Russia's reliance on mercenaries in Ukraine points to the weakness of its military – and Putin's strategy of deflecting blame

Ukrainian forces are gaining ground in the war against Russia. Since early September 2022, they have launched a massive counteroffensive in Ukraine’s northeast region of Kharkiv, reclaiming large swaths of territory.

The sudden offensive – likely the result of several factors, including effective war gaming and Russian military incompetence – has prompted optimism about Ukraine’s ability to push Russia back from Ukrainian territory.

Russia is now on the defensive in Ukraine’s northeast. And one important dynamic in the lead-up to Ukraine’s counteroffensive was Russia’s growing reliance on private military companies in the war. It’s clear that Russia is increasing its use of these groups, but it’s not known by exactly how much.

Like many other countries, including the U.S., Russia has used private military companies, which are for-profit organizations that provide military services during war, for years. It has increasingly relied on these mercenaries to help fight wars and participate in counterterrorism efforts in places like Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic.

As a scholar who researches private military companies, I think these groups’ increasing visibility in Ukraine reveals the tenuous status of Russia’s military efforts, as well as Moscow’s shaky domestic political situation.

Ultimately, the use of these groups shows that Russia’s manpower shortages have become a liability in its war in Ukraine.