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Army of hired guns: How Russia’s 'PMCs' are becoming the main invasion force

by Igor Kossov May 4, 2023 9:56 PM 9 min read
A pedestrian walks past a mural depicting Russia's mercenary force Wagner Group reading: "Wagner Group - Russian knights" on a wall in Belgrade, on Nov. 17, 2022. (Oliver Bunic / AFP via Getty Images)
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Private armies are illegal in Russia, so naturally, Moscow has been using them for decades. Now, it’s making them the main invasion force.  

The rate at which Russia creates new private military company-like units sped up after 2014 but it really took off during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as Moscow needed more manpower to throw into the battle.

More oligarchs and officials are getting involved. After seeing how powerful Wagner Group was allowed to become and after its owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, flew too close to the sun by antagonizing the top brass, the scramble for new “private” formations kicked into high gear.

“We are definitely seeing more figures attached to different irregular arms formations than we ever have seen before,” said Kateryna Stepanenko, a scholar of this subject at the Institute for the Study of War. “Putin… is now fully committed to recruiting irregular forces to avoid calling up mobilization.”

These units serve two purposes. The Kremlin gets needed manpower on the front without having to do another unpopular draft. The unit owners get government contracts, influence, a chance at Putin’s favor, and groups of heavily-armed men at their disposal.  

These groups aren’t true PMCs however, said Vladimir Osechkin, director of Russian watchdog group, who is familiar with Russia’s private military ecosystem.

“These are units that are created by the government and are affiliated with the government,” Osechkin said. They train at state military bases, use state military equipment and are run by state-linked businessmen, who make a margin on their operation, he added.

The effectiveness of this strategy remains to be seen, but many similar units haven’t left a big mark on the war so far, according to the ISW. As they multiply, they’re likely to get in each other’s way with recruitment and on the battlefield. And some may turn out to be even more brutal than the regular forces.

Wagner’s woes

By the time of the full-scale invasion, Prigozhin fed and maintained the entire Russian Armed Forces through his businesses, and his Wagner Group had guaranteed access to unprecedented military resources.

During the invasion, Wagner could also recruit prisoners, whom it would throw at Bakhmut, an embattled city in Donetsk Oblast, by the tens of thousands.

But the simmering resentment between the Russian Defense Ministry and Prigozhin came to a head in December. Prigozhin publicly slammed the Armed Forces for losing parts of Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts and insulted Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov. In an ironic twist, Putin soon put Gerasimov in charge of the war.

Wagner soon lost access to the prisons and despite progress, it still hasn’t captured all of Bakhmut. Since then, Prigozhin’s opponents never stopped working to limit his power, ensuring other units hire mercenaries from the same recruit pool Wagner uses — veterans, nationalists, convicts, and Russian men who desperately need money.

"Russia is likely seeking to sponsor and develop alternative private military companies to eventually replace the Wagner Group PMC in its significant combat role in Ukraine," the U.K. Defense Ministry wrote in one of its intelligence updates.  

Prigozhin himself has said aloud that Wagner’s days may be numbered. He lashed out at the new units, which he called “micro-PMCs.” Wagner and Potok, a new unit guarding its flank, traded public accusations after Potok fighters reportedly abandoned their positions.

Prigozhin told a military blogger on April 29 that he gave Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu an ultimatum — give Wagner more ammunition or the PMC would retreat from the costly territory it captured around Bakhmut.

On April 30, Russian sources circulated an alleged response letter from the Ministry of Defense to Prigozhin Dated April 23, it details the artillery ammunition and equipment that the ministry provides to Wagner, possibly as a way to head off criticism. But Prigozhin claimed those figures are insufficient.

On May 5, Prigozhin showed another video of dead Russian soldiers, lashing out at Russian leadership and blaming their deaths on ammunition shortages. Prigozhin then said that Wagner would leave Bakhmut by May 10 to keep his fighters from dying senseless deaths.

Russia’s key attack force, Wagner Group, embroiled in conflict with regular army
The battle for Bakhmut has revealed a decade-long covert conflict in Russia’s Armed Forces. On one side, there is the regular Russian military. On the other side, Wagner Group, Russia’s most high-profile mercenary outfit. Wagner was founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a confidante of Russian President V…

Units for all

For now, the only other Russian PMC approaching Wagner’s size and experience level is Redoubt. It trains a lot of the PMC-bound troops but it also fights. Two oligarchs, Gennadiy Timchenko and Oleg Deripaska, are financing the company, according to Osechkin and the investigative group Molfar. But others are coming.

Defense Minister Shoigu has a smaller PMC named Patriot that’s been active since 2018 and is currently in Ukraine. In February, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said he wants to found a PMC too when he steps down from public office. It's of note that he already commands the 12,000-strong paramilitary 141st Special Motorized Regiment, also known as Kadyrovtsy, who are known as his personal army and are infamous for their human rights violations.

A grouping called Convoy was formed in recent months, with the close involvement of local Russian-installed politician Sergey Aksyonov. Former Wagner commander Konstantin Pikalov, Prigozhin’s associate, is reportedly in command. According to Molfar, Convoy gets financing from Prigozhin.

Russian state gas company Gazprom has been creating units with special permission from the Russian Prime Minister. Two of these units, Potok (“stream” in Russian) and Alexander Nevsky, are fighting in Ukraine, reportedly under the leadership of Redoubt.

Gazprom also reportedly created two other units, Fakel (“torch”) and Plamya (“flame”), commanded by the Defense Ministry.  

Efforts are underway to forge irregular units out of nationalist or veteran movements like the Union of Donbas Volunteers by Alexander Borodai, who was among Russia’s proxy leaders in the occupied parts of Donetsk Oblast in 2014. Other movements that produce fighters for pay include the Cossack movement, white supremacist groups and even sports clubs.

The Combat Army Reserve of the Country (BARS) that Russia implemented in 2021 has also been creating salaried irregulars. Media oligarch Konstantin Malofeev and Borodai are both closely linked with BARS units and the Union of Donbas Volunteers, as well as Aksyonov, according to the ISW.

“We’re seeing a lot more information pop up about the BARS units being formed into some sort of PMC-like groups as well,” said Stepanenko from the ISW.

A chart created by the investigative organization Molfar shows connections between different units and Russia's various power structures and powerful individuals. (Molfar)

By various accounts, salaries advertised in such units have risen from $2,000 per month to over $4,000 during the span of Russia’s full-scale invasion. The average Russian salary in 2022 was about $700, according to the Russian Statistics Service.

Advertisements for PMCs have exploded across Russia, according to Osechkin from “They go on everything: ads on porn sites, near the metro, banners everywhere.”

The units are hiring everybody they can, not just veterans, experts said. The Defense Ministry is reportedly still trying the prisons, offering cash and freedom for front-line combat.

“With the Kremlin pushing aggressive contract marketing and… given that the volunteer recruitment efforts did not yield the hoped numbers last summer, this is really an employee’s market,” said Kirill Mikhailov, an investigator with the Conflict Intelligence Group.

What they all get

“The Kremlin is worried about the implications to its regime that mobilization can have and currently they seem to be trying to improve their force generation efforts through contract service and PMC recruitment,” Stepanenko said.

Russian leaders also see losing hired guns on the battlefield as less controversial than losing regular soldiers, according to the British Defense Ministry.

Financing comes from different sources, including state companies like Gazprom and pro-war oligarchs like Malofeev. “Oligarchs will give as much money as they’re told,” said Osechkin.  

For the oligarchs, it can be an opportunity.

“Say that you are Kremlin affiliated and have a relationship with Putin, you’re a businessman or an oligarch,” Stepanenko said. “You can go to Putin and you can advertise for your own little military that can contribute to the war effort and Putin can authorize provision of shells or ammo to your army, bypassing the Russian Ministry of Defense. This is what happened with Wagner.”

“If you have a good relationship, you can definitely bypass the formality of the Ministry of Defense and acquire sufficient ammunition and shells to push for your own agenda.”

Trained in the heat of battle: The journey of Kharkiv Oblast’s Territorial Defense
Editor’s Note: Some of the soldiers interviewed in this piece declined to give their last names for security reasons or because they had relatives in occupied territory, and are identified by first names and callsigns instead. KHARKIV OBLAST – At an undisclosed part of the front line in Ukraine’s

There’s also money to consider. Wagner's income went up in 2022 compared to 2021, due to its big role in Donbas. Oligarchs are also trying to stake claims on businesses in occupied territories, Ukrainian forces in Kherson told the Kyiv Independent. People from Kadyrov’s circle are reportedly trying to seize assets.      

Just having a force of loyal, heavily-armed men doesn't hurt either.

"They're preparing for a transfer of power, they understand perfectly that the distribution of power in Russia will only be among the powerful," said Osechkin.

"On the one hand, oligarchs are trying to do homework for Putin by participating in the war but on the other hand, they are counting on forces, generals, and colonels that are loyal to them, so if anything happens, they could depend on them to at least defend their property."

What will it change?

Ukraine will see in the coming months if Russia’s new strategy makes a big difference. For now, “the entrance of new PMCs will hinder the efforts of Wagner and the Ministry of Defense to replenish their forces," according to Mikhailov.

Stepanenko said ‘volunteer battalions’ with this structure have “not proven” to be effective so far – new units fighting around Donetsk Oblast’s Avdiivka and Vuhledar haven’t made significant gains. Last year, contracted servicemen deployed into Kherson and Kharkiv oblasts also did poorly.

However, PMCs can drive their troops more relentlessly. Unlike with regular forces, there are fewer rules keeping mercenary commanders from killing or torturing men who try to retreat or surrender.  

It’s also easier to use PMCs to brutalize the Ukrainian population, Osechkin noted.

“If something scary happens and they commit a war crime, (the Kremlin can say) those aren’t ours,” he said. “Yeah, we hired someone, we thought they would behave themselves but sorry, only Prigozhin or whatever company can bear responsibility.”

Putin may be counting on PMCs to be more professional, organized and motivated than the flawed Russian army. But with so many units loyal to different people on the field, Russian coordination may suffer, analysts said. Some units have already bristled at others over unequal conditions or perceived incompetence. This may lead to conflict.

Furthermore, the men who join these PMC-like units don’t necessarily fight together. Many of them are sent to plug whatever gaps the Russian military has. Men who join can end up fighting with an occupation militia, a PMC like Wagner or the regular forces, Osechkin said.

Mercenaries are sometimes reconstituted into different units altogether. Independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta interviewed a fighter who apparently trained and signed with Redoubt but found himself with a special forces detachment called Troy, subordinate to Russia’s Defense Ministry.

Conversely, Potok fighters complained that they were trying to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense but were forced to sign with Potok.

This can lead to demoralization, as can Russia’s ongoing delays with salaries or benefits, scaring people away and further shrinking the pool of able recruits.

"Every month, there are fewer and fewer people as more understand that it's a vile war and to participate is vile and endangers your life," said Osechkin. However, "oligarch money is plentiful, poor people are even more plentiful and they'll use money and propaganda on the poor to form these brigades."

Note from the author:

Hi, this is Igor Kossov, I hope you enjoyed reading our article.

I consider it a privilege to keep you informed about one of this century's greatest tragedies, Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. With the help of my colleagues, I will continue to bring you in-depth insights into Ukraine's war effort, its international impacts, and the economic, social, and human cost of this war. But I cannot do it without your help. To support independent Ukrainian journalists, please consider becoming our patron. Thank you very much.

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