With the return of large scale interstate conflict to the European Continent, a key observation has been the widespread employment of surrogate and proxy forces in both conventional and irregular roles.
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These developments bring several questions to the fire, which are key to understanding the future role of such forces in conflicts to come:
- How do surrogate and proxy forces differ in character and purpose?
- What roles have surrogate and proxy forces played in the War in Ukraine?
- In light of the War in Ukraine and the Wagner mutiny, how might these types of forces be employed in conflicts to come?
Both surrogate and proxy forces conduct operations on behalf of an external actor whilst receiving direct and indirect support from said benefactor. The difference lies in their political and geographical ties to the area in which they operate, with proxy forces being tied to the local area, and surrogate forces having no political and geographical ties to the area of operation.
This lack of geographical and political ties allows surrogate forces such as the Russian PMCs deployed in Ukraine (such as Wagner, Moran, Orel, and RUS-Group) a greater level of flexibility, and a wider range of areas and roles in which they can be deployed.
In this case the comparison is to the militias of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, which whilst deployable in their respective regions, do not share the same level of flexibility as surrogate forces.
The role of Russian PMCs in the War in Ukraine clearly exemplifies their difference to Western PMCs, undertaking a wide range of front-line combat roles, where Western PMCs usually undertake supporting missions such as convoy and personnel protection.
Russian surrogate forces were instrumental in the initial annexation of Crimea and supporting the secession of parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, allegedly constituting part of the force of ‘little green men’ – the infamous unmarked troops tasked with seizing key areas and infrastructure.
There is no doubt that outside observers will be looking to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine for lessons learned in wide range of areas. Regarding surrogate forces in particular, whilst they have been widely used in a range of scenarios, the Wagner mutiny will make many observers wary of the potential dangers of these forces.
This may lead to more risk averse actors avoiding the use of these forces in the future altogether, whilst others may use them in a more limited way, significantly restricting freedom of action of concentration of power and authority. Whilst the Wagner mutiny may have come as a cautionary tale, it would be short-sighted to say that the use of surrogate forces has been an anomaly.
Given their flexibility and deniability, it is likely that they will remain a key element of hybrid competition in the future.
Image Информационное агентство БелТА, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.