Russia’s Private Military Companies Expand at the Front

By Benoit Faucon and Thomas Grove

Security firms created by Russia’s biggest state corporations, former military officers and businessmen have sent troops to the front lines in Ukraine in a bid to prove loyalty to the Kremlin as Moscow struggles to keep forces flowing to the conflict.

Russian energy giant Gazprom has created private-security companies in recent months, while existing ones controlled by former Russian army officers have recruited new members. Most of them have sent men to fight in Ukraine in recent months, often as auxiliary forces under the command of the Defense Ministry, according to soldiers, analysts and former Russian officials.

The companies partly emulate Wagner, a mercenary group owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin whose influence has risen during the war.

Prigozhin has recruited about 50,000 soldiers, largely drawn from Russian prisons, and has sought to show his forces are superior to the regular army.

Earlier this month, Wagner fighters took the eastern city of Bakhmut after months of bitter fighting, the only meaningful advance by Russian forces in the Ukraine conflict in months.

The new private-security companies are smaller than Wagner, with just thousands of recruits collectively. However, in sending men to the front lines, they are demonstrating loyalty to Putin, analysts said, when Russia needs fresh forces to respond to a coming Ukrainian offensive.

Neither the Defense Ministry nor the Kremlin responded to requests for comment.

In a video interview posted on Telegram late Tuesday, the head of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner said that 20,000 of his troops had been killed in the battle for Bakhmut. Photo: Govorit Dolgov 18+ via Telegram Lack of manpower caused Russia’s defensive lines to crumble late last year as Kyiv’s troops took back swaths of northwest Ukraine. But Putin appears reluctant to launch a fresh large-scale mobilization at home after a call-up of 300,000 men last autumn. Instead, the Kremlin has partly outsourced the recruitment to the private sector and companies reliant on continued government contracts.

“Russia has become a mobilized state at every level now,” said Mark Galeotti, longtime Russia watcher and founder of London-based consulting company Mayak Intelligence. “When it comes down to it, there is a desperate need to raise fighting men and Putin wants to do it without conscripts or another mobilization round.” While the number of recruits couldn’t be determined, new companies have contracted former professional soldiers and their own regular security guards to fight on the 600 mile-long active front line in Ukraine.

The corporate-backed companies are paying significantly higher wages than Wagner or Defense Ministry-linked volunteer battalions, according to Prigozhin, public job postings and former Russian officials.

Some are also better trained. Analysts and recruits say the troops are often placed under the command of the Ministry of Defense, unlike Wagner fighters who act largely independently.

“Since everything hasn’t gone according to plan, Russians are looking for ways of improvising and if Wagner works, why not increase the number of private military companies,” said Ruslan Pukhov, head of Moscow-based defense think tank Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

In late March, Russia’s energy minister, Nikolai Shulginov, backed the registration of a new security firm by Lukoil, Russia’s largest private company, that he said would help fend off drone attacks on oil facilities.

Lukoil Group has a security organization to ensure safety of Lukoil’s production facilities and it isn’t involved in any other operations, a spokesman for the company said.

Moscow has accused Ukraine of launching drone attacks on its refineries and storage tanks inside Russia, which Kyiv denies.

In February, the Russian government issued a decree allowing Gazprom, Russia’s largest energy firm, to create its own security firm, one component of which is now called Potok. Two units that grew out of Gazprom’s security firm were then placed under the direct control of Russia’s Ministry of Defense, said Alexey Tkachenko, who worked for Potok and was sent to fight in Ukraine, in a video published by the Ukrainian armed forces over Telegram after they captured him.

Weeks after the government decree creating Gazprom’s private-security companies, its recruits revealed on platforms such as Telegram that they were fighting on the front lines of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In a video posted on Ukraine’s military social-media platform on April 25, Tkachenko, who is from Orenburg in the Urals, said he was a security guard at Gazprom when he was hired by Potok. He was then trained at a Russian base in Tambov, and sent to fight in Bakhmut, where he and other fighters took over Wagner positions.

“The Wagnerites were awakened at night and told to leave,” Tkachenko said. “And we took their positions in the forest.”

In a separate video posted on April 20 on a Telegram channel for Potok members, a group of recruits said they were sent for training at a Russian military base and then deployed to fight alongside Wagner’s men in Ukraine.

A security guard working at Gazprom’s Bovanenkovo gas field in Western Siberia was forcibly recruited to fight in Ukraine, said Arseniy Pogosyan, a former official at the Russian Energy Ministry.

“He was given no option but to be fired,” said Pogosyan. Gazprom didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Prigozhin, in a video earlier this year, said that the Gazprom-linked fighters had abandoned their posts. In turn, members of Potok—which means “stream” in Russian—have accused Wagner over social media of mistreatment.

Others in Russia’s security services are expanding their interests in security groups. Staff Center, a private-security outfit headed by former officers of the KGB, the Soviet-era spy agency where Putin started his career, was granted a 30% stake in the Gazprom security organization of which Potok is part of, according to corporate records and the Feb. 7 decree creating the company.

Private military companies are technically illegal in Russia, but security companies have been given the Kremlin’s unofficial blessing to operate in the interests of what Moscow calls its special military operation. Some with links to the Defense Ministry itself have appeared.

Redut, a security contractor for Russian companies operating in the Middle East, was founded by former Russian paratroopers and officers in military intelligence in 2008. The group mostly provided security to Russian companies and government entities in the Middle East and Africa, according to its website.

It was repurposed as a 1,000-person strong fighting force for the war in Ukraine, said Vladimir Osechkin, a Russian human-rights activist who operates the anti-Putin human-rights focused website and has spoken to Redut officers.

Another group fought under Redut’s command in Bakhmut in April, according to Tkachenko, the former security guard, and a separate video of a group of Gazprom recruits.

Meanwhile, Patriot, another longstanding private-security company largely made up of former Russian special forces, is operating in the same territory with Wagner, according to the U.S. State Department, which sanctioned Patriot.

In April, it was deployed in the area of Vuhledar, in eastern Ukraine, according to Serhiy Cherevatyi, a Ukrainian military spokesman.

One worker at Gazprom’s Bovanenkovo gas field in Western Siberia was forcibly recruited to fight in Ukraine, according to a former official at the Russian Energy Ministry.

Redut and Patriot describe themselves as better paid and better run than the regular army or Wagner, which has sent its soldiers on near-suicidal waves of attacks in Bakhmut.

“Do not wait until you are mobilized, join a close-knit unit of professionals,” said a job offer posted by Redut on the VKontakte social-media website. “Good pay, payment in case of injury, friendly team, competent commanders.”

The VKontakte account has since been taken down. Redut didn’t respond to requests for comment sent by email, skype and text message. Patriot and Potok couldn’t be reached.

The Gazprom recruits say in their own video that Wagner’s men threatened them with execution for retreating from an onslaught by Ukrainian forces.

Tkachenko, the captured Gazprom fighter, said he was wounded by shrapnel to his eyes and arms in a mortar attack. He said he was abandoned by his fellow fighters and crawled to surrender to the Ukrainian army. “I want to tell my colleagues at Gazprom: Don’t go to Ukraine, stay at home,” he said in the video.