The existence of mercenary units – understood as professional fighting forces at the service of the highest bidder in the context of an armed conflict – is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it goes back thousands of years. For instance, the so-called ‘Ten Thousand’ (a sophisticated group of mercenaries from several Greek city states) participated in conflicts that were fought in several corners of the Persian Empire.
During the Renaissance, Swiss mercenaries were exceedingly prestigious throughout Europe and their services were often demanded by the armies of countries like France, Spain, England, and the Netherlands. They were regarded as fierce warriors and their assistance in the battlefield was handsomely rewarded in economic terms. Their prowess and the quality of their skill also gave them access to powerful royal courts and senior decision-makers, an asset that was later masterfully harnessed by the Swiss Confederation to advance its national interests.
However, the essential concept of mercenary work has evolved. For instance, the most paradigmatic case in modern times is the American private military company Blackwater, which was involved in security activities and even covert tasks in challenging operational theatres like Iraq and Afghanistan. The company was also involved in the protection of critical infrastructure and natural resources in regions which were seen as strategically important for Washington’s geopolitical agenda.
Since its creation, the company was linked to both the American military-industrial complex and the US intelligence community. Later renamed ‘Xe’ and nowadays called ‘Academi,’ the private firm offers specialized training, security consulting services, tactical gear, and military-grade operational equipment.
Israel has also had its fair share of private security contractors. That’s hardly surprising, considering the country’s proficient military, intelligence, and law-enforcement capabilities and expertise. For example, the Israeli firm Black Cube – whose staff include former Mossad personnel – performs all sorts of intelligence tasks for both national and international clients who are able to afford its professional services. This illustrates that the services provided by private security companies are remarkably diverse.
These trends reflect several realities, including the increasing complexity of the 21st century’s global geopolitical dynamics, the competitive proliferation of all sorts of private security services in worldwide markets due to a growing demand, the rise of new forms of conflict which involve both state and non-state actors, and the diminishing line that distinguishes peacetime from wartime.
Not unlike the U.S. and Israel, the Russian Federation has established its own private military company. Perhaps adequately named after a German composer who embraced militaristic ideas, the Wagner Group has reportedly been active as a fighting force in Syria, eastern Ukraine, and the Crimean Peninsula. Ironically, whereas in Syria it has been involved in counter-insurgency activities against heavily armed militant jihadists, in Ukraine it has fought along the pro-Russian separatists against Ukrainian regular forces.
Additionally, it seems the company’s contractors no longer operate just in Eurasia. Interestingly, the Wagner Group’s activities in Sudan are related to the protection of gold, uranium, and diamond mines. Their presence in the Central African Republic is presumably motivated by mining interests as well. Also, they may have already reached the Western hemisphere. In fact, according to unconfirmed journalistic sources, Wagner Group operatives are acting in Venezuela as a praetorian guard of the beleaguered Maduro regime.
Although the company is not precisely known for its compliance with transparency standards (it does not even have an official website), it is known it was founded by Dmitriy Utkin, a former special forces commander that used to work for the so-called GRU –Russian military intelligence. Moreover, not unlike its foreign counterparts, the Wagner Group seemingly coordinates its operations with Russian military and intelligence units. Tellingly, one of the Wagner Group’s training centers is adjacent to a military base located in the rural locality of Molkin, near the Black Sea.
Allegedly, the company does not exclusively hire Russian former armed forces personnel, but also Ukrainian and even Serbian citizens. It must be borne in mind that Moscow’s strategic thinking has always seen Serbia as one of Russia’s closest geopolitical allies. It is pertinent to highlight that such recruits – both Russians and foreigners – are lured by the prospects of an attractive economic retribution for their services and their discretion. According to journalistic sources, the Wagner Group’s fighters in Syria are paid more than 5,000 USD per month.
In light of the above, despite being nominally a private company, it is clear the Wagner group ultimately serves the national interests of the Russian Federation. Even though the use of mercenaries has been traditionally discouraged for several reasons by classical political theorists like Machiavelli, their instrumental use can offer several advantages in contemporary contexts.
First of all, military casualties are politically costly. In other words, the deaths of men and women in uniform erode national morale, fuel popular discontent, and harm the legitimacy of the national leadership, which might be detrimental to the war effort. In contrast, dead mercenaries are almost exclusively mourned by their families and, since there are often signed confidentiality agreements and significant monetary compensations, the company does not have to disclose where or how their deaths have occurred.
Furthermore, the overseas deployment of regular troops is problematic for several reasons. Commanders and soldiers can be prosecuted for war crimes, violating human rights, or disregarding international regulations like the Geneva Conventions. Since mercenaries technically do not belong to the regular forces of a national state, it is notoriously difficult to hold them accountable if they commit atrocities. Hence, the services offered by private military companies provide substantial power projection capabilities covered by a good layer of plausible deniability.
Another element worth considering is that the official presence of uniformed troops in an operational theatre full of both regular and irregular fighters – like Syria – is that the risks of miscalculation and escalation are naturally dangerous. Under such conditions, even a minor incident can rapidly spiral out of control and trigger a formal declaration of war.
For instance, in 2018 the US military apparently killed hundreds of Russian mercenaries –some of them may have been Wagner Group contractors – in a battle fought over the control of a gas field near Der ez-Sor, in eastern Syria. This particular incident is still unclear and it seems neither Washington nor Moscow were particularly interested in issuing vocal public statements. Nevertheless, if formal American and Russian forces had fought each other in such a clash, the outcome might have been tragically different.
Accordingly, it can be argued that – in terms of grand strategy – entities like the Wagner Group and its foreign counterparts are modern embodiments of the ‘indirect approach,’ a method of war advocated by thinkers such as the legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu and the British Captain B. H. Liddell Hart. This perspective facilitates flexibility and minimizes one’s own frontal exposure when it comes to disrupting an enemy’s center of gravity in order to achieve victory in a given situation, rather than engaging enemies through direct confrontations in the framework of protracted campaigns.
The Wagner Group is a recent iteration of an ancient concept (mercenary units). However, as a transnational paramilitary company that informally acts as a proxy force fighting on behalf of the geopolitical agenda of one of the world’s greatest powers in unconventional battlegrounds, it is also a product of the 21st century. Considering the evolving nature and changing operational parameters of armed conflict, it is reasonable to foresee that the presence of private military companies like the Wagner Group will continue to thrive.