Russia Is Perfecting the Art of Crushing Uprisings Against Authoritarian Regimes
A Russian military leader revealed the blueprint for using mercenaries, militias, and special operations forces to backup dictators from Venezuela to Africa.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, much was made about the Kremlin’s use of hybrid warfare to destabilize and conquer. But in the years since, Moscow has taken gray-zone tools and created something completely different: a type of security force for hire by dictators looking to secure their rule.
In a little-noticed July 2018 article in the Russian Military-Industrial Courier, the commander of Russia’s Southern military district discusses the successful use of non-uniformed mercenary fighters, local regime-supported militias, and regular troops to crush Syrian rebels rising up against the Assad regime. In “The Staff of Future Wars,” Col. Gen. Aleksandr Vladimirovich Dvornikov argues that techniques pioneered in Syria could be exported to nearly any environment where President Vladimir Putin sees fit to intervene against a popular uprising.
The piece escaped the attention of most Western observers. But not Mark Voyger, a former cultural adviser at NATO Allied Land Command and former senior adviser on Russian and Eurasian affairs to then-Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of United States Army Europe. Voyger says the article reads like a blueprint for using mercenaries, militias, and covert tactics “to win wars not against the U.S. Army, Europe or NATO, but against popular rebellions, such as the one in Syria.”
Dvornikov hails what he calls the “integrated force grouping”: a combination of special operations forces, un-uniformed soldiers (likely mercenaries), and militias culled from local elements or allied groups. He calls it “expeditionary warfare on the cheap.”
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Both the title of the article and the choice of publisher is significant. In 2013, the Military-Industrial Courier published a seminal article by Russian Chief of Staff Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, who described a group of hybrid-warfare concepts that became known as the Gerasimov Doctrine. But as researcher Mark Galleoti, who coined the term, has pointed out, the “doctrine” was not actually a doctrine. Gerasimov was stating his belief that hybrid warfare and strategic hacking of adversarial political figures and the leaking of their information were part of the way the United States either toppled or controlled governments. He was merely urging the Russian military to follow suit.
Similarly, Dvornikov makes the case that the United States pioneered “integrated groups” in Yugoslavia and Iraq as a means of toppling governments.
“We are witnessing almost the same scenario everywhere,” he wrote. “However, compared with the conflicts of the past century, in which the ground forces groupings of the aggressor participated directly in the operations on the ground, the emphasis has been placed on reaching the objectives by means of neatly camouflaged integrated formations” (Read a full full translation of the article provided by Voyger.)
Dvornikov continues, “Such groups are being created on the basis of local resources on the principle of opposition, national and confessional divisions, by means of organizing irregular troops and popular militias in units that are capable of coalescing into larger-scale formations with the support and under the leadership of the Special Operations Forces and private military companies of other states.”
He describes how Russia has used integrated forces to support the Assad regime since 2015.
“The use of the troops grouping in Syria was set in the form of a special operation with a complex structure,” he wrote.
Voyger notes that Dvornikov disparages the Syrian military — an indicator that the article isn’t intended (solely) to paint a false picture of the regime’s stability.
“It's a real analytical piece that talks about weaknesses, problems, etc., and not just some kind of disinformation,” . He may be exaggerating here and there in terms of success, but still, he's talking overtly about a lot of the problems that he's overcome, which makes a valid point.”
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So what do Dvornikov’s integrated forces do? He lays out several specific roles in bullet points, including:
- “Launching of strikes aimed at reducing the economic potential of the enemy,” meaning the destruction of civilian businesses or enterprises that may be helping to fund anti-regime elements.
- “Active information and psychological targeting of the militants in order to impact their moral-psychological state of mind,” meaning targeted information and misinformation operations.
- “High maneuver combat activities by autonomous groups of forces (troops) in various directions.”
He goes on to outlines various guerrilla-warfare tactics such as “the wide use of underground passages, tunnels and communication, and construction equipment” to attack rebel positions in urban neighborhoods; and “the use of mobile units riding on ‘Tachanka’-type pickups” — elsewhere called technicals — for rapid ambush and retreat.
Those support more conventional special operations forces working to protect regime assets through various activities, Dvornikov writes, including:
- “Combat activities aimed at destroying the most dangerous units of terrorist formations;
- “The protection of important infrastructure sites and the main road directions;
- “Combat activities that enabled the forces and means of combat fire of the... Armed Forces to use the intelligence data;
- “Protection of the state border.”
Voyger said Dvornikov aims to turn what Russians did in Syria as a model for future security engagements.
“When the Russians showed up in Venezuela — those 100 military servicemembers led by a high-ranking ground forces general — they were trying to replicate something similar,” he said.
Dvornikov intends, says Voyner, to offer Russia’s integrated force groups to dictators in much the same way a contractor might market a garage door opener to a homeowner. Once installed, the machine should work automatically with minimal service.
“What have they left behind” in Venezuela, Voyner wondered. “Have they created some sort of a structure that can be activated should the situation deteriorate? Obviously, there's no civil war there yet. Maybe there won't be. Which means that, in this case, just by showing up there, by creating this model, giving the regime some sort of a hybrid expeditionary structure that showed the opposition that there's no chance of winning, they are actually preempting [conflict], and thus, winning by averting the civil war.”
Dvornikov doesn’t directly mention Russian mercenary forces by name, only “private military companies, but Voyner says they “play a vital role.”
Little is known about the secretive Wagner Group except that the mercenary group is named after the call sign of its founder, GRU Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin, and at least partially funded by Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, a Putin crony under U.S. sanction. The mercenaries played a key role in Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in 2014 and its activities in Syria.
The Russian news outlet Fontanka reports that the group recruits fighters by offering 250,000 rubles a month (about $4,000 USD), far more than a young Russian soldier’s pay. But the hazards are real. Dozens of mercenaries are thought to have died at the hands of U.S. forces in February 2018, when they attacked on a Syrian rebel position where U.S. forces were located.
At one point, there were as many as 2,000 Wagner mercenaries in Syria, Fontanka reports.
The Wagner mercenaries had two main roles in Syria, Nathaniel Reynolds wrote in a recent paper from the Carnegie Endowment.
“On the one hand, it focused on seizing and defending oil and gas assets, in which Prigozhin now had a financial stake. On the other hand, Wagner was still a Kremlin tool, and Moscow used it to support broader military goals, with mercenaries fighting alongside pro-Assad forces in major battles,” Reynolds wrote. “Prigozhin, who is not known for lavish spending on his projects, reportedly armed the mercenaries with subpar weapons and little heavy or sophisticated equipment. Salaries for the fighters also supposedly declined over time.”
Voyger calls them “cannon fodder.”
“Maybe that's why they left them out in the desert against our boys in the spring of 2018, to be pretty much destroyed because they were considered expendable. Or maybe there is speculation there's some kind of tension between, even rivalry between, the regular military and the mercenaries. That's also possible,” he says.
Cannon fodder or not, they could be increasingly useful for a regime with little regard for human rights, and growing aspirations for forming alliances with other autocracies that feel the same way.
“Within the broad rubric of covert war, Moscow could use Wagner in a variety of ways—to launch a limited-objective incursion into a neighboring country, to train proxy forces to destabilize a pro-Western government, or to hide a secret Russian military presence,”
Dvornikov seems to be suggesting that they will serve another vital role in the coming years, crushing rebellions against the Putin regime’s allies.