The Wagner Group (WG), a private Russian mercenary force, has been in news since Russia took over parts of eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, and the “little green men” operating there were identified as WG members.
Founded in 2014 by Russian intelligence officer-Chechen War veteran Dmitry Utkin to support Ukrainian separatists, the WG has also fought to uphold Russian interests across Africa and the Middle East, for eg, it participated in Syria’s civil war on President al-Assad’s side; in 2020, it assisted Libyan General Khalifa Haftar against Libya’s government of National Accord.
Reportedly financed by an oligarch close to President Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin who’s ‘wanted’ by the FBI for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election, the WG is said to be linked unofficially to the Kremlin, Russian Ministry of Defense (WG operates a training facility in Mol’kino next to the Spetsnaz’s 10th Special Mission Brigade), its Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), Federal Security Service (FSB), and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
West's Accusations Of War Crimes On Wagner
Sanctioned by the Trump administration in 2017 for sending fighters to Ukraine, WG now stands accused of ‘war crimes’. In 2021, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights accused it of violently harassing/intimidating civilians in the Central African Republic.
At the end of January, the UN Human Rights Council added the WG may have committed crimes against humanity/war crimes in Mali in conjunction with Mali’s military. President Putin has denied these charges, adding the WG neither represented Moscow nor was paid by the government, but has the right to work as long as they don’t break Russian law even though Private Military Companies (PMCs) are technically illegal under Article 359 of the 1996 Russian Criminal Code.
While the West has been swift to condemn the WG, the fact is that irregulars are not a new phenomenon in conflict zones they can be traced back to Punic Wars (264 BC) when Carthage used mercenaries to fight the Romans and now, many nations use PMCs for doing dirty work they don’t want to be seen doing.
While the WG furthers the tradition of Russian ‘volunteers’ who participated in the Balkan wars in the 19th century and the 1930s Spanish Civil War, the US-based PMCs build on the USA’s long tradition of using private contractors in times of war and their waging of unauthorised warfare.
During the American Civil War, the civilians accompanied the Union and Confederate armies, and performed supply functions; the US augmented its naval power in the early 19th Century by contracting privateers/non-govt ships to carry out missions at sea during the battle for Wake Island (1941), private contractors building an airstrip fought alongside soldiers.
Besides, much of the US’s westwards and southwards expansion was done by private armies; eg., William Walker, the US’s most famous mercenary led a mercenary army into Mexico’s Baja Peninsula in 1850s, captured the region, and declared himself president of the newly independent “Republic of Sonora”. However, the basis and structure for present-day PMCs was really established by the USA on account of systematic shifts in the structure of its US armed forces from the end of the Cold War onwards.
US Military, Cold War & Women in Forces
The US military had relied on conscription till the middle of the Cold War. Since conscript tenures were short, most troops weren’t well-trained. As the Cold War ended (1991), the US shifted to a volunteer army which retains troops much longer, their training is protracted and expensive, and their value, therefore, is higher.
But since the military also has many tedious and menial tasks, it was felt that using well-trained troops for such work was a waste of specialist manpower and affected morale. Consequently, the Reagan administration transferred some of the military’s basic and maintenance work to appropriate private civilian contractors.
The Cold War’s end also led to a perception that a large standing military was not required since widespread, high-intensity, protracted wars were unlikely. The review by then Secretary of Defense Les Aspin recommended (1993) that the Army and the Navy be downsized. But soon, the US was embroiled in Iraq (1991) and Kosovo (1998), which imposed an expansion of the scale and role of civilian contractors.
Demography was another factor. Contrary to popular belief, women were not initially inducted into the US armed forces to address gender equality. Given the US’s demography (Yr-2000: 28 crores population, with 13.9% in the 15-25 yrs age cohort) and the fact it was a volunteer force, women were needed to make up the paucity of able-bodied young men.
Yet, women could not be exposed to direct combat roles. All this led to an unrealistic definition of combat and non-combat roles – and in turn, more civilians being hired to perform “non-combat functions” even at forward operating basses in combat zones. This further facilitated downsizing, leading to more private contractors, who eventually became critical to the functioning of the US Army.
The dynamics of war zones forced another shift - from private contractors to PMCs. Since non-combatants have to operate in the same combat environment, they are liable to be wounded, killed, taken prisoner. This led to private contractors arming themselves and acquiring lightly armoured vehicles for self-protection.
But they still couldn’t travel securely in the combat zone as they needed operational information and intelligence about the enemy which was available with the army or CIA who were not always available/able/willing to part with it to private contractors.
So, to survive, the PMCs began setting up their own protective intelligence outfits. As they organised themselves like mini-armies, the distinction between combat and support roles vanished, and they morphed into full-fledged PMCs.
US PMCs & Biden's Position in Ukraine Conflict
Blackwater based in the USA, is the world’s biggest and most recognised PMC. Some other large US PMCs are KBR/Halliburton, Group R/FDG Corp, DynCorp, and MPRI. Founded in 1997 as ‘Blackwater USA’ by Erik Prince, a former US Navy SEAL, and Al Clark, it operates the world’s largest civilian tactical training facility (7000 acres; North Carolina) where it trains between 20,000 - 40,000 people annually (US and foreign militaries and police services) on offensive and defensive operations as well as personal security.
Till recently, it was the largest of the US State Department's three private security contractors with 90% of its revenue coming from governmental contracts.
Following controversies in Iraq (alleged killing of civilians), it renamed itself ‘Xe Services LLC’ in 2009. In 2010, it paid a USD 42 million settlement to the US State Department for violating the Arms Export Control Act and the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations. In 2011, it became ‘Academi LLC’, and in 2012, agreed to pay a USD 7.5 million fine to settle charges of arms smuggling and unauthorised possession of automatic weapons.
It has numerous subsidiaries, eg, for training special forces in naval operations, operating aircraft in close cooperation with the US military, designing drones, construction of light armored vehicles, combat zone construction activities, etc.
Erik Prince claims that President Biden had rejected his proposal to have his pilots take 140 fighter aircraft to Ukraine to deter the Russians.
Although PMCs provoke intense criticism, their involvement in conflicts is increasing exponentially and a number of countries are funding and operating at least one. These non-state agencies with near-military capabilities allow a nation to wage irregular warfare or conduct operations with expert manpower in foreign lands while affording plausible deniability to the owner nation.
When grouped with an Army formation, they can provide intelligence, act as force multipliers, and train local forces. At the highest level, they can be a tool for projecting power, fomenting or exploiting instability in pursuit of geopolitical, military, and/or economic goals. PMCs are, thus, here to stay.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)