A private security contractor in Afghanistan (Matt Moyer/Getty Images)

April 11, 2023   7 mins

Last week, Russia claimed to have seized control of the city of Bakhmut after an eight-month battle with Ukrainian forces — the longest and bloodiest fight of the war so far. The assault, however, wasn’t led by the Russian Armed Forces, but by a private army that has been fighting alongside regular Russian troops since the invasion: the infamous Wagner Group.

The Wagner Group has always been cloaked in mystery. In the first days of the war, reports emphasised the secretive nature of its military operations, including a plot to assassinate Zelenskyy and his cabinet. Until recently, it was unclear whether a company registered under the name “Wagner” even existed.

That all changed in September 2022, when Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin, published a statement claiming that he founded the group in 2014 to “protect the Russians” when “the genocide of the Russian population of Donbas began”. Then, in January this year, he decided to make it official, registering Wagner as a business and opening its “PMC Wagner Center” headquarters in St Petersburg. He didn’t make any secret of its activities: as the company’s name, which also appears on the group’s logo, makes clear, the Wagner Group is a PMC: a private military company, also known as a mercenary group. The Russian government was forced to acknowledge its existence. The Wagner Group’s clandestine status was officially discarded.

In many ways, Wagner’s emergence from the shadows symbolises the changing nature of modern warfare, in which the traditional Clausewitzian paradigm — based on a clear distinction between public and private, friend and enemy, civil and military, combatant and non-combatant — has given way to a much messier reality, in which state armies now regularly fight alongside private and/or corporate paramilitary and mercenary groups. Today’s conflicts, even when violent in nature, often occur in a “grey zone” below the threshold of conventional military action; adversarial states increasingly confront each other through proxies or surrogates — including private armies — rather than through their own armed forces. And this is not just a Russian issue: the increasingly central role of private military and security companies (PMSCs) in modern warfare is a global phenomenon.

Private armies have existed for centuries. In recent decades, the use of mercenaries was particularly widespread during the Cold War, especially in Africa, in the context of decolonisation and the ensuing civil wars. In particular, they were widely used between the Sixties and early Eighties by the West to prevent colonies attaining independence or to destabilise or overthrow newly independent governments, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Benin and the Republic of Seychelles.

At the time, there was virtually no international legal framework regarding mercenarism. It was only in 1977 that the Geneva Conventions incorporated an international legal definition of it. A mercenary, it held, is any person who is recruited to fight in an armed conflict, who actively takes a direct part in the hostilities, and who is neither a national of a party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by one. It was a very narrow definition — but one which, at the behest of the newly independent nations, was specifically tailored to address the use of mercenaries by the West against the post-colonial governments.

This led to the appointment, in 1987, of a Special Rapporteur on the use of mercenaries; and then, in 1989, to the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, which entered into force in 2001 and added language specifying that mercenaries were people undermining legitimate governments — another clause that implicitly reflected the concerns of post-colonial countries. To this day, the Convention — which essentially copies the wording of the 1977 definition — represents the international legal definition of mercenarism.

As a result, during the Nineties, there was a significant rise in the number of private military and security companies, who sought to distance their activities from the legal definition of mercenarism by presenting themselves as official business entities offering “legitimate” security and defence services allegedly distinguished from that of rogue mercenary groups. And, by and large, they did so successfully. In that decade alone, PMSCs reportedly trained the militaries of 42 nations and took part in more than 700 conflicts.

There was a broader backdrop to this growth, too. The growing influence of the neoliberal logic of economic rationalisation and deregulation during the Nineties also pushed states to privatise and outsource many government functions and services — including warfare. Security came to be perceived as a commodity, a service like any other that could be sold and bought in the marketplace. This was also part of a broader push towards the transfer of national prerogatives to suprastate or, as in this case, non-state actors as a way to shift the decision-making process away from democratic institutions. This trend was compounded by the global downsizing of national military forces, which also expanded the recruiting pool for PMSCs.

Even though PMSCs started out by mainly selling their services to developing countries and so-called failed states facing political crises, by the mid-Nineties Western governments, particularly the US, started to use them as well. By contracting them to support, train and equip the military and security forces of friendly governments — most notably in former Yugoslavia — Western powers were able to promote their interests and foreign policy agendas, while avoiding becoming embroiled in unpopular conflicts, and even circumventing national or international constraints on troop deployment. By the end of the decade, NGOs (such as Oxfam) and even the United Nations had also come to rely heavily on PMSCs for their own security and even for peacekeeping missions.

In this sense, PMSCs did not replace the role of states as much as integrate into them. In some cases, they even bolstered state military power, by allowing governments to engage in forms of warfare that they might otherwise have been prevented from undertaking for fear of provoking a conventional military response by more powerful states, while also escaping public scrutiny. The Wagner Group’s activities in several African and the Middle Eastern countries — such as Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali — are a good illustration, insofar as they granted Moscow a degree of plausible deniability concerning its foreign interventions and the alleged human rights abuses committed by Wagner.

Over the years, various efforts have been made to regulate this new phenomenon at the international level, eventually leading to the establishment of a UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries in 2005. But these bodies have, by and large, failed. Today, the sector remains largely unregulated and operates in a de facto legal vacuum. PMSCs can’t be considered soldiers or supporting militias under international humanitarian law, since they are not part of the army or in the chain of command — but nor can they usually be considered to be mercenaries under the narrow legal definition adopted by the UN. In the current conflict in Ukraine, for instance, the Wagner Group can’t be considered a mercenary group by legal standards for the simple fact that its members are nationals of one of the parties to the conflict.

These private military companies remain largely unaccountable, characterised by a “fundamental lack of transparency around, and oversight over [their operations]”, as the UN Working Group noted in 2021. Indeed, it suggested that this is sometimes “done precisely with the ominous objective of providing ‘plausible deniability’ of direct involvement in a conflict”. Greater regulation would be welcome, of course, but it wouldn’t change the fact that corporate armies intrinsically undermine democratic accountability — arguably one of the reasons that makes them attractive to states in the first place.

More fundamentally, what we are dealing with here is the legalisation and normalisation of mercenarism. The only real difference between traditional guns-for-hire and PMSCs is that the latter are often legally constituted businesses with corporate organisational structures. This lends them legitimacy and, theoretically, makes the monitoring of their actions and prosecution easier. But ultimately they remain, to all intents and purposes, “new modalities of mercenaries”, as even the UN General Assembly argued some years back.

Crucially, the UN report acknowledges that the private security and military industry is a global and growing phenomenon. While today’s focus is on Wagner, the real mercenary boom occurred during the US-led military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases, the US relied heavily on PMSCs such as DynCorp and Blackwater (now known as Constellis). Indeed, at points, the number of contractors on the ground actually outnumbered American troops. By 2006, there were estimated to be at least 100,000 PMSC employees in Iraq working directly for the US Department of Defense.

And like Wagner today, these were involved in several human rights abuses in the country. Blackwater, for example, the most high-profile PMSC in Iraq, was involved in the massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007 (which led to the conviction of four Blackwater employees), while other PMSCs were involved in the Iraq Abu Ghraib prison scandal (though none faced prosecution) and were alleged to have participated in the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programme — the kidnapping and forced removal of individuals to places known to torture. Despite these obvious failures, by the summer of 2020, the US had more than 20,000 contractor personnel in Afghanistan — roughly twice the number of American troops. Before that, in 2017, Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, had proposed to fully privatise the war effort there.

What could possibly inspire such chutzpah? Well, although the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts are generally considered to have been a strategic blunder for the US, not to mention a humanitarian tragedy, they were a boon for the PMSC sector: up until 2016, the US State Department spent $196 billion on PMSC contracts for the Iraq war, and $108 billion for the Afghan war. And business hasn’t slowed: in 2022, the PMSC sector — whose largest businesses are now American or British — was valued at $260 billion and is projected to reach a value of around $450 billion by 2030. The largest PMSC in the world, UK-based G4S, alone employs more than 500,000 people and is present in more than 90 countries.

Should we be surprised? Ultimately, the growth of the PMSC sector is just another example of how economic transformations in recent decades have blurred the boundary between the public and private-corporate sphere to the point of making it indistinguishable. The result has been the rise of a state-corporate Leviathan which has gobbled up every sector of the economy — healthcare, banks, energy, tech — and has now taken over the field of warfare as well, at the expense of democratic control and oversight. This applies to Russia just as much as it applies to Western countries. If the conflict in Ukraine has taught us anything, it’s that war today is a bigger business than it’s ever been. No wonder peace — in Ukraine or elsewhere — seems constantly out of reach.

Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.