Revolt of the ‘Disgruntled’: Russian Mercenaries Seek Justice in International Courts

Members of Wagner Group, in Syria (Source: The Daily Star)

A story that started on July 5, when the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly (a national war veterans’ organization) demanded that Moscow legalize so-called Private Military Companies (PMC) (see EDM, August 1) has received an unexpected update. On November 19, members of more than a dozen Russian PMCs and war veterans’ organizations—357 delegates representing 18 entities from 52 regions—filed a petition with the International Criminal Court (ICC) demanding that an investigation be opened against “sponsors of Russian PMCs” (Rosbalt, November 19). The petitioners assert that “hundreds” of PMC members have died in foreign theaters, including in eastern Ukraine, the Middle East, Asia and Africa, all while operating without any legal protections or official recognition from the Russian state. The claimants say they have abundant data on the actual military tasks carried out by PMCs, the areas they are deployed to, as well as these organizations’ ownership structures. This information can apparently be substantiated by witness testimonies, but those corroborating witnesses are currently unable to speak openly out of fear.

The Russian government claims to have no information on this matter. The Kremlin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, directed journalists to “get in touch with the Russian Ministry of Defense,” since “this question is closer to its sphere of competence.” At the same time, Peskov reiterated that “Russia does not have such legal entities as PMCs” (Rosbalt, November 20).

The petition directed at the ICC makes a number of interesting assertions, partly corroborating previously known facts and highlighting some new details. Among other aspects, it states that “casualties suffered by Russian PMCs in various regional conflicts are counted in the hundreds.” Moreover, “for the past three years, Russian war veterans’ organizations have received thousands of complaints/petitions from members of PMCs seeking help.” The document also names Donbas, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Gabon, Northern and South Sudan, Yemen, and “other countries of Asia and Africa” as the main operational areas of Russian PMCs (Svoboda.org, November 19). It also reveals that, aside from Russian citizens, PMCs employ people from Donbas, the Baltic States and the Central Asian republics (Newizv.ru, November 19).

In an interview with Ekho Mosvky, the ataman (head) of the “Khovrino” Cossack community, Evgeni Shabaev—one of the key advocates of taking this complaint to the ICC—revealed his concerns related to the key trends observed in the “PMC business in Russia.” Among other aspects, he stated that, “Russian PMCs are, in effect, private armies that are now acting beyond Russian borders; but this soon could change.” He also warned that, upon their return from “foreign missions,” members of such structures could “pose a serious challenge to domestic security, given the lack of any rehabilitation programs” and a general failure on the part of the government to bring them back to civilian life. Finally, reflecting on the logistics and military equipping of PMCs, Shabaev evasively pointed out that such activities “can only be carried out by Oboronservis,” the defense ministry–owned holding company charged with logistics services and military production for the Armed Forces (Ekho Moskvy, November 20).

Russian experts have provided widely differing opinions in response to the ICC petition by the Russian PMC veterans. On one hand, Sergey Krivenko, a member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, hailed the initiative. He has argued that “this problem does exist, given the fact that the state is using PMCs in regional conflicts, at the same time denying this… we in the Council will discuss and possibly support this initiative. In many countries, including the United States, the state has responsibilities for PMC members in case of injury or death.” On the other hand, Alim Bishenov, a plenipotentiary representative of the Russian Federation at PraeLegal, expressed a more cautious view, stating that this initiative could be successful, yet only in part, since “there is an apparent lack of legal foundations in Russia’s domestic regulations on the matter” (Svoboda.org, November 19). The most straightforward comment stemmed from Russian journalist and political commentator Andrey Kolesnikov, who argued that “The Hague has no say on the matter, since PMCs de facto do not exist in the Russian legal system.” He defined the petition as “naivety,” claiming that, “at the end of the day, it will remain their [members of PMCs] problem” (YouTube, November 20).

Though there is no concrete evidence to prove this, it is certainly possible that the recent decision by Russian PMC veterans to turn to the ICC may have, at least in part, been spurned by a deadly incident that took place in early November in Deir ez-Zor, Syria. Specifically, a unit of the Syrian Army’s 5th Regiment accidentally detonated a mine, which took the lives of at least eleven persons, of whom six were reported to be members of the well-known Russian PMC Wagner Group (Newizv.ru, November 6).

A subsequent interview in Rosbalt with a former Wagner member (who did not wish to reveal his identity) ended up casting new light on Russian military involvement in Syria, the role played by Russian PMCs in hostilities, and the post-war reality the mercenaries face. Notably, he asserted that, in Syria, the most arduous and risky tasks on the front lines were being performed by Russian PMCs, pointing to allegedly suboptimal fighting abilities demonstrated both by Hezbollah and the regular Syrian Army. The interview also supports previously made statements about the rapidly declining quality of personnel and arms/weapons allocated to PMC members, as well as the apparent inadequate amount of time devoted to preparation for missions in Syria (see Jamestown.org, July 13). The Rosbalt article states that the interviewee suffered a serious injury in Syria, while serving with the Wagner Group, and as a result he is likely to remain incapacitated for the rest of his life. Yet, he is barred from being able to claim any further rehabilitation or material support from the government. And if he tries to seek some form of assistance or restitution, he is likely to be accused of mercenary activities and face a prison sentence, the piece notes (Rosbalt, November 22). A comparable fate notably befell the founders of the Slavonic Corps PMC, which was decimated in Syria in 2013.

Naïve as it might be, the ICC petition does reflect growing dissatisfaction within certain groups related to Russian PMCs and mercenary organizations. And while its impact may not be readily apparent, it may lay an important foundation for future legal efforts inside Russia.

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