Contemporary conflicts – international and domestic alike – continue to involve a disturbing trend towards outsourcing privatised forces. These militias are known as private security companies (PSCs), or private military companies (PMCs).
PMCs have been used by various world powers, especially in overseas conflicts – the US, for example, made wide use of them in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Russian Federation too, uses PMCs, throughout much of Western and North Africa as well as closer to home in Ukraine. Russia’s most infamous PMC is known as the Wagner Group, and international bodies have long been concerned about their spreading influence.
Why use PMCs?
PMCs are useful to governments and non-state actors because they’re cheaper and more flexible than regular armies. They may often be more skilled and can fulfil various functions – from combat, to logistics and training, surveillance or security. They’re also a lot less easily accountable than official actors in war.
Even Australia’s Army Research Centre writes that “Like other Coalition forces engaged in the Global War on Terrorism, the Australian Defence Force is increasingly reliant on PMC for support during operations.”
In Russia, PMCs are technically illegal – Russian individuals are forbidden from serving as mercenaries. But loopholes around private security forces enable their existence. In fact, the legal ambiguity of Russian PMCs serves the Kremlin well, giving them greater freedom to manoeuvre these forces as needed. The Wagner Group isn’t registered in Russia or anywhere else – it technically doesn’t exist.
Putin was asked in 2012 in the Russian Duma whether he supported the creation of a Russian PMC network. He replied affirmatively, stating they could be used to realise national interests abroad without the official involvement of the state.
The Wagner Group
The Wagner Group is the most notorious Russian PMC. It was founded in 2014, by former Russian officer Dmitry Utkin, and was first active in the annexation of Crimea that year. Since then, it’s estimated they’ve been involved in conflicts in at least 30 countries.
Wagner Group is allegedly funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, though he denies any connection to the group. Prigozhin has strong ties to the Russian government, as does Utkin, who has been recorded in several conversations with Russian military personnel and was seemingly awarded a medal at the Kremlin for his participation in Crimea.
When it comes to human rights, Wagner’s reputation is far from stellar. Last year, UN experts reported Wagner had been involved in human rights abuses in the Central African Republic (CAR) and allegations of atrocities in Libya continue to be forthcoming. In the CAR, stated the experts, reports abounded of torture, forced disappearances, civilian attacks, and mass summary executions, among other atrocities.
‘Mass summary executions’ is certainly a phrase familiar to observers of the Wagner Group: just last month, Human Rights Watch voiced suspicions that Russian mercenaries (likely from Wagner) were involved in the massacre of 300 civilian men in Mali. The HRW report called the mass execution “the worst single atrocity reported in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict.” The Wagner Group has been heavily involved in the conflict in Mali since 2020, and Russia has since vetoed a UNSC plan to commission an investigation into massacres committed in the country. China backed the veto.
The Kremlin, of course, continues to deny any connection to Wagner Group or other PMCs. But as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has put it, Wagner is “a company of Russian mercenaries which makes war by proxy on Russia’s account … Even if Russia denies it, nobody is fooled.”
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