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Wagner crisis has pushed Russia towards Volunteer Corps as a new model of military service

Wagner crisis has pushed Russia towards Volunteer Corps as a new model of military service

Russia has been using private military companies (PMCs) as a military tool abroad for a decade (first in Ukraine, then in Syria, and later in Africa). Russia uses PMCs to deny its involvement and responsibility and to speed up decision-making. However, the independence of PMCs is only part of their image. Russian intelligence services informally coordinate their operations, while funding comes from Kremlin-linked actors and through public procurement systems.

Since February 2022, mercenaries have been massively involved in military actions in Ukraine. Their illegal status under Russian law raised complex issues of subordination and coordination with the Russian Armed Forces. Therefore, in November 2022, a special legal amendment granted the Russian Ministry of Defence the right to use subordinate ‘volunteer formations’ in its operations. Russia’s largest PMC, Wagner, had tried to maintain its independence on the front line, but when the conflict resulted in an armed mutiny, it became a final argument for the Kremlin to tighten control over its shadow army.

Since 1 July 2023, all PMCs wishing to take part in military operations in Ukraine have had to sign a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defence as volunteers. The Russian Armed Forces now use Volunteer Corps, made up of mercenaries, Cossacks, active reserve soldiers, and volunteer units formed by regional authorities and state enterprises, to fill gaps on the Ukrainian front. While mercenary activities remain illegal under Russian law, conditions have been created to employ them in war with sufficient control.

The Russian regime, reluctant to announce a new wave of mobilisation, is trying to convince its citizens to join the war voluntarily. It has set itself the goal of recruiting more than 400,000 new soldiers in 2023 and is continuing the recruitment this year. In addition to the usual contracts, volunteer formations have become another way of recruiting people for war.

The new model of volunteer corps is also being implemented outside Russia. It enables Russia to maintain influence in crisis regions without withdrawing its troops from Ukraine. In the near future, destabilising activities of such expeditionary units will be increasingly visible around the world, although in 2024 Russia will focus mainly on Africa.

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