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23 February 2021

Russia covered up war crimes in Ukraine and Syria using private armies and proxy militias according to new report

Dr Manos Karagiannis produced a new report on the Kremlin's use of proxy militias and private military companies in operations abroad


Russia has been enlisting private armies and proxy militias to cover up the extent of its military interventions around the world, according to a new report published earlier this month by Dr Manos Karagiannis, Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department,  in the Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies

The research reveals that these proxy militias and military companies have been crucial in enabling the Putin government to achieve its foreign policy goals in the Ukraine and Syria, whilst enabling it to plausibly deny or minimise the repercussions of its actions and avoid accusations of ethnic cleansing and mass violations of human rights in these countries.

Foreign fighters have been enlisted from countries including the United States, Great Britain, Spain and India to fight in conflicts. Whilst, militant groups such as Hezbollah have functioned as proxy militias during the conflict in Syria.

Dr Karagiannis said:

Whilst coverage to date have focused on the huge increase in military spending on Russia’s army and weapons technology, far less attention has been given to Russia’s use of Private Military Companies, meaning their substantial contribution to Russia’s military successes often goes under the radar

Dr Karagiannis acknowledged the consensus that the Russian armed forces have entered a new phase of development, where previous analysis had primarily focused on the modernisation and professionalisation of the country’s military, however they have gradually moved from conscription to a full-volunteer army, currently consisting of 250,000 conscripts and 354,000 contract soldiers (Kontraktniki). While there is a renewed interest in Russian conventional forces, the Kremlin’s use of surrogate forces isn’t readily studied. Although the Kremlin has traditionally maintained a large army, it now covertly employs proxy militias (Opolchentsy) and private military companies (PMC’s) (Chastnyye Voyennyye Kompanii) to achieve its foreign policy goals in Ukraine and Syria.

The use of surrogate PMCs and proxy militias has helped the Russian leadership to minimise the repercussions of its actions and avoid any accusations of ethnic cleansing and mass violations of human rights in Ukraine and Syria and maintain a plausible deniability. From a legal perspective, PMCs are not subject to the same international rules as state militaries, with the Geneva Conventions declaring countries are not held legally responsible for not preventing human rights abuse by private contractors, unless under certain circumstances. The hiring government can therefore avoid accountability. Likewise, militias cannot be held accountable for their actions easily. An International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers exists but has not been accepted by Russia.

Alongside the use of PMCs, the Russian leadership has learned from its recent experiences that non-state armed actors can be useful allies, particularly in key strategic conflicts such as in the Ukraine and Syria. It is a cheap and effective way to exercise influence in war-torn countries with weak or allied governments, friendly or passive populations, and a lack of interest from other great powers. "We need more evidence to get a clearer picture of the extent to which PMCs and proxy militias are boosting and enhancing Russia’s already rapidly growing military capabilities"

Dr Manos Karagiannis

Dr Karagiannis also argues that the use of militias has certain military advantages for the Russian side. Although the loyalty of local militiamen is often uncertain, they have successfully applied a clear-and-hold strategy in certain parts of Ukraine and Syria for two reasons. First, they have a good tactical knowledge of the terrain and can engage in unconventional anti-insurgency tactics. Second, militias enjoy some local support and have their own intelligence networks that enable them to act efficiently and quickly.

Alongside evading responsibility internationally, PMCs have allowed the Kremlin to cover up Russian military involvement domestically and hide the deaths of Russian war casualties. This is particularly important for Putin’s popularity, as public opinion shifts away from aggressive military intervention, with only a third of Russians supporting Russia’s involvement in Syria by 2017.

Read the full article here

Over the course of his career, Dr Karagiannis has taught in several countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Italy, Qatar, Greece, and Cyprus, has worked as an Investigator at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START Center) and held research positions in prestigious US and British universities. He has published extensively on political Islam, radicalization and terrorism, Russian foreign and security policy, and energy geopolitics. Dr Karagiannis has also worked as a PVE consultant for the OSCE and as an election observer for the European Union. He has travelled throughout the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East to conduct research and give presentations.

Emmanuel (Manos) Karagiannis is a Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department. He received a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies (Islamic Studies) from King’s College London and a PhD in post-Soviet Politics from the University of Hull. He also obtained an MA in International Security Studies from the University of Reading and a BA in European Studies from London South Bank University. After completing his studies, Dr Karagiannis spent two years in Cyprus serving in the Greek Army as a reserve officer of Infantry.

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