Editor’s Note: Russia is the most aggressive actor challenging the United States today, but the nature of that aggression differs from the past threat Moscow posed and, indeed, from the dangers posed by other U.S. adversaries. Barnard’s Kimberly Marten describes the range of actors Russia uses to advance its interests and the often-tenuous relationship they have with the Russian state.
Russian aggression is a central concern of the foreign and security policy community, with debate focusing on what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions are and how best to deter him. But missing from much of the discussion is the fact that a variety of semi-state security groups, with a hazy relationship to Moscow’s central authorities, are playing an increasing role in Russian actions both at home and abroad. The United States and other Western states must develop a better understanding of the complex motives and economic interests held by these opaque and informally commanded security forces to ensure the best possible attribution of and response to any hostile acts they commit. This will require recognizing that they are likely not always following Putin’s direct orders.
While many scholars and analysts now have a sophisticated understanding of the roles played by private military and security firms around the world, the array of semi-state security actors mobilized by Russia is unique—and noteworthy. Putin’s Russia is replacing the traditional notion, held by most Western countries as well as the Soviet Union, that states should have ultimate command and control over how armed force is used on their territories or in their name abroad. Instead, the new Russian model is centered on ambiguity, and the Kremlin even seems comfortable with the fact that these semi-state actors often have distinct commercial interests, separate from the Russian state. When a well-armed state with a growing international presence chooses to redefine the relationship between sovereignty and force, the magnitude and variety of threats that it might produce is being redefined as well.
Who Are Russia’s Semi-State Security Actors?
There are at least four different types of semi-state actors involved in this process. In the Russian province of Chechnya, warlord Ramzan Kadyrov’s security forces, personally-chosen based on local family and clan ties and his own assessment of individual loyalty, have gradually taken control. They have displaced the police and intelligence forces that keep order, investigate crime, and control borders elsewhere in Russia. Putin’s support, including from the Russian budget, has allowed Kadyrov to impose a separate, idiosyncratic, and brutal legal code in Chechnya, with no redress for residents like those persecuted for being gay.
Meanwhile state-recognized “Cossacks” (who are sometimes newly-registered retired state security officers, without ties to the historical Cossack movement of the Russian empire) have volunteered to help police maintain order elsewhere in Russia. They have attacked opposition figures and protestors with whips and fists. When popular opinion suggests they have gone too far, these vigilantes are punished by their own comrades while the state looks the other way. Cossacks (perhaps with a clearer historical lineage) have also been used by Russia abroad to fight on behalf of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
They have been joined there by a third group of informal security actors: private military groups led by, and employing, former Russian and Russian-sympathizing special operations forces. The Wagner Group, for example, has fought in eastern Ukraine and Syria and is reported to be in Sudan as well. There may have been as many as 3,000 Wagner personnel in Syria during the civil war. A different group, RSB, aided regional strongman Khalifa Haftar in Libya. While bills in the Russian legislature to regulate these groups have been in play since 2012, private military companies are not legally recognized in Russia. And while some believe these groups are ultimately controlled by Russian intelligence agencies, their contracts are often with foreign entities (like other states’ natural resource ministries)—reached with Russian state approval. This ambiguity led to danger in February 2018, when members of the Wagner group, under contract to the Syrian government to recapture petroleum facilities formerly held by the Islamic State, attacked Kurdish forces holding a Conoco gas plant in the U.S. zone of operations in Syria. Russian commanders in Syria told U.S. commanders via the deconfliction line that the forces were not theirs. U.S. airstrikes against the attackers killed up to 200 fighters, including possibly scores of Wagner Group members whose command relationship with Moscow remains fuzzy. The result was a queasy scenario for two nuclear-armed powers: a direct military confrontation between U.S. forces and semi-state Russian forces.
Finally, at least some of the individuals who carry out cyber attacks abroad on behalf of the Russian state are criminals employed by Russian intelligence agencies. Russia apparently encourages them to continue their criminal hacking activities on the side, once again blurring the role of the state in their activities.
A Growing Trend and Its Implications
Russia’s increasing use of semi-state security forces means that we cannot assume that what appear to be Russian actions are fully authorized or controlled by the state. Putin certainly has an incentive to pretend that they are, so that he appears strong and in charge. He is probably gratified when Western analysts call the actions of semi-state forces part of a centrally controlled strategy of plausible deniability.
Sometimes the Kremlin probably is using these forces for just that purpose, to hide its role in controversial or illegal military actions. But we know that on many economic and social issues, Putin has stepped back in recent times. Decisions are often the product of bureaucrats fighting for their own turf while guessing what Putin might want—what one scholar has called the “autopilot” mode of Russian policy making. Russian state security organizations, too, engage in regular infighting without Putin’s oversight. It is likely that their semi-state associates are not always following Putin’s direct orders, either.
The problem is likely to grow worse with time, as an aging Putin, now in his last constitutionally-mandated term as president, risks becoming a lame duck. Speculation is rife about how Putin might manipulate the law to remain in power longer. But in the meantime politically ambitious actors in Russia, including those with force at their disposal, have growing incentives to test the limits of Kremlin control as they seek and form new coalitions for a post-Putin world.
Western intelligence agencies should therefore prioritize gathering data about the commercial and political interests of Russia’s semi-state security actors. This will facilitate better assessments of motives, and more accurate attribution of blame, when these individuals and groups attack Western interests in the future. It may also provide deeper insights about the direction of the Russian state as a whole, as the post-Putin era begins to loom.