Last October, a Russian private military contractor, the Moran Security Group, shanghaied another PMC, the Slavonic Corps, by promising recruits $2,000-5,000 a month if they went to Syria to guard strategic facilities (military bases and power plants) to free up the regular Syrian Army guards for the front line.
Instead of guard duty, though, the Slavonic team members who made it over were shoved into tanks and APCs in order to retake an oil facility from anti-regime rebels. The attack collapsed. Because they retreated from that battle, Syrian rebels got a hold of some of the Russians’ baggage and claimed that they had “killed Russian mercenaries.”
After six of the team members were wounded in action during this battle, the Slavonic venture ended (having only recruited 1/10 th of the mercenaries it had hoped to) and its men returned to Russia. When they landed, all of their digital recording devices were confiscated by the FSB, which infuriated and terrified them. According to another contractor, his comrades destroyed as many of their phones and laptops as they could, in order to prevent security officials from examining them. They never received their pay, either.
The last thing Russia wants is to provide grist for jihadi sites frequented by Islamists in Russia. It made an example out of Moran once a Russian investigative news outlet dug its way into the wheeling and dealing that landed the contract soldiers in trouble. So, the FSB got to make a big show of its powers at the expense of the company. Two of Moran’s executives landed in jail for their part in all of this, charged with “illegal mercenary activity” under Russian law.
Slavonic’s rank and file were sold a bill of goods. Regular Russian military advisors and VIP bodyguards in Syria are being kept in secure areas to avoid incidents like the one described above. Standard operating procedure, and not necessarily because of international repercussions. Russia is heavily invested in keeping the Assad regime alive, mustering considerable diplomatic muscle at the UN to blunt the Obama Administration’s half-hearted efforts to aid the Sunni-led opposition. Putin does not care if the world learns about mercenaries who flew out of Moscow, because they are beneath the Kremlin’s notice. Unless, that is, they get into trouble.
Thus, the FSB crackdown. It was aimed at containing a potential embarrassment. If any Russians were to be captured or killed in action, their bodies would turn up on Islamist social media sites, further inflaming Moscow’s five-year-old conflict with Muslim insurgents in the North Caucasus. Russian involvement in Syria is of enormous domestic consequence.
Hundreds of Iranian, Iraqi, and Lebanese Shia volunteers are the ones actually present in Syria, for the regime. Thousands more jihadists can be found rotating in and out of the rebel tent from the wider Sunni world. But some Caucasians, including ethnic Chechens, and Central Asians are fighting for the Syrian rebel factions. The FSB cannot stop them from leaving since they have a limited presence in the North Caucasus (local operations are left to the local FSB) and Central Asia. Jihadist forums like the Kavkaz Center pounced on the reports for this reason: the real enemy, Russia, had been found and bested in Syria while supporting Assad. Someone at Moran had to pay for this PR nightmare after all that forward basecamp paraphernalia ended up on YouTube.
In a real battle, the secret would be hard to keep. Communications could be intercepted by the rebels and publicized in the media, since any Russian front line units would be communicating to their base area in Russian. If Russia were to allow commercial air transport services to run jobs in Syria, whether for NGOs or the regime, NATO would track them and raise the issue.
When PMCs go abroad from Russian airports, they do so through a controlled corridor, and the practice could have been stopped at any time. One of the men arrested (the deputy director, Vadim Gusev) is an ex-FSB lieutenant colonel who reportedly coordinates with an on-duty FSB officer whenever the company takes jobs abroad. The advertisements for Moran were out there on Facebook and Vkontakte, so it was not hidden.
It is very likely that the initiative was approved by someone in the security services without permission from the necessary higher-ups. That gives the whole contest of wills their bureaucratic context: someone gets a promotion for confronting the men after their return, instead of a demotion for letting them fly out in the first place.
Why did Moran take the risk? Because it needed the work. The company had a bit of trouble with the Yemeni Navy in 2011. A ship under its control was detained for alleged gun running. A similar misadventure befell them in Nigeria in 2012, with the crew held for days on charges of gunrunning after their ship was impounded. So, in light of these hiccups, the group decided to start a project guarding sites in Syria to recoup losses and expand into a country whose government badly needs spare manpower to continue fighting a civil war.
PMCs of the former USSR represent a lot of different people. Some former Soviet citizens simply returned to and expanded their illicit dealings in Central Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, where Moscow’s military missions provided them with opportunities to pick up a little extra on the side. But most of those who became PMCs after 1991 were men with years of logistical experience and some military training, who had found themselves jobless and without pensions after the Communist government collapsed.
It is no surprise that Vitebsk, once home to the most important military airfield in the European USSR, produced so many pilots- and planes-for-hire in the Yeltsin Era. A few well-placed bribes, and soldier’s training in military logistics was 100% convertible. The conflicts in Chechnya and further reductions in the armed services, coupled with dismal job security at home, have filled the ranks of PMCs with men who have some experience, but usually less, than the pioneers of the early 1990s did. As the website Feral Jundi explained, “[t]hese guys did not do their due diligence before accepting the contract. It sounded like the recruiters attracted a lot of desperate and naive folks who really wanted to believe this was a good deal.”
Recent years have not been very good for Russian private security contractors in the Mideast. Once lucrative air transport services into Iraq dried up when the US pulled out in 2011. The U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan will mean the end of big-ticket items there for the transporters; doing work for NGOs and the UN is not the most consistent or profitable venture. And the boots-on-ground types have had a hard time getting contracts because of some high profile failures in protecting VIPs in Iraq.
Which is why, even as the story of Moran’s debacle was breaking, other Russian contractors were recruiting for personnel to fly into Syria via Lebanon, with an advance payment of 10,000 rubles for each man. Even veterinarians (to handle guard dogs) have been sought to be part of teams working to free up Syrian Army garrisons from protecting banks, storehouses, and power plants. Simply put, the three dozen men or so who were sought and found need the work. So far they have avoided making headlines like their predecessors.