Inside the Russian Private Military Company: The Wagner Group

Feature Image Caption: Russian oligarch, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, responsible for funding the Wagner Group. Image via The Sydney Morning Herald.

Private military contractors (PMCs) increasingly shape the outcome of wars, promote the agendas of powerful countries, and commit human rights violations without consequence. The current global private military market exceeds $200 billion and employs over one million personnel. Taken at face value, PMCs provide skilled soldiers, strategists, and intelligence services; however, their more sinister utility rests in the ability to conceal a state’s involvement in global conflict, provide a buffer from responsibility on the battlefield, and circumvent the politics of drafting troops. It follows that PMCs have emerged as a growing force likely to redefine the nature of war and cloud the process of holding states accountable for their actions on the battlefield. Due to a lack of international regulation and reluctance to legitimize the industry, PMCs face little responsibility to abide by humanitarian law, allowing them to operate in an uncertain legal limbo. A prime example of PMC’s unchecked power and growing influence can be found in the Russian-backed Wagner group, which we will examine to better understand the nature of private military contractors.   

As recently as September 2022, The Wagner Group was publicly claimed by Russian oligarch and close ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, after years of denial and a lawsuit refuting his affiliation. Working as a shadowy extension of the Kremlin, Prigozhin funded the group to be a network of independent mercenary units capable of launching disinformation campaigns, protecting dictators, and patrolling resource-rich territories. These tasks, often guarding people or places, diverge from traditional military operations. This fundamental disconnect between the immediate goals of private contractors and the long-term objectives of governments incentivizes PMCs to circumvent international law to carry out short-lived contracts. According to investigations by the United Nations, examples of the Wagner Group’s legal infractions include murdering civilians, looting homes, and targeting people based on religious identity. Despite tangible evidence of Wagner’s connection to the Kremlin, both parties hide behind a shield of ambiguity, allowing the organization to operate without clear legal status. Mercenarism, or the hiring of freelance soldiers, is also illegal according to Article 359 of the Russian criminal code, which provides an additional alibi for the state. 

Moving forward, let us turn to the Wagner Group’s endeavors in Ukraine, Syria, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, Mozambique, and Mali to examine how the organization capitalizes off of violence, exploits resources, and tips global politics in favor of Russian influence. 

Ukraine

The Wagner Group came into the public eye when unidentified private contractors provided support for pro-Russian separatists during Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Since their covert operation in the Donbas region, the Wagner Group has become a globally acknowledged force, advertising itself as a Russian nationalist organization that recruits, trains, and mobilizes fighters on behalf of the Kremlin’s most recent invasion of Ukraine. From billboard postings to online ads, the group publicly promotes the expansion of the Russian state by incentivizing recruits with a shocking salary of 240,000 Russian rubles ($4,000) a month. A recently leaked video revealed that Wagner operatives went so far as to negotiate an early release for Russian prisoners in exchange for combat tours in Ukraine. These methods of operation, in sync with the Russian agenda, demonstrate Wagner’s loyalties as well as the nature of the wars they are contracted to support. 

Syria

Yet another example of Wagner’s endeavors can be seen in Syria where troops were deployed to support and protect longstanding dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2015. Assad notoriously wreaked havoc on his people by using chemical weapons, torture, and rape as tools to preserve his power. A longtime Syrian ally, the Wagner Group was integral to maintaining Assad’s regime by guarding oil and gas fields with an estimated 300 troops on the ground. It follows that the Wagner Group directly contributed to and enabled Assad’s transgressions during the Syrian civil war. Unfortunately, Wagner’s commitment to fighting on behalf of autocratic Russian allies has since continued.

The Central African Republic 

Since 2018, the Wagner Group has been active in the Central African Republic where it propped up Faustin-Archange Touadéra in exchange for exclusive access to diamond and gold reserves. In addition to training locals and combating extremist groups, Wagner has been accused of obscene infractions including harassing peacekeepers, journalists, and aid workers. Hundreds of reports paint a picture of Wagner operatives engaging in arbitrary arrests, killings, and incidents of torture, as well as looting schools and humanitarian aid centers. This behavior provides no strategic value, only savagery. 

Sudan

Traces of the Wagner Group can also be found in Sudanese politics as the organization provided a 500-man security unit to Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the former President of Sudan. In exchange for the right to mine local gold reserves, Wagner helped to squash logical uprisings and suppress protestors. Bashir was eventually overthrown in 2019, but reportedly offered Moscow a naval base on the Red Sea before his disposition. The trail of evidence continues to demonstrate Wagner’s greedy appetite for expanding Russian access to the world’s riches at the cost of civilian lives and fueling instability. Although Russia positions itself as an alternative to Western powers, the exploitation of intercommunal rifts and the extraction of natural resources demonstrates a pattern eerily aligned with Western colonialism. 

Libya

Wagner operations in Libya also drew international attention in 2019 when the organization inserted itself into the civil war on behalf of warlord Khalifa Hifter. An estimated 1,000 Wagner troops participated in the coup, taking control of Libya’s oil fields despite UN demands that the organization stand down and depart. As contracted workers, the Wagner Group acted injudiciously, entering Libya to weigh in on the highest bidder, likely incentivized by the state’s prime location along the Mediterranean and precious reserves. It follows that the PMC’s operations incite cycles of upheaval in direct opposition to global efforts at conflict mitigation. 

Mozambique

Furthermore, in 2019 the Wagner Group was hired by Mozambique to combat the terrorist organization, al-Shabab, where gas reserves remain plentiful in the north. An estimated 160 mercenaries entered the Cabo Delgado region where their counterinsurgency operation failed miserably. Wagner’s inability to work with locals and understand the complexity of al-Shabab was among its most significant shortcomings. Perhaps just as ludicrous was Prigozhin’s twisted account of this incident in a movie he funded and featured on Russian television. Not only did the Wagner Group contribute to a downward spiral of violence, but it disseminated pro-Russian propaganda with inaccurate reports of its actions, contributing to the tangled web of disinformation. 

Mali

As recently as 2021, the Wagner Group advised the Mali government in light of rising instability, threats by Islamic militants, and tensions with French troops. As an unstable country rich in diamonds, uranium, and gold, Mali proved a ripe destination for Wagner’s agenda. Although renounced by Mali officials, an estimated 1,000 private operatives entered the country, prompting outcries from citizens and international donors. The increasingly complicated situation deteriorated, leading to the exit of French troops and humanitarian aid services. Unfortunately, Wagner’s relationship with the Mali government was backgrounded by a series of appalling human rights violations as a United Nations investigation found the PMC responsible for nearly 500 collateral civilian deaths. 

As an organization fundamentally rooted in violence for profit, Wagner’s operations reveal an intent to obtain wealth at the cost of escalating conflict and inciting upheaval. Their invasive and exploitative aims exacerbate pre-existing divisions in society; from propping up power-hungry autocratic figures, to participating in coups, and suppressing opposition groups, Wagner is the antithesis of democratic values. One can gather that the organization is counterproductive for global peace and stability as such an uncontrollable force complicates peace processes by extending periods of conflict and preventing the work of NGOs. Given the serious repercussions of contracting private troops, the scope of PMCs ought to be reevaluated as it is unacceptable to operate with disregard for international law. 

It is imperative for the international community to enact strict parameters that clearly define the limits of PMCs operations. Currently, PMCs such as Wagner operate under legal gray areas as there are few, flimsy international regulations in place. The 2008 Swiss Montreux Document, endorsed by 54 states, was one of the first attempts to outline “best practices” and international expectations to properly train and investigate private troops before deployment. The 2013 International Code of Conduct Association similarly demands that PMCs “respect human rights and humanitarian law;” however, these laws lack sufficient enforcement, and there still exist three main challenges to achieving a system of accountability. 

The first challenge is that multiple states must cooperate to investigate and charge private troops with infractions to international law, increasing the complexity of prosecution. The second is states have an incentive to ignore claims of abuse that occur during intelligence missions or operations relevant to national security interests. The third challenge is non-citizens are unlikely to be heard in court, especially in the United States, the largest supplier and consumer of PMCs, due to the Nestle USA, Inc. v. Doe’s curtailment of the Alien Tort Statute. Similar policies exist across the globe, invalidating cases brought forward by international victims. These hurdles, paired with a lack of initiative by major players guilty of hiding behind PMCs, are a recipe for disaster. 

While we cannot tame the ever-increasing demand for privately contracted militaries, the international community ought to get ahead of legal regulations and the changing boundaries of war before violence becomes utterly ungovernable. It follows that without mechanisms enacting legal transparency and accountability, there are no limits to modern warfare.