In the weeks since Russia began its military buildup on Ukraine’s border, the U.S. and its allies have scrambled to respond quickly and forcefully. According to U.S. intelligence officials, the more than 100,000 Russian troops amassed so far would be capable of launching a full-scale invasion. And with NATO gathering troops of its own in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, it is clear that escalation is a real possibility.
And yet, Russia’s strategic decisions from the past decade—in Ukraine but also worldwide—have made it very difficult to successfully respond to its aggression. The recent buildup is the clearest expression of Russian military ambitions in years, but in that time Russian-linked violent actors have continued to strategically engage in conflicts around the globe, allowing Russia to grow its influence—and hinder retaliation.
For one, recent years have seen the rise of Russian mercenaries, who have enmeshed themselves in conflicts from the Sahel to the Middle East, allowing the Russian state to remain engaged abroad, while retaining enough distance to obscure its involvement. Most prominent among these pseudo-private paramilitary organizations is the Wagner Group, a Russian private military security contractor with ties to the Kremlin. Its operations are largely shrouded in mystery, but it is known to have been active in Syria, Libya, Sudan and many more countries in Africa and beyond. The group provides its clients with guns-for-hire as well as training and support, while also defending key Russian investments and infrastructure. As Candace Rondeaux warned in WPR more than two years ago, the Wagner Group has become a “critical conduit between repressive regimes and various subsidiaries of Russia,” including state-run arms and energy companies.
It’s well known that the Kremlin often pursues its objectives through proxy forces with indeterminate relationships to the Russian state, rather than through the mobilization of its military. In a similar way, private security contractors allow Russia to protect its interests and deepen political alliances, while retaining plausible deniability about its involvement.
The exact relationship between organizations like the Wagner Group and the Russian state is difficult to pin down. The Russian firms that do business with these mercenary groups largely have majority-state ownership, indicating clear ties back to the Kremlin. But details of the group’s command structure are difficult to produce. This strategic ambiguity makes it tough for the U.S. and its allies to hold the Kremlin responsible for the mercenaries’ activities. After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has claimed that the private security sector “is not the Russian state, and they are not engaged in combat.”
Through these mercenary groups, Russia has been able to foster relationships of security dependency with partner countries without incurring official military casualties, which is important for preserving Putin’s domestic reputation. For instance, the Central African Republic sought the support of the Wagner Group in 2017, when Islamist and intercommunal violence threatened to curtail the country’s fragile but hard-won political stability.
The mercenaries helped CAR President Faustin Touadera regain some territorial control in the country’s peripheries. Years later, facing a rebel coalition that sought to unseat him, Touadera turned to the group again. It was during this 2020 counteroffensive that the Wagner Group gained international notoriety for its human rights abuses.
Private security contractors allow Russia to protect its interests and deepen political alliances, while retaining a plausible deniability about its involvement.
Russia also uses mercenaries in its own backyard. Although its most high-profile moves have included military force—like its interjection into Kazakhstan’s domestic unrest last month and its offer of military assistance to Belarus in 2020—early versions of the Wagner Group were active in eastern Ukraine in 2014, where, as the Economist put it, “a patchwork of forces operated with differing degrees of distance from the Russian government.” Russia is also reportedly pulling some Wagner Group mercenaries from their posts in the Central African Republic to contribute to the current buildup in Ukraine.
In addition to its use of paramilitaries, Russia has attempted to weaken regional blocks by fostering relationships of dependence with individual members. This trend is particularly stark in West Africa, where four coups have taken place in the past 20 months, including two in Mali. Most of these occurred in states where the Wagner Group has allegedly engaged in internal counterinsurgency campaigns on behalf of the government. Mali’s coup leaders reportedly trained in Russia right before their takeover, while the most recent coup in Burkina Faso was reportedly initiated just after the now-deposed president refused to rehire the Wagner Group.
The international response to these coup attempts has been swift. Like its neighbors, Burkina Faso immediately faced a rapid withdrawal of aid and financing from multiple Western countries, including the United States. Meanwhile, the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, issued a harsh statement against the uptick in coups and suspended Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso—a fifth of its membership. ECOWAS has seen limited success in responding to the coups, some of which were prompted by civilian governments’ failure to contain violence from Islamist insurgencies—and possibly by Russia’s role in combatting them.
Russia’s sowing of discord within regional blocs has also extended into Europe. The military buildup has left the U.S. and NATO racing to coordinate a response, but they have also struggled to respond to less overt forms of aggression. Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden indicated that NATO allies were divided on how to respond to any action from Russia that falls short of a full-fledged invasion, such as “cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics.” In fact, cyberattacks have already begun. In mid-January, for instance, just as Russia-NATO talks on Ukraine hit a dead end, hackers defaced and brought down multiple Ukrainian government websites.
Russia’s relationships with individual members of the European Union also threaten to derail a coordinated response. For instance, U.S. threats to level sanctions against Putin and his inner circle have not been met with widespread enthusiasm in Europe, especially among countries that rely on Russia for gas and energy. Italy, for instance, gets more than a third of its energy from Russia and has failed to take a strong stand against the potential invasion. In general, Europe’s dependence on Russian energy has made it more difficult for the EU to act collectively, while also strengthening Russia’s ability to withstand any financial consequences. For this reason, any forthcoming sanctions are likely to focus on Russian financial hubs and Moscow banks, rather than the energy sector—despite the fact that the latter would likely be much more effective in influencing Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Finally, Russia has proven capable of successfully exploiting geopolitical tensions to its advantage, as is demonstrated by the deepening relationship between Moscow and Beijing. On Ukraine, China came out in support of Russia last week and sided with Russia at the United Nations Security Council, in a failed attempt to block a meeting on the crisis. The two countries are also set to sign new deals on energy and other shared interests when Putin visits Beijing for the Olympics this week. Indeed, the Olympics, as well as recent tensions over Taiwanese sovereignty, may provide an opening for Russia to move closer to China, improving its ability to survive Western reprisals.
All these strategic realities—Russia’s use of secretive armed groups, its targeted weakening of regional alliances, and its ability to exploit tensions between rival states—will make responding to Moscow extremely difficult, both now and in the future. As both the U.S. and Russia engage in geopolitical brinksmanship in Ukraine, we cannot forget the stage has been long set—on a global scale—for this showdown.