Ukrainian intelligence has announced that the Russian energy giant Gazprom is establishment own a private military company (PMC). The rationale for an energy company establishing a security force is at least vaguely plausible given the need to defend fixed assets in trouble spots. Western energy companies like Exxon and BP are doing the same. However, Gazprom is not setting up a private army to guard a few remote wells or pipelines, or even to be sent to Ukraine. Gazprom’s move is likely to be about control of valuable energy resources inside Russia, but more generally it is a power struggle.
Russia has a dizzying array of PMCs, militias, paramilitaries, and other ambiguously classified armed groups. Ironically, PMCs are technically illegal in Russia, but that doesn’t matter too much in a country that has a famous tradition of boasting the rule of law. Now sanctioned “Night Wolves” (A Hells-AngelThe biker gang played a major role in the seizure of Crimea in 2014 and turned into a Kremlin-backed militia. The infamous Wagner Group made headlines recruitment of prisoners to fight in Ukraine while working for its mercenaries Sub-Saharan Africa and Syria. Russia has armed groups for every occasion, but they can become its poisoned chalice and the ruin of the country.
Here’s why: through the PMC, Russia can expand its influence around the world, conduct intelligence operations, gain economic opportunities, and advance its political interests. PMC serves many functions including combat, intelligence, disinformation, propaganda campaigns, cyber security services, and physical and hybrid warfare. In an emergency, they can be used to eliminate political enemies. Currently, there is only Wagner operating in Ukraine, although elements from multiple armed groups have been documented or transferred between groups.
This proliferation of armed groups also has an important domestic function. It is a conscious anti-coup strategy known as “parallelism“. Parallelism involves the creation of alternative armed institutions loyal to political leaders that compete with the regular army. The Roman Praetorians, Nazi Germany’s Waffen SS, and Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard are some of the most notable examples. They are the basis of authoritarian regimes that fear change from within. It was long observed that repressive undemocratic regimes spend more on domestic security forces than on the regular military. The rationale is simple: first, “we the people” are a greater threat to the regime and leaders than foreign enemies, and second, disparate armed groups allow the leadership to pit them against each other and hold ultimate power. Risk: such armed groups fare worse in war, and their dissent or disobedience risks civil war and can hasten the decline of the state.
Coup prevention has long been present in Putin’s Russia and is not limited to bikers or mercenaries. In 2016 Rosguard was established as a “national guard” to supplement the Russian army. In practice, it competes with the regular army at all levels, during which it operates independently catastrophic prematurity to Kiev and is now competing with all other groups for recruits. Wagner and Kadryov Muslims and ethnic Chechens Ahmad Force accompanied Russian army to Ukraine.
Gazprom won approval on the grounds that the company would security of its energy sector resources in times of uncertainty and protection against sabotage. This is ironic given that Russia has brutally attacked many of them Ukrainian energy targets and may have been involved with blow up NordStream pipeline in the fall of 2022. Irony aside, since Gazprom serves as Putin’s “deep pocket,” this action implies a growing fear on the part of Putin and Gazprom’s leadership of other actors going against its resources.
Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller is a key member of an elite class of oligarchs with strong ties to Putin. Miller is a public and bitter rival of Wagner owner and CEO Evgeny Prigozhin, whom he has publicly called a “Kremlin serviceman.” Prigozhin is embroiled in a brutal and public conflict with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Miller is also a rival of powerful Putin insider Igor Sechin, himself a former KGB officer as his patron. This is not the only rivalry within Putin’s inner circle. None of the leaders of the various armed groups seem to be at the scene good conditions among themselves, the regular army, or the various internal security services in Russia. Like Stalin’s or Hitler’s inner circle (or royal court), they vie for Putin’s favor and try to fend off rivals.
Gazprom’s new private army is no flash in the pan. Investments in troops, ammunition and other resources will be expensive and require long-term planning. Gazprom is well aware that it will have to compete with various other groups and the regular military for recruits and equipment, even if it pays top dollar. This would only happen if the stakes were high. They are: Gazprom’s private army will allow it to take a more active role inside and outside of Russia in an effort to secure the Kremlin’s energy resources and revenues.
All other calculations aside, this private army will also do something personally invaluable: provide Alexei Miller with the means to physically secure his persona, Gazprom’s wealth, and deter rivals. If things went well, Gazprom and Miller would not have to take such drastic measures. Whatever the real cause, it is a symptom of the fractured state of Russia.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already proven to be a strategic disaster. Putin is once again rattling the nuclear arsenal to scare the West and force a settlement on his terms. sustainable Russian economy, humanand the capital losses of the conflict would make it a Pyrrhic victory. The best and brightest are in Russia fleeing the countryits deficit is now level world war levelsis the European market leave for goodand Asia could not replace him.
Gazprom’s new army may be a lifeboat for the coming storm. It is highly unlikely that the company’s assets will be secured and saved the largest gas company on the planet.