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Gazprom Is Launching a ‘Private Military.’ Could It Be the Next Wagner Group?

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On February 7, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense sounded the alarm about a potential new step in the Russian arms race: the formation of a “private military company” by Russian oil giant Gazprom Neft. In a press release, the Ukrainian government warned that the unit would be comparable to notorious mercenary organization the Wagner Group.

On its face, however, the Russian announcement of the group published on Feb. 4 could be interpreted very differently. Rather than a “military organization,” the order signed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin allows the establishment of a “private security organization” under a law permitting energy companies to create such groups to secure their facilities.

There’s little known about this security organization beyond the contents of Mishustin’s order, and it’s unknown what role it will eventually play in Ukraine or abroad. For now, however, experts on Russian energy who spoke with TIME are sharply divided on the group—and whether it will pose a threat to Ukraine or other nations.

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What is Gazprom Neft?

Gazprom Neft, which produces and refines oil in Russia and abroad, is a subsidiary of the energy company Gazprom, in which the Russian government holds a majority stake. Gazprom is essential to the Russian economy as it is the largest company in the country and was the largest producer of natural gas globally in 2021.

In addition to its economic value, however, Russia has long utilized Gazprom’s oil and gas as a political tool abroad. Russia has used the promise of contracts or pipelines to forge relationships—or wielded the threat of price increases or turning off supplies to apply political pressure. For instance, after the toppling of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Gazprom increased the price of gas for Ukraine by 80%.

The threat of creeping Russian influence makes the construction of pipelines by Gazprom controversial. One example includes the Nord Stream pipelines, a network which runs from Russia to Germany. Nord Stream 1 was completed in 2011, while Nord Stream 2 was completed in 2021. In September 2022, both pipelines were damaged in what many experts said were acts of sabotage. In the months since, western countries and Russia have disputed who was responsible. While some countries have said Russia attacked the pipeline, the Russian government and, recently, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, have accused the United States.

Why is Gazprom Neft building a security organization?

Experts have varied theories for why Gazprom Neft would be inclined to create this organization.

One is that Gazprom, like many energy companies, is forming a security organization to protect its pipelines. Securing pipelines and extraction sites is logical during a war, as sabotage is more likely, argues Gerhard Mangott, a professor at the University of Innsbruck studying Russian foreign policy.

Emily Holland, an assistant professor in the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, also points out that Gazprom Neft is primarily focused on natural resources in the Arctic, an area especially crucial as Russian economic interests turn to business with Asia. “The Arctic is developing rapidly in terms of energy infrastructure and drilling, and military facilities, with a number of states involved…including China,” she says.

Other experts, however, believe that Gazprom could be building a security organization to strengthen Russia’s military power.

“The aims of Gazprom are not just gas business. They are to, essentially, support the national interests of the Russian Federation, and specifically, let’s be honest, to maintain and support the regime of Vladimir Putin,” says Dr. Agnia Grigas, the author of The New Geopolitics of Natural Gas and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. “I think Vladimir Putin has made it pretty clear this is essentially a war for his regime survival, and that he is not willing to back down.”

The war in Ukraine has made the Russian government “desperate” to find new ways to recruit more soldiers, and it may want to harness the oil and gas workforce, says Margarita Balmaceda, a professor at Seton Hall University and the author of Russian Energy Chains: The Remaking of Technopolitics from Siberia to Ukraine to the European Union. However, she suspects that building the security force isn’t the Kremlin’s decision alone. Instead, she argues, it may be an effort by the leaders of Gazprom, including CEO Alexey Miller, to seek favor with Putin—and, possibly, to gather power following the war.

”You need to understand these private military companies within the context of the battle for power already taking place in Russia,” says Balmaceda. “It is about the battle for power, for benefits or favors that [Putin] can give. And it’s a battle for what comes next.”

In a statement to TIME about the group, Gazprom Neft said that the organization, “Gazprom Neft Private Security Company (PSC) is being established exclusively for protection purposes of civilian and production facilities of the company in the regions of its operation in the Russian Federation …. Establishment of a private security company is a common and recognised practice among major companies in Russia and worldwide.”

Why would Gazprom Neft form this organization now?

The answer depends on the organization’s purpose.

Pavel Baev, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo believes there are two possible reasons the group is forming now: the U.S.’s decision to classify the Wagner Group as an international criminal organization; and the tightening of the U.S. sanctions on Russian oil and petroleum product exports.

“The company has good reasons to assume that the risks to its assets abroad are increasing, but hiring external security structures becomes problematic, because [Yevgeny] Prigozhin increasingly dominates this market in Russia,” says Baev, referring to the oligarch founder of the Wagner Group.

Balmaceda says this organization has been announced now because Russia needs to turn the tide of the war.

“The Kremlin is getting more desperate for bodies on the ground,” she says. “And secondly, important actors within Russia are becoming increasingly aware of the chaos this war of choice is creating for Russia itself.”

Is this a threat to Ukraine?

Again, experts disagree regarding whether this security force could threaten Ukraine.

In the future, says Grigas, Russia may step up its military presence in the Black Sea—where Ukraine has offshore oil and gas reserves—or even around the Nord Stream pipeline in the Baltic. “I will be watching to what extent Russia will justify its military operations in Ukraine under the pretext of securing the pipeline infrastructure,” says Grigas. Balmaceda added that Gazprom Neft troops could be deployed to Crimea or eastern Ukraine.

Mangott, meanwhile, argues that the security group is unlikely to pose a threat to Ukraine. In his view, it’s not clear what such a force would add for Russia, as Russian mercenary groups are already struggling to recruit people willing to fight in Ukraine.

Could this force interfere in other countries?

Going forward, Grigas said she fears that protecting Gazprom’s infrastructure could offer Russia a pretext for military interference in countries across the region. In particular, she says, she is concerned about countries that are heavily indebted to Gazprom or have Gazprom pipelines in their country, including Kyrgyzstan and Belarus.

Gazprom Neft’s force may also become active in other parts of the world where the company has assets. In Baev’s view, the most likely place is Iraq, where Sergey Lavrov, the Russian minister of foreign affairs, said on a recent visit it was important to protect Russian assets.

“Any country that values its independence and security should be very concerned about having Gazprom assets in their country,” says Grigas.

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