Russia's Wager mercenary group often hits the headlines. But who are the country's other guns for hire? And what are they doing?
The Russian Wagner mercenary group often steals the limelight, thanks largely to its outspoken and publicity-crazed boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.
But there are others.
Many of Russia's rich and powerful own private military companies (PMC), with more coming out of the woodwork all the time. They recruit an eclectic mix of ex-special forces, prisoners, extremists, vagrants, adrenaline junkies and everything in between, operating all around the world.
Elites have "realised that having a PMC can get the benefits from the Kremlin," Anton Shekhovtsov, Director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity told Euronews. "Because if you contribute to the war effort [in Ukraine], you will be rewarded."
Putin-loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov, who leads the Chechen Republic, is reportedly planning to create a PMC on top of his paramilitary of "TikTok warriors" notorious for filming themselves purportedly fighting in Ukraine, though doubts remain about how genuine this is.
Energy giant Gazprom has also allegedly created two private militaries, known as Fakel (torch) and Plamya (flame), which are tasked with protecting overseas assets in places like Syria and Ukraine.
“They are supposedly just defending pipelines, although we simply don't know," said Dr Stephen Hall, lecturer of Russian politics at the University of Bath.
Yet, PMCs don't only belong to Russia's elites.
The Orthodox Brotherhood mercenary group, linked to the powerful Orthodox Church, is reportedly fighting in Ukraine to protect Christain Russia from a decadent West that has hijacked Kyiv, Hall told Euronews.
ENOT meanwhile is a collection of far-right, ultra-nationalist guns for hire, battling in Ukraine since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists took up arms in Ukraine'e east.
Though motivated by a "virulent imperialism" seeing Ukraine as belonging to Russia, Shekhovtsov believes the group is only fighting as it was able to “monetise their ideology”, picking up support from local businesses in the breakaway provinces.
“They just making money,” he claimed, adding the Kremlin was more than happy to "get rid" of these violent extremists, preventing them from stirring up trouble back home.
Founder of ENOT Igor Leonidovich Mangushev - an infamous nationalist who made a public speech holding what he said was a Ukrainian fighter's skull - was killed in February from an “execution style” gunshot in Russian-occupied Ukraine.
ENOT was shut down in 2019, with Shekhovtsovck claiming Mangushev was likely killed by the Russians.
'Russia's mercenary groups are tied to the state'
Though nominally independent, Hall said PMCs can only exist with the Kremlin's blessing. They are in fact illegal under Russian law, which forbids the "recruitment, training and financing" of a mercenary.
"They will always do what the state asks," he told Euronews, pointing out that many were deeply intertwined with the FSB, Russia's secret services.
"The reason why Wagner group is the largest [mercenary group] is that it had the best sponsorship, not only financial but also political protection," added Shekhovtsov. "ENOT were not able to find a good group of elites who would protect them", suggesting this is why they were ultimately destroyed.
For the Kremlin, such shadowy forces are useful for "plausibility deniability", said Hall.
They allow the state to engage in dirtier, more sketchy activities, which it can deny because they are technically private. Mercenaries are also much less regulated than conventional armies, giving them greater leeway to engage in criminal behaviour.
Recognising it had relied on soldiers of fortune throughout its history, Halls claims Moscow was inspired by the US’s use of the now-defunct Blackwater mercenary group in Iraq, which gained notoriety after massacring Iraqi civilians in 2007.
“It gave the Kremlin an idea,” he continued.
Distinct from the conventional armed forces, mercenaries have helped mask Russian losses in Ukraine, since they seldom tallied in official casualty counts.
"If mercenaries die in Ukraine, it is unfortunate. But the Kremlin does not have to publicise these issues," Hall explained. "As the Soviet Union learnt during the Afghan War of the 80s, the public tends to get quite upset when their boys come home in body bags."
The Patriot mercenary group is an example of this, offering Russia no strings-attached military might.
Founded in 2018, it is controlled by the Ministry of Defence and consists of many ex-members of Russian special forces Spetsnaz, who earn a "very high by Russian standards" €5,600 a month, according to Hall. However, they reportedly do not receive pensions or injury benefits.
Patriot is the Russian military answer to the "growing popularity and bargaining power" of Wager, a “pioneer of the entire mercenary movement", says Shekhovtsov.
Their effectiveness on the battlefield remains to be seen, but mercenaries have not left a big mark on the war so far, according to the US-based Insitute for the Study of War.
'Mafia groups fighting one another'
Mercenary groups are gaining considerable power in Russia, commanding large numbers of men and military resources. Some are engaged in economic activities, such as mining in Africa, that only strengthens their position.
"As long as they are not crossing red lines, the state is fine with them because they are beneficial," Shekhovtsov told Euronews. "But if they interfere with the political decisions of stakeholders, they can get shut down."
For now, he said the Kremlin remains powerful enough to shut them down should they get out of line.
Still, this may not always be so.
"It will depend on the course of the war. But with each military defeat on the battlefield, the Russian state will start losing even further its control over these various armed groups," Shekhovtsov explained.
Though Putin was still firmly in control, he cited the example of Wagern boss Yevgeny Prigozhin openly defying the Kremlin, believing this would have been "unimaginable" a year before.
"Figures within the regime are increasingly worried about the future," said Hall, pointing to criticism of the war and Putin from both Priogzhin and Chechen Leader Kadyrov. "By creating these private military companies the Kremlin has opened up a black hole for itself. They aren't beholden to the state because the state isn't paying them."
"If Putin loses power, there's going to be like cats fighting in a bag. You're talking Game of Thrones but with nuclear weapons".