Russia and “elastic power”: will the burgeoning private security industry lead to private military companies, too?

Private security at the Russian embassy in Baghdad

Private security at the Russian embassy in Baghdad

I’ve just written a short piece for Blouin News on the news that already-relaxed restrictions on the security forces of gas giant Gazprom and oil pipeline corporation Transneft are to be lifted, allowing them increased access to lethal weapons and rules of engagement for their use. The represents a rolling back of the trend during the early Putin years, when the private security sector–which had become pretty much out of control in the 1990s–was reined in dramatically. The days of untrained corporate goons toting assault rifles in Moscow shopping centers are, I’m glad to say, pretty much over, even if the vigilante spirit they embody (in other words, a reluctance to trust the state and its agents to provide reliable, impartial security) is alive and well. The private security industry these days is a dynamic, extensive and growing sector, but also one under rather great legal and regulatory control.

What particularly interests me is the possibility that the growing armies of these semi-private corporations could in due course become the basis for a Russian mercenary industry. There are, of course, many Russian mercenaries around the world, as well as outfits at the extreme end of the private security market, such as firms such as RSB Group and Center-Al’fa, which have contracted out armed details to protect Russian embassies and commercial shipping which may be going into harm’s way. However, true PMCs tend to be larger organizations with a wider range of capacities. They also often have complex but generally cooperative relationships with their parent/host countries, and this seems to be a dimension which particularly interests the Russian government. Back in 2011, Putin suggested that “such companies are a way of implementing national interests without the direct involvement of the state” and last year Deputy PM Rogozin mused that it was worth considering the feasibility of setting up such PMCs with state backing. Although there appears to be some resistance within the defense ministry to this, a model could even be the way that the MVD has its own private security arm as a profit center. Between Gazprom, Transneft and the defense ministry, the potential is that powerful PMCs could quickly be formed.

Is this a big deal? The Kremlin regards all Russian companies and institutions–and especially those owned, backed or facilitated by the state–as potential tools at its disposal. Gazprom turns off the taps when there is a need to squeeze a neighbor; arms companies flock to do deals with despots the government would support. Just as the Viktor Bout enterprise demonstrated how the worlds of private arms trade and covert statecraft can merge, Russia’s PMCs would not doubt be expected to act at the Kremlin’s behest when need be. Neither the soft power of influence and authority, nor the traditional forms of hard power, this would be a kind of “elastic power”–flexible much of the time, but surprisingly tough and painful when wielded with intent. Like an OMON’s rubber truncheon

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Russian prisons getting more lethal

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'entrate?

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate?

To use the mildest of understatement, Russian prisons are not pleasant places. They are over-crowded, often antiquated, rife with violence, petty abuses and disease (including strains of drug-resistant TB). That said, the prison population has begun to fall, which is an encouraging sign, and there have been some limited efforts made to reform the system overall. So is the news good?

Not really. Let’s briefly unpick the depressing news that 4,121 prisoners died in prison or pre-trial detention in 2012. The combined prison and pre-trial detention (SIZO) population as of June 2012 was 731,000, suggesting a mortality figure of 564 prisoners per 100,000 inmates. If we look at US death rates as of 2008-9 (the last compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics), then the total death tally was 4,755 (admittedly from a substantially larger prison population), with a death rate ranging from 257/100k in state prisons, through 229/100k in federal prisons, to 127/100k in jails).

Given that the death toll back in 2010 was 4,150, then this might look like a slight improvement. But while the death toll has fallen just 0.7%, in that time the prison population in 746 corrective colonies, 230 SIZO, 7 prisons and 46 juvenile colonies shrunk by 17.5%. In other words, despite a falling prison population, some reform and more money, Russia’s prisons are getting even more lethal…

Russian Prison Reform: a B+ with promise but some concerns

Russia needs to incarcerate fewer of its citizens, and this is something acknowledged by the Kremlin and Justice Ministry on down. In March, Justice Minister Konovalov admitted that “people ending up in prison is not the answer” to crime. After all, prisons are expensive and unless run and resourced well – and frankly, Russia’s generally are neither – tend to do little to prevent recidivism, instead creating a marginalized, traumatized underclass that has only learnt how to do crime better. (It is no accident that one Russian prison slang term for prison is akademiya.) In Russia’s case they are also incubators for HIV and drug-resistant TB, which are then released into mainstream society with ex-prisoners. They are also incubators for violence, between inmates and by guards and suicides: in 2009, for example, 4150 prisoners died in Russia’s prisons from various causes, about 0.5% of the total (almost exactly double the USA’s figure, based on deaths in state prisons 2001-7).

In fairness, work has been done to address some of these issues. For much of the 1990s, the prison system received no more than 60% of the resources it needed just to survive, and while estimates vary, the figure is now closer to 90%, with some areas actually receiving enough of an excess to manage to build more modern facilities or upgrade existing ones. New medical treatment regimes have at least begun to slow the spread of TB according to the WHO. The culture of impunity for prison guards involved in extralegal violence has also been restricted, although while there have been prosecutions (especially if you beat a former FSB officer to death), there is still a long way to go. After all, given the overstretch facing the GUIN (Glavnoe upravlenie ispolneniya nakazaniya, Main Directorate of Administering Sentencing, but in effect Main Directorate of Corrections), prison officers often feel exposed and vulnerable, and resort to violence in part to assert their authority, a morally-reprehensible but frankly inevitable consequence. The same is true of the way that in some prisons, gangs of convicts are effectively handed de facto control of parts of prisons who then use violence and intimidation to maintain a form of order. Sometimes known as SPDs (Discipline and Enforcement Sections), this practice was formally banned at the end of 2009, but still persists in many cases. That even GUFSIN (the Federal Penitentiary Control Directorate) officers are now also sometimes being held to account, though, does suggest that change is on the way.

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