Potential Russian Uses of Paramilitaries in Eurasia

Executive Summary

While much remains uncertain following the June 2023 mutiny of Russia’s Wagner Group and the August death of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russia will likely continue to work with semi-state armed formations. Russia’s degraded military capacity and constrained economic resources, especially as sanctions persist, will increase the attractiveness of these organizations as low-cost tools for advancing Russian objectives and competing against the West, including to a greater extent in Eurasia where Russia likely perceives the competition as most intense.

Prigozhin and his Wagner Group created a model that other opportunistic Russian actors will likely seek to replicate. Fewer financial resources available to Russia’s military and elite could increase the incentive to establish such groups, especially if these organizations can increase opportunities to improve Russia’s reputation as a reliable security provider or access new sources of wealth for the regime. Newly created organizations would likely face high barriers to entry in areas where Wagner already operates, including Africa. Therefore, if such semi-state paramilitary organizations proliferate—a prospect that has grown more likely after Prigozhin’s death—they could focus on new regions such as Eurasia. Given Russia’s declining influence in Eurasia, a region of long-standing historical importance to Russia, such groups could undertake new actions there to curry favor with Putin and the Kremlin.

There are several ways the Kremlin could use semi-state security formations to advance its interests in Eurasia, including by waging political influence and disinformation campaigns, physically protecting friendly governments, sustaining Russia’s influence as a key security provider, destabilizing unfriendly governments, and limiting any threats that Russia’s diaspora population might pose to the stability of the Putin regime from abroad.

Although Russian paramilitary and semi-state organizations are in many ways an extension of the malign activities carried out by the Russian state, the proliferation and increased activity of these groups would make it more difficult for the United States and its allies to attribute such actions to the Kremlin, complicating Western response options. These groups and the opportunistic individuals who lead them could, for example, stake out positions independent of the Kremlin or even at odds with it, especially in the case of extreme ethnic nationalists who have criticized Putin for not going far enough in his actions. The proliferation of these groups would also make it difficult to discern when and under what circumstances the Kremlin might be willing to escalate on these groups’ behalf.

Introduction

The death of Yevgeny Prigozhin on August 23, 2023, likely signals the demise of the Wagner Group as an organization, at least in its current form. The group might continue in some form under more compliant leadership, or it may eventually fragment, with some of its functions being absorbed by the Russian state while other individuals and assets are appropriated by existing and newly created organizations. Nonetheless, despite Prigozhin’s death and the failed mutiny he orchestrated in June, Russia is likely to continue working with semi-state armed formations in the future. Moscow’s resource constraints and geopolitical headwinds as a result of its war in Ukraine increase the Kremlin’s need for such semi-state organizations and the assets and capabilities they contribute to Moscow’s ability to assert influence beyond its borders.

So far, outside of Ukraine, the Wagner Group and other similar organizations have been most active in Syria and Africa, where they have contributed to Moscow’s ability to sustain its great-power status. As Russia’s reputation as a great power is increasingly challenged closer to home, however, these groups may expand their activities to new geographies. As Moscow tries to maintain its self-defined status as a great power, its budgetary and reputational constraints may make turning to supplementary contractual sources of resources and personnel more attractive than using permanently employed state actors and resources.

There is already ample evidence that Russia’s influence is declining in Eurasia as some countries have grown more wary of Russia’s presence and role in the region. Although Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has accelerated the trend, it predates the war. The limitations of Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, for example, have become painfully clear for the regional economies linked to the ruble in an era of Western sanctions. Russia also has a recent track record of inaction in the face of regional instability, failing to help its ally Kyrgyzstan control violent unrest in 2010, or to mitigate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and restrain Azerbaijani aggression there. Now regional fears of Russian intentions have amplified such concerns across the region.

Russia’s degraded military capacity and constrained economic resources, especially as sanctions persist, will increase the attractiveness of these organizations as low-cost tools for advancing Russian objectives and competing against the West.

Russia is unlikely to quietly accept its deteriorating status in Eurasia. Moscow will be highly attuned to perceptions that its role as a great power is eroding in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin has long judged that to be a great power, a country must first be a regional one. Russia is therefore likely to intensely contest its declining role in these regions, making Eurasia a critical focus of Russian efforts to maintain its influence and global standing. Given the importance of these regions to Moscow, as well as growing resource limitations and greater resistance to its presence, the Kremlin will look for alternative approaches to maintaining influence. Moscow will almost certainly resort to greater use of hybrid tactics and asymmetric tools of coercion, such as disinformation, cyberattacks, and sabotage, that are low cost and do not rely on conventional military capacity to execute. Semi-state paramilitary forces are particularly well suited for carrying out such concealed influence campaigns and violent actions short of fullscale war. These Russian actions in Eurasia, therefore, may increasingly involve semi-state military companies resembling the Wagner Group. This would introduce new challenges for the United States and its European allies.

This paper examines how the Kremlin could seek to employ semi-state military and security groups in Eurasia, examining the potential future role of these groups in the Western Balkans, the South Caucasus, Central Asia, Belarus, and Moldova. The paper focuses on the impact in non-NATO and non-European Union (EU) countries, although Russian semi-state military companies could use such a Eurasian presence to interfere in neighboring NATO or EU countries as well. The paper’s goal is to anticipate how such semi-state groups could operate in Eurasia and the implications of their actions for U.S. and European interests in the region.

The paper begins by explaining the Wagner Group’s past functions and utility to the Kremlin. Although Wagner in its current form will change, the group established a useful model that any remnants of the group will likely sustain in some form and that other opportunistic actors are likely to emulate. The paper then briefly discusses the armed mutiny led by Prigozhin, the Wagner Group’s primary contractor, in late June 2023 and his August death. It then describes the likely evolution of other Russian semi-state groups that may backfill Wagner. The heart of the paper provides a series of future scenarios for how such groups could be used in the future in the Balkans, Central Asia, Moldova, Belarus, and the Southern Caucasus. The final section articulates the implications of these possible developments, highlighting the risks and challenges these groups would pose for the United States and its allies.

The authors note that there remains a high degree of uncertainty about the failed Wagner mutiny, including what motivated Prigozhin’s actions, the extent of support he had within the Russian regular armed forces and government, the circumstances surrounding his death, and the political developments that continue to unfold in the aftermath. This paper provides the authors’ best assessments of how the Kremlin may use either remnants of the Wagner Group or other similar organizations going forward, based on opensource reporting at the time of writing. The authors underscore, however, the high degree of uncertainty surrounding the paper’s judgments.

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