Russian state energy giant Gazprom is starting its own private security force, a move Ukraine fears will lead to a new Wagner-like mercenary army
Russia's government is allowing energy giant Gazprom to start a private security outfit.
Ukraine's Ministry of Defence drew comparisons with the notorious private army the Wagner Group.
Experts said it's plausible that another Russian mercenary army is in the works.
Russian majority state-owned energy company Gazprom has been authorized to create its own private security outfit, in a move that Ukrainian intelligence says is part of a war-fueled "arms race" to develop a mercenary army.
Russia's government gave its go-ahead for the energy giant to create a private security organization on February 4, under the pretext of securing the country's energy sector.
The decree gives Gazprom 70% control of the resulting company, per Ukrainska Pravda's translation.
Commenting on Tuesday, Ukraine's Ministry of Defence intelligence department said that the move signals intent to mimic the Wagner Group, the notoriously cruel mercenary army run by ally of President Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The Wagner Group has been a major player as a Russian proxy in Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
Gazprom did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.
Private military companies (PMCs) are technically outlawed in Russia, with the Russian government's decree authorizing a conventional security company — the kind that any major company would conceivably use to protect its sites.
Nonetheless, experts told Insider that it's possible another Wagner-like mercenary army is in the works, as a means to leverage Gazprom's vast riches in the direction of international conflicts.
"The timing is obviously curious," Dale Buckner, CEO of security firm Global Guardian, told Insider. "Following the Wagner template, everyone's drawing conclusions that there might be a tie there — which is probably a very good assumption at this point."
Stepan Stepanenko, research fellow at the UK security think tank The Henry Jackson Society, told Insider it was "entirely plausible" that the Gazprom outfit could operate as a PMC.
If the new entity does operate as a PMC, we can be "certain" that "Putin is behind it, or at the very least approved it, and it will have support from the army," Stepanenko added.
Wagner — which has been designated a "transnational criminal organization" by the US — apparently operates with no legal backing other than Putin's personal say-so.
The murky legal situation makes Russian PMCs particularly difficult to track.
Gazprom's CEO, Alexei Miller, is considered among Russia's super-elite class of silovarchs — olicharchs with exceptional connections to Putin, as Insider's Sam Tabahriti previously reported.
But Stepanenko said that even if the Gazprom entity does begin to operate as a PMC, the decree "is not a clear-cut move to Gazprom's direct involvement in Ukraine."
To fight in Ukraine, Gazprom's would-be combatants would have to compete with the conventional army and Wagner, while production and logistics are already stretched, he said.
"While the financial muscle of Gazprom is sufficiently large, it is not a bottomless pit of cash," he added.
Training an elite mercenary also takes years, the use of state-supported facilities, and a lot more men, Buckner said, pointing out that Prigozhin had already resorted to recruiting troops from Russian penal colonies.
"Why would it be any easier for Gazprom to recruit?" Buckner asked.
Noting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's recent visits to multiple African countries, Stepanenko suggested that the Gazprom move could be connected to sending Russians to countries like those.
"Should Ukraine be worried? No," he added. "Ukrainians are handling Wagner, they are handling the Russian army."
Read the original article on Business Insider