Wagner Group brings spotlight back on mercenary outfits | Sunday Observer

Wagner Group brings spotlight back on mercenary outfits

2 July, 2023
Yevgeny Prigozhin
Yevgeny Prigozhin

The sudden rise and the dramatic fall of the Russian mercenary outfit the Wagner Group has brought the spotlight back on mercenaries.

Though a small group of 35,000 combatants, the Wagner Group of mercenaries led by a former [Russian President Vladimir] Putin acolyte, Yevgeny Prigozhin (62), also called “Putin’s Chef” is said to have provided the cutting edge to the Russian military offensive in Ukraine. But when the offensive got bogged down, Prigozhin blamed the Russian military top brass and rebelled, pushing his columns towards Moscow in a bid to overthrow or coerce Putin into submission.

But last Saturday, Prigozhin tamely yielded to an appeal by the Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, a close ally of Russia, and meekly retreated to his battlefield in Ukraine and later to Belarus, where he is now in exile after a pardon from Putin. There are reports that he had earned more than US$ 2 billion for his services.

Until this strange episode, the Russo-Ukrainian war appeared to be a fight between two standing armies. The common man did not know that Putin had supplemented his regular forces with a well-organised and trained mercenary force called the Wagner Group, put together by Prigozhin, one of the oligarchs he had spawned in the two decades he has been in power.

However, those following wars closely, knew that the Wagner Group existed and was deployed in Syria, where Russia was supporting President Bashar al-Assad. In Libya, it fought alongside the rebel commander Khalifa Haftar.  The Wagner Group possessed artillery, armoured cars, and even T-72 main battle tanks. It is said to have had trained fighters in 30 countries.

As a business tycoon, Prigozhin used his group’s deployment in Syria and African countries to secure lucrative mining contracts. US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland had said in January this year that the Wagner Group was using its access to gold and other resources in Africa to fund operations in Ukraine. The United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) too had accused the Wagner Group of human rights abuses throughout Africa.

Nepali mercenaries

Recently, the recruitment of Nepalese Gurkhas by Russia and Ukraine has also come to light. With the economic situation worsening in Nepal and also due to some unfavourable changes in the recruitment policy of the Indian Army (a traditional employer of Nepalese troops), the Gurkhas have been trickling into the Russo-Ukrainian warzone looking for recruitment. Even retired soldiers are going for enlistment as Russia has lowered its standards to get more fighters.

Sean McFate of the National Defence University (NDU), USA, says in his paper “Mercenaries and War: Understanding Private Armies Today” published in 2019, that mercenaries have always played a powerful role. They are heavily armed. They fight unconventionally and are not bound by the conventional rules of war. They are used by States as well as by private parties and on both land and sea.

The US too has used mercenaries. It used the Blackwater Security Consulting in Iraq in 2007. Blackwater is an American private military contractor founded in 1996 by former Navy SEAL officer Erik Prince. Since 2011, it is known as Academi.

McFate said that private forces have become a big business, and global in scope. “No one truly knows how many billions of dollars slosh around this illicit market. All we know is that business is booming. Many of these ‘for-profit’ warriors outclass local militaries, and a few can even stand up to America’s most elite forces, as the battle in Syria shows,” he said.

“The Middle East is awash in mercenaries. Kurdistan is a haven for soldiers of fortune looking for work with the Kurdish militia, oil companies defending their oil fields, or those who want terrorists dead. Some are just adventure seekers, while others are American veterans who found civilian life meaningless.”

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) despatched hundreds of mercenaries to fight the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. The mercenaries were from South America, veterans of anti-drug operations. They got hefty salaries. And African mercenaries were fighting in Yemen for Saudi Arabia, the researcher says.

Syria has rewarded mercenaries who seized territory from terrorists with oil and mining rights. “At least two Russian companies have received contracts under this policy, namely, Evro Polis and Stroytransgaz. Evro Polis employed the Wagner Group to capture oil fields from the Islamic State (IS) in central Syria,” McFate said.

When Nigeria’s Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls to be their “wives,” the Nigerian Government turned to mercenaries to fight Boko Haram. The mercenaries arrived with Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships and drove out the Boko Haram in a few weeks. The Nigerian military could not achieve this even in six years, McFate said.

Interestingly, the Uzbekistan-based Malhama Tactical mercenary force works only for jihadi extremists. They fight as well as train and procure arms for the Jihadis.

Humanitarians hire mercenaries

The US scholar said that Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) such as CARE, Save the Children, CARITAS, and World Vision are increasingly turning to private security firms when they operate in lawless areas. According to McFate, large military companies such as Aegis Defense Services and Triple Canopy, advertise their services for NGOs, and NGO trade associations such as the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF). 

Multinational companies working in dangerous areas have ceased to rely on corrupt or inept security forces provided by host Governments. They are turning to private security firms. The mining giant Freeport-McMoRan employed “Triple Canopy” to protect its vast mine in the Papua Province in Indonesia, where there is an insurgency. The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) contracts DeWe Security to safeguard its assets in the middle of South Sudan’s civil war.

There are mercenaries offering maritime security as well. International shipping lines hire them to protect their ships travelling through pirate-infested waters in the Gulf of Aden, Strait of Malacca, and Gulf of Guinea.

Historical antecedents

According to McFate, mercenary groups had dominated the world history of warfare. Standing armies came into being gradually only upon the birth of “Nation States” from 1648.

Kingdoms, Empires and principalities found that renting an army was cheaper than recruiting, training, arming and maintaining a standing army.

McFate recalls that when Alexander the Great invaded Asia in 334 BCE, his army included 5,000 foreign mercenaries. Nearly half of William the Conqueror’s army in the 11th century was made up of hired men, who fought only for money.

King Henry II of England engaged mercenaries to suppress the Great Rebellion of 1171–1174. Indian military history mentions adventurers who raised infantry and cavalry units for any ruler willing to pay. 

Even Popes hired mercenaries, using them to obliterate enemies and purify infidels.

“In 1209, Pope Innocent III launched a crusade against the Cathars, a heretical sect in Southern France, that would look like a war of terror today. When his mostly mercenary army stormed the city of Béziers, both orthodox and heretical Christians fled into the Church for sanctuary. The Papal Legate in charge, Arnaud Amalric, ordered the army to seal and burn it, allegedly saying, “Kill them all, God will know his own,” NcFate said.

Mercenaries of the sea, known as “privateers,” were abolished in the 1856 Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law.

But the decolonisation that followed World War II offered rich opportunities for private warriors, especially in Africa. There was a surge in private underground warfare. That prompted Geneva Protocols I and II in 1977 that banned mercenaries, McFate says. 

However, despite those protocols, the mercenary trade is booming. Many States find it convenient to allow the marketisation of security.

McFate considers this a retrograde development. He warns that the “marketisation of war,” where military force is bought and sold like a commodity, might result in the “super-rich” becoming “superpowers” and fighting each other. Wars, then, would be among or between the super-rich rather than between Nation States.