпасы ЧВК Вагнера.

11. Nastoyashcheye Vremya. 13 July 2023. Суд в Екатеринбурге назначил трем фигурантам дела "Хизб ут-Тахрир" до 16 лет колонии строгого режима.

12. Nastoyashcheye Vremya. 14 July 2023. Минобороны Беларуси сообщило о прибытии в страну наемников ЧВК "Вагнер": они инструктируют белорусских военных.

13. Nastoyashcheye Vremya. 17 July 2023. ЧВК "Вагнер" закрывает свою военную базу в Краснодарском крае. Подразделения вагнеровцев продолжают перемещаться в Беларусь.

14. Kavkaz Realii. 17 July 2023. Силовики в Дагестане стали практиковать новые способы профучета – "Мемориал".

15. Meduza. 18 July 2023. Наемника ЧВК Вагнера задержали по подозрению в убийстве двух сослуживцев. Он заявил, что те отказывались участвовать в мятеже Пригожина.

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