Russian private military companies or contractors (PMCs) have received much attention in recent years, but the Russian state has a long history in utilizing such groups. Under Vladimir Putin, however, this model is growing, evolving, and expanding. This study reviews the history of semi-state military forces in Russia and explains the unique way the Russian state utilizes PMCs, which is different from how Western governments utilize private contractors. An important aspect of PMCs is that they are officially illegal under Russian law. The study then traces the rise of the PMC model under Putin. It notes that while plausible deniability is a major reason for Moscow to utilize PMCs, it is also linked to other considerations, such as internal rivalries within the Russian government and other domestic reasons. Competition with the West drives the Kremlin’s use of PMCs. Paradoxically, the Russian PMC model demonstrates both state strength and weakness. The study reviews PMCs activities in Ukraine, Syria, and Africa, examines who joins these groups and under what circumstances, and concludes with policy recommendations.