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Tucked away in a new law aimed at raising the draft age for Russia’s military are several mysterious amendments that are designed to create new armed groups or paramilitary companies throughout the country.
The military companies, also known as “special enterprises,” would be there to maintain public order, protect Russia’s borders, and counter sabotage efforts, according to the text of the bill.
As the proposal is currently framed, the new military companies would be armed and run by governors, but would obtain weapons from the Russian Ministry of Defense. They would ostensibly operate at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The law on draft age adopted this week is raising questions about when they will begin forming—and what exactly the State Duma is trying to accomplish, as Russia already has a national guard and territorial defenses.
The steps to create the military companies come just weeks after Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin sent his mercenaries storming through Russia toward Moscow in an apparent mutiny. And although Putin was able to stymie the revolt through negotiation, the entire affair has sent ripples through Moscow’s approach to security and public order, exposing the vulnerabilities in the Kremlin’s armor.
For Putin, the Wagner mutiny exposed the yawning gap of his security apparatus and its ability to clamp down on threats to the regime, and this is his attempt to patch it up, according to Don Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat who served at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
“This still shows brittleness in the regime. There are cracks all over the place,” Jensen said. “This is done to reinforce the security of the regime.”
The measure says that the special military groups won’t be able to use force against crowds, unless there is “group resistance.” The special military groups will also be able to go after unmanned drones and other attacks, which could indicate that the groups will be expected to block potential Ukrainian incursions inside Russia proper.
“Employees of enterprises have the right to stop the operation of unmanned aerial, underwater and surface vessels and vehicles, unmanned vehicles and other automated unmanned systems in order to repel an attack,” the text of the proposed law stated.
Gaps in Russian air defenses have grown especially apparent in recent months. Russian officials know this, and outlined a plan in April to bolster the country’s air defense operations.
The reforms “are undoubtedly planned and will be implemented,” the deputy commander-in-chief of aerospace forces, Lieutenant General Andrei Demin, said at the time.
The new military companies are likely intended to address the increasing incursions from Ukraine, as well as clamping down on potential future mutinies, according to Nikolai Sokov, who previously worked at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union and Russia.
“They are a tool to enhance security [important given very active clandestine actions by Ukrainian military intelligence], and can, as necessary, help against any new mutiny,” said Sokov, now a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation.
But Moscow is likely keen to avoid creating a new Wagner Group that might pose a threat to the regime. Instead, the measure reveals that Moscow is working to fill some of the security vulnerabilities that allowed the Wagner Group to stage the mutiny in the first place.
The new military groups are meant to empower Russians to take up arms to keep the public in order, without creating a powerful beast like Wagner, according to Karolina Hird, a Russia Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
“They’re trying to balance these two competing but very very important security requirements. And that’s the need to create some sort of militarized entity akin to Wagner, but that is structurally very different from Wagner because Wagner’s structure was kind of inherent of the security threat it ended up posing to the Russian state,” Hird told The Daily Beast.
“They need these kind of entities to fill certain law enforcement and security roles in Russian regions, but these entities cannot be so centralized and powerful that they become their own Wagner group and then pose a threat to the Russian state akin to what Wagner posed during the rebellion,” she added.
That is likely why the proposal includes checks on the new formations that could essentially erase them off the map at a moment’s notice. The new formations can be abolished by Putin, at which point they would be required to turn over their arms in a matter of days.
The introduction of the special enterprises suggests the regime is worried about internal political turmoil, too, said Pavel Luzin, a visiting scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. While they appear designed to bolster local police and FSB forces, they will likely also serve as a mechanism to “counter-balance” the FSB, since the Kremlin doesn’t trust it much, Luzin said.
“These state-owned security enterprises… are the next probable episode of the fragmentation of military power typical for many authoritarian regimes,” said Luzin, a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
It may also be a preparatory step for future domestic disorder that may come if Moscow has to resort to ordering future mobilizations for the war in Ukraine, where Russia has begun to face manpower issues.
It is “an option for keeping power in face of domestic political turbulence if/when the Kremlin decides to conduct the massive mobilization and to proclaim martial law,” Luzin said.
The creation of the new militia groups, however, might not be the solution to the problem Moscow is trying to solve. In creating the new militias, it is possible that Putin may be creating a series of armed military groups that may come back to bite him one day, according to Jensen.
“It’s almost a feudalization of the system… which I don’t think personally is good for Putin,” Jensen told The Daily Beast, adding it’s not clear whether the new military companies will be loyal to Putin.
A foundational element of how the military companies will function—their leadership structure—might undermine Putin, warned Jensen. The way the proposal is written now, governors would ostensibly be in charge of their own new enterprises, and jostling for control may be a fundamental part of the new militias.
“The governor will do what all governors do, which is he wants as much autonomy as he can. And that autonomy will be bolstered by the fact that he has the ability to raise a band, a militia,” Jensen told The Daily Beast. “That, to me, is a vociferous tendency in the system as opposed to a unifying tendency in the system.”
“Prigozhin’s adventure is not going to be the last one. It will just be in a different form,” Jensen warned. “It could be another group, another armed group that makes different kinds of demands.”
Just as more dissent is likely to bubble up and pose a threat to the regime as the war effort continues to flounder, so too will Kremlin efforts to stomp them out.
“The Kremlin is really aware of the fact that they are not necessarily as protected as they thought they were. And they’re going to need to solve that issue while there’s kind of growing domestic discontent over the war, continued issues in actually generating enough force capacity to sustain the war in Ukraine,” Hird said. It’s almost “inevitable that there’ll be this continued proliferation of different militarized entities meant to kind of protect Russia internally or kind of expand power externally.”