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Ethan S. Burger discusses Russia’s use of private military companies to advance foreign policy goals

On  December 19th, Mr. Ethan S. Burger discussed the domestic and international consequences of Russia’s use of private military companies to advance its foreign policy goals and the international consequences of outsourcing and privatizing these traditional state functions.

Mr. Burger is a Washington-D.C. based international attorney and educator with a background in cybersecurity, transnational financial crime, and Russian legal matters. He has been a full-time faculty member at the American University and the University of Wollongong in Australia, as well as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and Washington College of Law. He has taught about cybersecurity as a visiting professor at Vilnius University on a grant from the Fulbright Foundation and is an instructor with IWP’s Cyber Intelligence Initiative. Mr. Burger earned his J.D. at the Georgetown University Law Center, A.B. from Harvard University, and obtained a Certificate in Cybersecurity Strategy from Georgetown University.

At the beginning of the lecture, Mr. Burger stated that his talk would not focus on the private investigative services and security companies that are defending large corporations. Rather, he emphasized that his lecture would focus on how the Russian government has deployed private organizations such as the Wagner Group to advance its foreign policy goals around the world. Specifically, in countries such as Ukraine, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Syria, Sudan, and Venezuela, Russian mercenaries have played a decisive role in shifting the battlefield or political balance in limited conflicts.

He began his lecture with a brief historical background of mercenaries and how they have been traditionally associated with the Napoleonic Wars, the Thirty Years’ War, and the American Revolution. Mr. Burger then elaborated on the reasons why governments hire mercenaries and how mercenaries often do a much better job than the “unorganized regular forces” from the perspective of the government.

Mr. Burger then underlined Article 47 of the Geneva Convention, which specifically states that mercenaries do not enjoy the rights of armed combatants, such as to be treated as prisoners of war pursuant to the Geneva Convention norms. In addition, he discussed the United Nations Mercenary Convention, a United Nations treaty that prohibits the recruitment, training, use, and financing of mercenaries. For the purposes of his lecture, Mr. Burger also underlined the importance of motivation for the mercenaries, and while there is a strong weight on the concept of money in modern times, other factors are important as well.

Mr. Burger then emphasized that the Russian Criminal Code provides that the recruitment, training, financing, or supplying of mercenaries, and the use of them in armed conflicts or hostilities is a crime. Nevertheless, there have only been 5 to 6 people who have been convicted under the Russian criminal code for the crime. Today, there are many Russians serving with foreign private militaries and private contractors, and only a few have been labeled as criminals.

In terms of taxonomy, security forces are divided into several groups: the private military service corporations, which provide armed operational support, such as logistical and training support for operational campaigns; organizations that provide semi-passive protective services for mines and factories; and the private military groups that function as private armies, who lack legal status.

The International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC), which outlines the responsibilities of these entities, underlines what they can and cannot do. Entities that sign this code of conduct agree to act in a consistent manner in accordance with international law, the UN orders, and conventions, and, most importantly, not to engage with any organizations that violate such agreements. The ICoC has three main aspects: the certification process; the organization itself monitoring the behavior of its personnel and its agreement to comply with the applicable legislation norms in the country they serve; and monitoring complaints that have been filed against organizations who have failed to follow the international codes of conduct.

Mr. Burger then continued to address the historical path of mercenaries in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, security forces started breaking down because they lacked financing. With the rise of crime in Russia in the mid-1990s, major energy companies started recruiting private security forces. For example, the Donbass regions, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia were among those very pleased to hire private security forces and former military personnel who served in Afghanistan or elsewhere. However, by giving these private security forces freedom to enrich themselves, many of these forces became involved in war crimes, especially in the Caucasus conflict.

He then discussed the Wagner Group, which some claim is self-financed by Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin. The Wagner Group is a private military company which consists of Russian military veterans whose contractors have reportedly taken part in various conflicts, including operations in the Syrian Civil War and the War in Donbass. What is important to remember is that the Wagner Group and other similar organizations are now securing rights to raw materials and undermining the sovereignty of certain governments. In his discussion on the Wagner Group, Mr. Burger also raised questions concerning their acquisition of weapons and how the Russian government is allowing contracts to carry out paramilitary actions.

Finally, Mr. Burger discussed the legal consequences for the U.S., in terms of conflict escalation, that could arise by going against a private entity comprised of mostly Russian nationals or against Russian military with Russian personnel and guns. He concluded by mentioning how important it is for U.S. national security advisors not to underestimate the effectiveness of these forces when determining appropriate policies to pursue.

Questions from the audience followed this discussion.

About IWP Course on Russian Politics and Foreign Policy