PRIVATE MILITARY AND SECURITY COMPANIES – A POSSIBLE PLAYER IN THE WAR AT SEA?
In its military actions in Ukraine, Russia has used a wide variety of forms and methods of waging war, both classical and hybrid.
The characteristics of hybrid threats are included in definitions developed both at NATO level through the NATO Capstone Concept for the Military Contribution to Countering Hybrid Threats  and at European Union level through the EU Joint Framework to Counter Hybrid Threats .
Always, reality and inventiveness are in fierce competition, generating a hybridisation of reality. The more hybrid reality becomes, the more hybrid the means of warfare become. And not only the hard part, but also the methods of carrying out actions.
This is also the case with Russia’s formal and informal action in the asymmetric war in Ukraine, where it is using an “army of nobodies”. Perhaps the best known non-state entity is the Wagner Group.
The international press has written quite a lot about the Wagner Group, yet relatively little is known about its activities and its true aims. There is uncertainty about its legal status and the exact nature of its activities, making it difficult to know the truth.
The Wagner Group was first mentioned in 2014 in the context of the war in Donbas, with Ukraine drawing attention to the fact that Russia was seeking to mask its military presence in the region through various secret groups with no official military status and apparently no official connection to Moscow. But now it’s official!
We have seen, over time, that the Wagner Group has engaged in military actions synchronised with Russia’s national military forces, has similar equipment and an integrated command and control system at the level of the national armed forces. How readily we now speak of artillery, missile systems and even aircraft in the Wagner Group’s equipment. And I’m not counting the unseen part of the troll army, an army with a role and impactful results.
And now a number of questions can be asked!
When will a maritime component of this company, or another one, appear? What role and missions could it perform? And what is its legality?
The involvement of such a company in actions taking place in a maritime theatre would be a novelty, even in hybrid warfare at sea. And here the question arises, which needs to be clarified, as to how legal the possible actions of such an organisation are, and this is a broad topic for research.
We know that hybrid warfare at sea refers to the use of a diverse set of military, economic and political tactics and strategies in a naval conflict, when declared. But what happens when it is not declared?
This approach combines traditional naval warfare tactics with unconventional means such as subversive operations, propaganda, information manipulation and disinformation campaigns. Given the aim of hybrid warfare at sea, which is to gain an advantage over the adversary without direct military conflict, the role played by such a company can be a major one, at least in initiating it, but not only.
For example, tactics used in hybrid warfare at sea include:
Maritime espionage: gathering intelligence on an adversary’s naval movements by spy agents, drones or other surveillance means.
Subversive operations: the use of agents or special forces to penetrate an adversary’s naval bases, sabotage naval equipment or commit acts of terrorism.
Propaganda: spreading messages through the media or social media to influence public opinion and create division among the adversary’s populations.
Disinformation: spreading false or incomplete information with the aim of misleading an adversary or destabilising a country’s internal situation.
And now the question comes back: when and under what conditions will the Wagner Group (or a similar organisation) move to execute maritime actions?
And we start from an important point to note, that the organisation, operation and activities of private security companies are regulated by the laws of the countries in which they operate, and some critics argue that these companies may have the potential to add further risk to national security. What about the situation where these organisations operate in the high seas governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – UNCLOS , which entered into force on 16 November 1994.
According to its provisions, the high seas are open to all States, whether coastal or landlocked. The freedom of the high seas is exercised under the conditions laid down in the provisions of the Convention and other rules of international law and includes both coastal and landlocked States.
For example, in response to the growing phenomenon of piracy, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has begun to allow private security agents on board civilian ships. But in any case, the governments under whose flag they sail must check the conditions of each individual mission, given that, in principle, the law of the country of registration applies to these ships. Formally, the ship’s master bears the responsibility. If we are talking strictly about the people in the security and protection service, they are only allowed to act in self-defence, like ordinary citizens.
Employees of security companies on board cargo ships are only allowed to carry weapons if the equipment corresponds to the arms and ammunition regime. For example, by law in the Federal Republic of Germany, private security guards carry only revolvers and batons. Dissatisfied and frightened, many German shipowners have started sailing under the flag of countries with a much more permissive arms regime.
But Russia has an atypical approach in many areas and situations. Gruppa Vagnera (in Russian Группа Вагнера) or Wagner Group, also known as PMC Wagner, ChVK Wagner or CHVK Vagner, is a Russian paramilitary organisation. It has been described by some as a private military company (or a private military contracting agency) whose contractors have allegedly participated in various conflicts, including operations in the Syrian Civil War on behalf of the Syrian government, the Donbas War in Ukraine, aiding separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics, the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014, and very active in the war in Ukraine, which began in February 2022.
The Wagner Group has been designated by the United States as a transnational international criminal organisation, like the Italian and Japanese Mafia, and members of the US Congress are pushing for it to be labelled a “terrorist group” from now on.
“Wagner almost certainly now commands 50,000 fighters in Ukraine and has become a key component of the Ukraine campaign,” according to the UK Ministry of Defence.
It says the organisation began recruiting in large numbers last year as Russia struggled to find men for the regular army. About 80% of its troops in Ukraine have been drawn from prisons, according to the US National Security Council.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Wagner Group is believed to have had only about 5,000 fighters. They were mostly experienced former soldiers – many of them from Russia’s elite regiments and special forces.
Although mercenary forces are illegal in Russia, the Wagner Group registered as a company in 2022 and opened a new headquarters in St Petersburg.
Wagner Group recruits openly in Russian cities, on billboards and is referred to in the Russian press as a patriotic organization.
In Russia, as in any other national context, the PMSC (Private Military and Security Company) industry is shaped not only by supply and demand, but also by the cultural, historical, political and legal environment in which they exist.
The industry is affected by the national institutional environment, national military culture, popular acceptance, the historical tendency to use private actors for force, relations with government structures and elites, and many other factors.
In short, companies will be “socialised” by their home environment, even when acting internationally. Unsurprisingly, socialisation shapes not only the services that Russian companies offer, but also the “force market” in Russia as a whole.
A Russian MP, Andrei Mitrofanov, has proposed a law called “On state regulation of the establishment and operation of private military companies”. The law was not adopted by the Duma, but President Putin at the time of Mitrofanov’s initiative expressed general support for the idea of Russian PMSCs. Putin in this regard responded to a question about potential legalisation by stating that PMSCs are undoubtedly an instrument for the realisation of national interests where the state itself should not be involved.
Another Duma deputy, Gennadiy Nosovko, proposed similar legislative initiatives to the Duma in both 2010 and 2014. In the 2014 draft, Nosovko defined the military tasks that PMSCs should be allowed to perform as “demining and armed defence of civilian sea vessels” and in addition, the more controversial 2014 draft of deputy Boiarski’s “alternative regulation of armed conflicts beyond Russia’s borders”.
Due to a mix of opposition politics and bureaucracy, citing claims of procedural errors and the absence of any pressure from the Kremlin in favour of the proposals, none of these initiatives were passed into law. According to journalists Vladimir Dergachev and Ekaterina Zgirovskaya, they were later told by military sources Nosovko’s initiative was defeated in the Duma that the absence of such a law would not prevent the government from using existing PMSCs in specific operations. In 2016, however, a law on “short-term military service” was passed. Although it did not explicitly refer to the PMSC phenomenon, this law was seen as a compromise that at least partially legalised PMSCs.
Headed by Vyacheslav Kalashnikov, a former KGB officer who served as Alexander Torshin’s assistant in the Kremlin, Moran was one of the first PMSCs to enter the anti-piracy market in the 1990s and quickly took over large sums to guard Sovcomflot, FEMCO, Murmansk Shipping and United Marine, Russia’s largest shipping concerns.
Although Boris Chikin, one of PMSC Moran’s founders, dates the group’s founding to 2010, Moran’s website indicates that it was officially registered in Belize in 2011.
However, the website attributes its origins to the late 1990s, when concerns peaked within the Russian government about the risk posed by increased piracy along major shipping routes from the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean.
Moran specifically cites PMSC’s involvement in rescuing an oil tanker captured by Sudanese pirates in 1999, and in the company’s presentations, refers to its close cooperation with the Russian Navy on numerous anti-piracy missions for energy shipments.
This vessel had been hijacked by Sudanese nationals. Most of the other missions took place in Iraq. In addition, they also mention missions in some African countries – Central African Republic, Kenya and Nigeria.
Moran Security has its own ships, but they are registered in the Cook Islands and not in Russia. In their information to potential job applicants, they state that preference is given to former officers or NCOs who have served in special forces units (GRU), airborne forces, marines and who have served in at least two operations abroad. In addition, knowledge of English is a plus. Moran Security officers established the Corpus Slavon PMSC in 2013 which served as a precursor to the Wagner PMSC.
Since few Russian PMSCs were operating outside Russian territory in 1999 that were not affiliated with the security divisions of large state-owned enterprises, Moran’s organizational origins are likely based on the same legal architecture as many of the privatized armies attached to state-owned companies that began to emerge in the late 1990s.
Indeed, Cikin and Alexey Badikov, another prominent Moran manager, have said as much publicly. Both have indicated that PMSCs operate under contract to state-owned enterprises under the auspices of joint military operational teams overseen by Russia’s Defense Ministry. PMSCs working, with organizations like Moran, as detachments of auxiliary privateers serving a network of militarized Russian state corporations.
It is expected that in the not too distant future, Russian PMSCs will infiltrate in various forms into actions at sea, exploiting some national or international legislative loopholes, and act along the lines of the PMSC Wagner Group, but not on land, but at sea.
Analysis of the MARITIME SECURITY FORUM
 Agency for Strategic Initiatives