The Wagner Group. No, I’m not talking about the group of works by Germany’s famous opera composer Richard Wagner. This is about the most powerful private military company (PMC) in the world today. The Wagner Group is a corporation run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, sometimes referred to as “Putin’s Chef.” But in reality, PMC Wagner is Putin’s private army.
Definitions in this arena are blurry. Some PMCs in the world are hired to provide help with things like assistance with natural disasters, providing security services, bodyguard services for VIPs, or protecting wildlife from poachers. But there are those that provide nation states with intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance or disinformation warfare services.
The Wagner Group is another level up. Russia has hired this group to engage in combat, putting these private mercenaries side by side with Russia’s regular soldiers, providing them with weapons, artillery, T-72 battle tanks, even authorizing them to recruit Russian prisoners into their own forces. Some of the most egregious battlefield crimes have been attributed to these PMC forces allowing Putin and Russia to evade responsibility for atrocities.
In Ukraine this past week intensive battles in Soledar, north of the obliterated city of Bakhmut, Russia claims to have finally made small territorial progress. But this fighting has been done almost exclusively by the Wagner mercenaries.
The United States also has used PMCs. Perhaps best known was Blackwater. Its name has since morphed into Xe Services and now Academi. They were actively engaged in Iraq and criminally scrutinized for some of their activities, in particular the massacre in the Nisour Square killings. Even larger, yet perhaps lesser known, is Vinnell Corporation, an international PMC based in Herndon, Virginia. It’s a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Inc. and is best known for “specializing in military training, logistics and support in the form of weapon systems maintenance and management consultancy.”
It’s been said that as state power declines, the use and power of private forces increases. Using proxies to destabilize fragile countries is increasingly Russia’s modi operandi.
But it’s also true, ironically, with respect to Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. By some measures, Russia is a failing state. Sanctions are crippling the Russian economy. Combat-aged men and women in Russia are fleeing across Russia’s borders. These conditions have caused Putin to engage the Wagner Group to help in substantial ways with the fight against the stubborn Ukrainian resistance.
Africa is an example of developing nations susceptible to the notion of hiring external military mercenaries instead of bearing the cost and logistical challenges of outfitting and training their own forces. Here is an example of how Russia is inveigling its way into influence and power in weaker nations with enviable natural resources. In Africa, Russian PMCs, notably the Wagner Group, are active in Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Madagascar, Mozambique and Libya.
It’s worth noting that using contracted mercenaries in war zones may be unlawful, according to stipulations outlined in the Geneva Conventions. In the case of Ukraine, there’s little question and a myriad of evidence that the Wagner Group has committed war crimes subject to prosecution by the International Criminal Court.
There is a downside to the deployment of “Putin’s Army” that is beginning to manifest itself in Ukraine. Wagner CEO Yevgeny Prigozhin is a boastful “mini-me” of Vladimir Putin, and to the extent that his successes or proclaimed successes make the regular Russian army leadership look bad, that friction heats up the battlefield in adverse ways. Pay differentials also create rancor. There are some reports that Prigozhin is fearful that the Russian military brass are out to get him.
It’s a fact that the United States is going to have to plan for warfare against these non-state or proxy-state mercenary actors. Dr. Sean McFate of the National Defense University, (Fort McNair – Washington, D.C.) makes the case in a press report with an alarmingly real example.
“February 7, 2018 — The opening salvo of artillery was so intense that American troops took cover in foxholes for protection. After the barrage, a column of Russian tanks advanced on their positions, firing their 125-millimeter turret guns at soldiers. They returned fire, but it was not enough to repulse the tanks. They were in danger of being overrun. A team of about 30 special operations forces was pinned down at a Conoco gas plant. Roughly 20 miles away, a team of Green Berets and a platoon of Marines stared at their computer screens, watching the drone feeds of the battle. Their collective mission was to defend the Conoco facility, alongside Kurdish and Arab forces. No one expected an enemy armored assault.
Attacking them were 500 mercenaries, hired by Russia, who possessed artillery, armored personnel carriers, and T-72 main battle tanks. This was the Wagner Group, a private military company based in Russia, and like many high-end mercenaries today, they were covert and lethal.
The American commandos radioed for help. Warplanes arrived in waves, including Reaper drones, F-22 stealth fighter jets, F-15E Strike Fighters, B-52 bombers, AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache helicopters. Scores of strikes pummeled the mercenaries, but they did not waver.
Four hours later, the mercenaries finally retreated. Four hours. No Americans were killed, and the Department of Defense (DOD) touted this as a big win. But it wasn’t. It took America’s most elite troops and advanced aircraft four hours to repel 500 mercenaries. What happens when they have to face 1,000, 5,000 or more?”
Whether the proxy conflict is direct as in Sean McFate’s example, indirect as Russia tries to control weaker African nations for economic purposes, or covert with contractual arrangements to subvert American elections through disinformation campaigns, these private military companies are likely to become increasingly extant and represent a new kind of national security challenge.
As McFate warns us: “Private force has become big business, and global in scope.”
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.