The war in Ukraine is the first large-scale conventional nation-state war since the invasion of Iraq 20 years ago. As such, it highlights how warfare has evolved in the 21st century and which trends are on the rise.
Besides the proliferation of unmanned aerial systems and the importance of precision-guided long-range weapons, another trend that has been evident from the fighting in Ukraine is the use of private military companies.
The Russian Military and Private Military Companies
The infamous Wagner Group private military company has played an outsized role in the Kremlin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary group played the main role in the capture of Bakhmut, the longest and deadliest battle in the war so far.
But the use of paramilitary groups isn’t something new for the Kremlin. Indeed, over the past two decades, Russia has experienced a steady proliferation of private military companies manned by former members of the Russian military.
Besides Wanger Group, there are other smaller private military companies and paramilitary groups that play an important role in the Russian campaign. In occupied Crimea, for example, there is the proliferation of paramilitary groups.
“The leader of Russian-occupied Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, has been instrumental in setting up several local units, which often claim affiliation with the Cossack tradition. Most have been given some semi-official status as reserve units of the regular army,” the British Military Intelligence assessed in its latest estimate of the war.
In the event of a Ukrainian push toward the Peninsula, these paramilitary groups could play an important role. After all, the main occupational formation of the Russian military, the 22nd Army Corps, has been deployed elsewhere in Ukraine and has suffered heavy casualties.
“Aksyonov is likely keen to burnish his patriotic credentials by recruiting fighters, but he is likely also concerned about the regular army’s ability to defend the peninsula,” the British Military Intelligence added.
Evidently, the Russian Ministry of Defense is trying everything to make up for the extremely heavy losses it has taken in Ukraine thus far. The Kremlin wants to avoid mobilizing Russian society, so outsourcing parts of the fighting to private companies makes sense.
The U.S. Military and Contractors
To be sure, Russia isn’t the only country relying on external sources for its warfighting.
The United States relied heavily on contractors during the Global War on Terror, and companies like Blackwater and Triple Canopy played an important role in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, the U.S. never outsourced its military operations to the degree that Russia is doing in Ukraine with the Wagner Group. For the U.S., private military companies took over auxiliary tasks, like guarding facilities and training local partner forces. But for Russia, Wagner Group has assumed a main supporting role in the fighting that at times competes with that of the regular Russian military.
Nowadays, the U.S. military is still relying heavily on contractors but for supporting roles. This allows the Department of Defense to save money and focus on recruiting professionals for combat-oriented roles.
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A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.