Sunday, January 21, 2018

Expansion of Russia’s Private Militaries Could Free Kremlin’s Hand for More Interventions Abroad

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 21 – Many analysts have pointed out that governments which have professional armies rather than draft-based ones are typically less constrained in the use of force abroad than those that do because regimes have to worry about the kind of losses than can reduce the willingness of its people to serve in the military.

Some fear that if as expected Moscow adopts a law allowing private military companies, the same thing will prove true for the Kremlin because, Irek Murtazin of Novaya gazeta says,  “the legalization of private military companies will free the state from responsibility for the loss of its citizens abroad” (

But he points out that Moscow has more immediate concerns: In Russia today, private military companies are illegal. Those that do exist operate outside the law domestically as well as internationally, and that has set up intense bureaucratic fights between the defense ministry and the FSB.

Conflicts between those two powerful agencies killed an effort to legalize such companies in 2014, when “the Duma rejected the draft of a law ‘Concerning Military-Security Companies.” Now, however, the Russian government is trying again. There is a draft law on the table, and on Tuesday it is slated to be sent for expert evaluation.

Because there is no legal framework for such organizations to operate, those functioning abroad “remain in a semi-legal position, and over their fighters constantly hangs the sword of Damocles” of being charged with a crime.  As of October 2013, Murtazin says, 267 Russians were serving time for violating the law against mercenaries.

The issue has come up again because the Vagner Private Military Company sent “several thousand” of its employees to fight in Syria. They were nominally financed by Euro Police, a company controlled by St. Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is known as “the cook.”

Vagner units there were supplied with guns and ammunition by the defense ministry which also imposed command on some but perhaps not all of the company’s people. After Putin invited its leaders to the Kremlin without clearing that with the defense ministry, relations between Vagner and the MOD deteriorated sharply. 

Unlike the 2014 draft, the proposed new law puts the defense ministry rather than the FSB in charge of the private military companies, something the former is undoubtedly pleased about while the latter is certainly less so.  But given the shadowy nature of such operations abroad, the FSB will likely still play a major role.

Some observers, Murtazin suggests in his article, don’t think that the new law is about conflicts at all but rather about money, about allowing Russian private military companies to hire themselves out to firms which need to be protected abroad.  That such an interest exists is certain; that it is the only one is unlikely.

The Novaya gazeta commentator suggests that the new draft may be opposed by those it is supposed to benefit: the private military companies themselves. They may prefer, he says, to remain in the shadows where they can operate with fewer constraints and controls.  That however may be yet another reason for the push now to adopt a law on them.

Only One Russian in 16 Says Moscow’s Growing Role in the World is Putin’s Doing

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 21 – One of the basic premises of most analyses of Russian political life is that Russians are inclined to give Vladimir Putin credit for everything that goes right even if they do not regularly hold him responsible for things that don’t.  But a new poll suggests Russians now make finer distinctions than that.

            A new Public Opinion Foundation survey finds that while 71 percent of Russians questioned believe that the influence of Russia in the world had risen in recent years (four percent say it has fallen and 14 percent unchanged), only six percent ascribe that increase to the work of Vladimir Putin (

            Instead, Russians say, this increase is the result of the country’s military strength (17 percent), a foreign policy based on promoting peace and stability (eight percent) and its assistance to Syria and the struggle against international terrorism (six percent).

            Further, half of the sample – 50 percent – call the world’s attitude toward Russia as poor, with 35 percent saying that it has gotten worse in recent years, while 32 percent say it has gotten better. They suggest that many countries do not correctly understand Russia, and six percent say these states should improve their ties with Russia because of the authority and activity of Putin.

            Other findings from this poll: 47 percent say the rest of the world has a distorted view of Russia, while 37 percent disagree; 60 percent believe that the rest of the world views Russia as rich country, while 26 percent say it views Russia as a poor one; and 58 percent say the world views Russia as a free country while 28 percent say it thinks Russia is unfree.

            Three out of four Russians (74 percent) say that the rest of the world respects Russia while 16 percent say that it doesn’t. Eighty-four percent say the world fears Russia but nine percent says it doesn’t. As for the fear others have of Russia, 74 percent say this is a good thing while 13 percent say it is a bad one.

In Putin, Russians Thought They Were Getting a Stierlitz But They May Have Gotten a Hitler Instead, Eidman Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 21 – At the end of the Yeltsin era, Russians told pollsters that they considered Stierlitz the best candidate among movie heroes for the position of president of the country,” a view that makes perfect sense and helps to explain why Vladimir Putin who appeared to be a real-life Stierlitz won support so easily, Igor Eidman says.

            Max Otto von Stierlitz, of course, is the Russian counterpart to James Bond, a character in both a series of popular novels by Yulian Semenov and the blockbuster television series Seventeen Moments of Spring who as a Soviet intelligence officer worked to destroy the Nazi regime from the inside.

            According to Eidman, a commentator for Deutsche Welle, “residents of Russia traditionally view their ruling elite as an alien and hostile force. It is easily associated in their minds with the Nazi bosses from Seventeen Moments of Spring,”  people who can’t be defeated head on (
                Such regimes, Nazi or their own, “can be destroyed only from within with the help of cleverness and insidious actions.” That is just what Stierlitz did, and in 1999-2000, many Russians viewed Putin as his real life incarnation, as someone who with a similar apart could destroy “the ruling oligarchate” and its institutions.

            That was in fact, Eidman says, the secret of his amazingly rapid ascent to power.  But 18 years on, the oligarchs are still around, getting fatter and even multiplying.  The population is getting tired of waiting, and the Russian commentator suggests that “soon the limits of its waiting may be exhausted.”

            Russians are “beginning to doubt: is Putin really Stierlitz,, our agent in the rear of the enemy? Or is he the number one oligarch and thus an enemy, the guarantor of the power of the criminal hierarchy.” And if that is the case, Eidman continues, is he not the Stierlitz they wanted but rather the Hitler that they didn’t.

            When that feeling becomes widespread and crystallizes, he suggests, Russians will begin to look for someone “who can destroy the system not from the inside but from the outside, head on” – someone like Marshal Zhukov in the Soviet past or perhaps even Aleksey Navalny in Russia in the near future.