In the aftermath of the mutiny by the Wagner private military company (PMC) in Russia, many observers expected that its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin would pay dearly for his actions, perhaps with his life. Instead, the mercenary commander was sent into “exile” in neighbouring Belarus and his fighters continued operations outside Russia and Ukraine. Prigozhin eventually met with Russian President Vladimir Putin personally and then announced that his PMC would focus on its work in Africa.
It is hardly surprising that Putin has decided to preserve a mercenary force that has proven quite effective in pushing forward his foreign policy adventures in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He has likely learned a lesson or two from another great power – the United States – whose heavy reliance on PMCs paved the way for the growing privatisation and outsourcing of war across the globe. For the US, Russia, and other powers, military contractors are serving as convenient means for proxy warfare which offer plausible deniability and mitigate potential domestic tensions over foreign wars.
The employment of contractors by the US government is not a recent phenomenon, but over the past two decades it has greatly expanded. While in World War II, 10 percent of American armed forces were privately contracted, during the “war on terror”, launched in 2001, they reached some 50 percent, sometimes more. Needing hundreds of thousands of personnel to carry out military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, but fearing domestic backlash, the US government had to turn to PMCs.
Since the start of the “war on terror”, the Pentagon has spent $14 trillion, with one-third to one-half of it going to military contractors in combat zones. A lot of this money has gone to contracts related to logistics, construction and weapons supplies, but a sizable chunk has also paid for “hired guns”. During the height of the 2008 counterinsurgency effort in Iraq, the number of contractors reached 163,400 (including people in non-combat roles) compared to 146,800 US troops. In 2010, amid the “surge” in Afghanistan, when additional troops were deployed for a renewed offensive against the Taliban, there were 112,100 contractors (including people in non-combat roles) compared to 79,100 troops. The pouring of trillions of dollars into PMCs has helped create a vast and powerful military contractor industry which has gone global and transformed how great and smaller powers engage in warfare and other violent foreign policy undertakings.
The use of contractors conveniently offers plausible deniability and can help governments pacify electorates reluctant to send national troops on risk foreign missions. They also help dodge responsibility for war crimes. For example, in 2007, Blackwater killed 14 Iraqi civilians in a melee in Nisour Square in Baghdad. They were not under the US military chain of command, as they had been privately contracted by the US Department of State to guard their staff. When the Iraqi government decided to revoke Blackwater’s licence with the government, it found that the company never had one in the first place. Furthermore, the perpetrators of the massacre were not subject to Iraqi law, so they could not be tried on Iraqi soil.
In 2015, a US court sentenced three former Blackwater employees to 30 years and one to life in prison for the massacre, but just five years later, President Donald Trump pardoned them before he left office. The Nisour Square massacre was by far not the only atrocity American mercenaries committed. Ultimately, the violence PMCs were involved in contributed to wide-spread anti-American sentiments in Iraq which undermined US-led counterinsurgency efforts – a major factor that later enabled the rise of ISIL (ISIS). Despite these troubles, the US did not do away with PMCs and has continued to rely on them, even after it withdrew from Afghanistan and Iraq. The flourishing PMC industry today which enables the outsourcing of war and violence across the globe is one of the morbid legacies of the US “war on terror”.
The Kremlin likely watched closely the US government’s use of contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq and understood their utility. According to some observers, Putin likely wanted a Russian version of Blackwater to use in his foreign policy adventures. In following his patron’s orders to create a mercenary group, Prigozhin went as far as emulating the American PMC’s aesthetics. “Wagner mercenaries in Syria and Africa played the part, wearing baseball caps and wraparound sunglasses while toting serious guns,” wrote Lucian Kim, NPR’s former Moscow bureau chief, in Foreign Policy. Prigozhin’s contractors was first used in 2014 to support Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine. They were then deployed in Syria to bolster the regime of President Bashar al-Asad, and to Libya, to fight for renegade general Khalifa Haftar. Throughout these conflicts, the Kremlin kept denying the involvement in and existence of Wagner, as PMCs were illegal according to Russian law.
The effectiveness of the Russian mercenaries encouraged political and military leaders from across Africa to resort to their services, which strengthened Moscow’s international standing and foreign policy reach. When in February 2022, Putin decided to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he also needed a large number of troops, which the Russian army did not have. Wagner was tasked specifically with providing fighters to throw into the bloodiest battles as cannon fodder. Quickly running out of volunteers, Prigozhin went as far as recruiting convicts, who were offered amnesty in return for military service. Thus, Wagner helped the Kremlin minimise the perceived cost of war for the Russian public which was rather uncomfortable with the full-scale invasion. But its forces were not under the direct command of the Russian army, which also turned into a major problem for the Kremlin.
The mutiny was perhaps an unexpected development for Putin, and it made him look weak, not only to the international community, but also to regime insiders. The fallout of Prigozhin’s rebellion will likely continue to play out in the coming months. This is a role that the traditional Russian military cannot replicate. By relying on mercenaries, the US, Russia and other powers have weakened internationally accepted rules of engagement and undermined the international legal regime that seeks to protect civilians in times of war. This has allowed them to get away with violence and atrocities even more easily and misrepresent the true cost of war. Blackwater, Wagner et al ultimately are making the world a that much more dangerous place.