• Description

The first time Russia invaded Ukraine in the twenty-first century, the Wagner Group was born. The now widely profiled private military company (PMC) played an important role in exercising Russian national power over the Crimea and portions of the Donbas—while giving Moscow a semblance of plausible deniability. In the near decade since, the Russian PMC sector has grown considerably, and is active in more than a dozen countries around the world. PMCs are paramilitary organizations established and run as private companies—though they often operate in contract with one or more states. They are profit-motivated, expeditionary groups that make a business of the conduct of war. PMCs are in no way a uniquely Russian phenomenon, yet the expanding footprint of Russian PMCs and their links to state interests call for a particularly Russian-focused analysis of the industry. The growth of these firms and their direct links to the Kremlin's oligarch network as well as Moscow's foreign media, industrial, and cyber activities present a challenge to the United States and its allies as they seek to counter Russian malicious activities abroad.

The accelerating frequency of PMCs found operating around the world and the proliferation of private hacking, surveillance, and social media manipulation tools suggest that Russian PMCs will pose diverse policy challenges to the United States and allies going forward. This issue brief seeks to offer an initial exploration of these questions in the context of how these PMCs came about and how they are employed today. The section below addresses the origin and operations of PMCs in Russian international security strategy, and also profiles the changing role of technology in conflict and the activities of these PMCs. The last section closes with a set of open research questions.