A Year in Iraq

Moscow’s Kiev Station

MOSCOW—“So, how will I recognize you?”

“I’ll be wearing a baseball hat that says CPA-Iraq.”

I had arranged to meet “Alex,” a Ukrainian who had recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq’s private security business. He called from a cell phone without caller ID and agreed to rendezvous on a platform at Kiev Station. In his baseball cap—a souvenir of his year in Iraq—Alex was hard to miss.

The Starlite Diner

We flagged down a car outside the station and headed to the Starlite Diner, a glass-and-chrome replica of an American diner in downtown Moscow, for a late breakfast. Alex was rather taciturn at first, but after a few shots and a beer, he warmed up. Talking about his experience in Iraq, it seemed, was not easy.

Like most on the global private security circuit, Alex is a professional soldier—a veteran of a Spetsnaz unit, the Soviet equivalent of U.S. special operations forces. He said he started on the road to Iraq after stumbling across a recruiting ad on the Internet.

“I just posted my CV,” he said. “They called me up, and I was invited to an interview with a company representative, a Ukrainian.”

Another interview followed with an American. The company—which Alex would not name—offered him a one-year contract working on a personal security detail. He flew out to Jordan via Turkey, then on to Baghdad.

It’s not always that simple. According to some who work in the industry, contract soldiers from the former Soviet Union occasionally have visa hassles in the Middle East; they may also face questions when returning to their home countries.

Alex said he had no problems; but before he departed for Iraq, he received a phone call from a security official. Word gets around in his country’s intimate special-ops community, and Alex was told to steer clear of any work that might cross the line into mercenary activity.

“I said that I was going to work on reconstruction,” he said. “I didn’t lie to anyone; I didn’t serve under a foreign flag; I protected people, property, and convoys. It’s not combat operations, it’s security work.”

Combat operations or no, it’s still a risky job. Emphasizing that point, he showed me a rather impressive scar on his arm.

“How did you get that?” I asked, losing interest in my steak and eggs.

“Vehicle rollover out in western Iraq.”

Not all firms working in Iraq recruit from places like Russia and Ukraine. Christopher Beese, the chief of administration for ArmorGroup, a U.K.-based firm that operates in Iraq, said it was a matter of “choosing horses for courses.”

The Middle East, for one thing, is principally an English-speaking market for security clients. And veterans of former Soviet militaries, Beese added, have very different skill sets.

“We find the professional approach of Russians is different,” he said. “We deploy mostly British and [British] Commonwealth: They have grown up in the environment of peacekeeping, post-conflict operations, not major combat operations. Working with local communities, maintaining a low profile, not waving their guns around.”

A Westerner who has worked private security in Iraq, however, gave high marks to his Russian-speaking teammates; they were highly skilled, and many had been in combat before.

“All were experienced operators and really calm on the road,” he said. “I would go anywhere with them.”

Their biggest problem for the combat veterans, he added, was dealing with their downtime. “They didn’t know what to do with it, and it would sometimes bring them to a frenzy of uncontrollable anger and emotion.”

Alex is an Afghanistan war veteran. During our conversation over breakfast, we talked a bit about Company 9, a new Russian blockbuster movie that depicts the Soviet-Afghan war with violent, Hollywood-style pyrotechnics. How realistic was the film, I asked?

“When I left the theater, my face was streaming with tears,” he said.

At times, talking about Iraq had a similarly emotional effect for Alex. A year in Iraq, it seems, reshaped his life. He took his wife and child on their first holiday abroad, to Egypt. He was able to open a small business in his hometown: a beauty salon.

An unlikely choice, perhaps—but Alex definitely had a gentle side. After breakfast, we took a stroll down Novy Arbat, a neon-lit boulevard that looks like a low-wattage version of Fremont Street. He stopped in the Hallmark store and bought a stuffed bear for his wife.

Alex’s contract was not incredibly lucrative. In Iraq, he earned between $150 and $180 per day, sometimes $200. It puts Ukrainians in the same league as the “third-country nationals”—Nepalese, Filipinos, and Fijians—who work in the private security industry.

Earning $150 per day may not seem worth the risk—but it’s a fortune in economically stagnant Ukraine. Assuming the average Ukrainian earns an official wage of $120 per month (estimates of real income are hard to come by, but that’s the figure the IMF cites in a 2005 report), Alex was earning more in a day than most of his fellow countrymen earn in a month.

How much does an American make working on a private security detail in Iraq? Returning from a recent trip to Iraq, I met one U.S. security contractor in a transit hotel in Jordan. He was waiting for his baggage to arrive, and we got acquainted while waiting to check e-mail. He logged onto his account.

“Damn!” he said out loud. “I just got another job offer: $850 a day. Damn! That’s a hell of a job offer.”

After my return to Moscow from Amman, I phoned Alex. He had been too busy to respond to my e-mails, he said; he was looking for a new assignment overseas.

“I still want to go back,” he said. “I already sent in my résumé.”