Russian private military companies (PMCs) have made their way from the Kremlin’s covert toolkit to international headlines following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
While PMC Wagner is uncontestedly the most well-known of the groups, likely due to its outspoken leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, PMC Patriot has been flying under the radar for over five years, and also plays an important role in Russian military operations. Linked to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, this “personal army” competes with Wagner over state contracts and money flows, and is a testament to infighting within Russian elites.
On April 12, the U.S. Department of State and the Treasury announced the latest round of sanctions targeting Russian financial facilitators and sanctions evaders around the world. Among those listed was PMC Patriot, “an entity associated with Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and … competing with Prigozhin’s PMC Wagner.”
“Patriot PMC is being designated pursuant to Section 1(a)(i) for operating or having operated in the defense and related materiel sector of the Russian Federation economy,” the State Department said in a release.
Media reports suggest the creation of Patriot was the direct result of a conflict between Shoigu and Wagner’s Prigozhin. The conflict allegedly dates back to 2018, when dozens of Wagner fighters were killed in a strike by the US-led Coalition against Islamic State near Deir Ezzor, Syria. The incident took place due to lack of proper coordination between Wagner and the Russian military contingent subordinate to the Ministry of Defense. Soon after the incident, independent Russian TV station Dozhd—or “Rain” in English—produced the first report about the existence of Patriot.
According to Russian pro-Kremlin military blogger Telegram channels, PMC Patriot is not a legal entity. They ironically call such companies “creative communities,” claiming that every special service or military organization, including the Russian Ministry of Defense, has special units on its service that operate both overtly and covertly and are staffed with people used to the “gray zone”.
These “creative communities” made up of veterans, employees of some Russian intelligence services, and members of the Special Operations Forces exist to carry out “unconventional operations”. The knowledge and skills of these people allow them to engage in sabotage and intelligence gathering activities in foreign countries, remaining ostensibly disconnected from the official work of Russian government agencies.
Chairman of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly Yevgeny Shabaev has also said that Patriot is a nominal name. According to his knowledge, the organization consists of more than 10 firms—detachments or mini-PMCs—each with their own tasks.
There are other social media posts that indirectly prove the connection between Patriot and the Defense Ministry. For example, an individual who shared an image with Patriot’s insignia in January, in February posed for a photo with his comrades, including female fighters. A flag can be seen behind them that reads “Die with Dignity,” a part of the slogan used by a separate reconnaissance regiment of Russian special forces.
There are a few images that show Patriot fighters in action. However, one of their identification signs has been shared on social media—a patch with a dog head in a spiked collar. Patriot’s choice of mascot is quite thought-provoking. Deliberately or not, they selected the same insignia as the Oprichnics, a personal guard corps established by Ivan the Terrible in 1565. The Oprichnics went down in history as an extremely brutal force and were responsible for numerous acts of violence and terror during their time in power.
Dogs are known for their fierce loyalty and protection of their owners, and the Oprichnics adopted this symbolism as a way to demonstrate their unwavering commitment to the tsar. The dog head was often displayed on their clothing and weapons, as well as in their official seals and documents. Real severed dog heads were tied to their saddles.
The use of the symbol also had a darker side. The Oprichnics were infamous for their use of guard dogs to terrorize and attack their enemies, and the dog head symbol served as a warning to those who opposed Ivan the Terrible’s rule. It represented the brutal force and aggression that the Oprichnics were willing to employ to maintain their power.
Patriot employs thousands of people according to Shabaev. In 2018, their monthly salaries were anywhere between 400,000 and 1 million rubles (about $5,000 – 12,000 USD). Additionally, you could get a percentage of transactions between the PMC and its customers. The amounts were substantially higher than those at Wagner—between 150-240,000 rubles a month ($1,800-2,900 USD), plus occasional “combat” bonuses of 3,000 rubles (about $37) per day.
“But [Patriot’s] tasks are more serious: not only security, but also intellectual, informational, and cyber services, if necessary,” Shabaev explained, noting that the selection process is more rigorous too—only people with established military backgrounds get to serve there, not just volunteers wiling to fight.
Five years ago Patriot reportedly offered only short-term contracts for a month or two, and longer engagement was discouraged.
A typical PMC contract would include information about the next of kin. Contacted in case of death, they would get 3-5 million rubles ($37,000-61,000 USD) in insurance money. The company would promise to make every effort to deliver the body home, but it was never guaranteed. The wounded were treated for free in military hospitals. None of the fighters would deploy carrying documents—only ID tags. They would communicate using call signs without ever mentioning their last names. Phones were taken away to avoid leaks.
An October report said that just like Wagner, the Defense Ministry started to recruit convicts, but only from so-called “red colonies” for former employees of law enforcement agencies. Allegedly, these individuals were offered to join the Storm detachment from the Southern Military District.
There are at least three Storms associated with the Ministry of Defense. One is an assault battalion formed in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic in July 2022 “for a more effective assault on urban areas and industrial zones.” The second is a consolidated assault detachment of the 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division of the Russian Airborne Forces, which is one of the best assault units of the paratroopers. And the third and most likely one, is a combined detachment of volunteers from North Ossetia, which has been fighting in Ukraine.
The recruitment of convicts is indirectly corroborated by messages publicly submitted to a social media group named after PMC Patriot.
“How can someone apply from behind bars, a friend wanted to join Wagner, but now they say you are recruiting. If so, how can I contact you,” one message reads.
“Greetings. Please tell me, is it possible for a convicted woman to join your company?” another one follows.
Unlike Wagner and some other Russian PMCs, Patriot doesn’t actively advertise its recruitment efforts. However, it’s possible to find posts of interest on Telegram channels devoted to PMC employment. Without mentioning Patriot, they offer 3-6 months contracts with a salary of $1,800-2,200 USD per month—somewhat consistent with what was mentioned in 2018 reports. Additionally, they highlight “veteran and state awards” for the service, and some go as far as to suggest “official hire through a military enlistment office.”
It’s important to note that in March, Minister Shoigu approved an order that officially outlined procedures for enrollment into volunteer formations, as well as the algorithm for contracts and requirements for candidates. Based on the order, military enlistment offices can now recruit for PMCs, which implies that the Defense Ministry has resolved past problems with the status of private military companies in Russia.
Areas of Operation
In a way, Syria can be considered the mother of all Russian PMCs, and it is not any different for Patriot.
Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, is a Russian veteran and former Federal Security Service officer involved in the annexation of Crimea and an organizer of militant groups in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. In 2021, Girkin said Patriot had been operating in Syria along with Wagner and PMC Redut, associated with Russian oligarch Gennady Timchenko.
Patriot’s Syria operations were also mentioned by pro-Kremlin military bloggers, who said in the summer of 2020 that the organization was engaged in deep reconnaissance in one of the Syrian provinces and also carried out work to identify Russian-speaking persons in the ranks of terrorist groups and their detention camps in order to prevent their return to Russia.
In 2018, All-Russian Officers’ Assembly Chairman Shabaev noted Patriot’s engagement in Africa: they work in Sudan, Gabon, and the Central African Republic.
And in December, Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesman for the Eastern grouping of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, said during the national joint newscast that Patriot fighters were spotted near Vuhledar in Donetsk Oblast.
“In particular, in the area of Stepne on the Vuhledar front, we have noticed that in addition to Wagner PMC, Patriot PMC, affiliated with the current Russian Defence Minister Shoigu, has appeared. Obviously, they are pulling up all combat capabilities to achieve at least some results,” he said at the time.
While the global attention is often on Wagner, Patriot carries out equally consequential assignments for the Russian state. Patriot helps shape the Ukrainian battlefield and influences politics in foreign countries, all while evading the notoriety associated with Prigozhin’s fighters.
Notably, Wagner and Patriot have managed to coordinate operations thus far, but this cooperative dynamic may not always persist. Russia will likely continue to rely on PMCs like Patriot to carry out its operations and advance its agenda, providing a buffer to distance the Kremlin from direct involvement in their activities.