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Lessons from an old-school mercenary Wagner is more dangerous without Prigozhin

A makeshift memorial in honour of Prigozhin (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)

A makeshift memorial in honour of Prigozhin (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)


August 28, 2023   4 mins

The death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, master mercenary, readily evokes a host of analogies: Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives, King Phillip IV’s immolation of the Knights Templar, the Biblical injunction that he who takes up the sword shall.

I have no personal experience of Wagner, nor can I claim to know why Prigozhin was killed or by whom. Russia is like Africa, they effortlessly spin impenetrable mysteries in which the impossible becomes the truth, the possible the lie.

But I can claim to know a little about mercenaries in Africa. In my youth I co-authored a book with one of the continent’s more elusive mercenaries, a Congo veteran who was regarded as so passe by publishers that they declined to publish his story until he suddenly popped up, as mercenaries do, as part of a coup against an Indian Ocean island in 1982.

His name was Jerry Puren and he served as a mercenary in the secessionist Katanga province, later Shaba, in the Congo from 1961 until 1963. United Nations action drove him into Belgian exile with Moise Tshombe, the deposed Katangese President. He was present at Ndola in Zambia, then Northern Rhodesia, when the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold was killed on a peace mission in 1961 in a mysterious aircraft crash. Puren always insisted to me that he had been merely passing through; it was the Americans what done it.

When Soviet-backed rebels swept into the Eastern Congo in the mid-Sixties to overthrow the Western-supported President Mobutu Sese Seko, the CIA raised a mercenary force of mostly South Africans, named Five Commando, later promoted as The Wild Geese (another historical analogy), and sent them to stop the insurgency. They did. Puren returned with Tshombe but overstayed his welcome: ensnared in the abortive Katangese Gendarmes coup of 1967, led by Belgian and French mercenaries with impossible tabloid-generated names such as Black Jack Jean Schramme and Demon Bob Denard.

Puren ended up in dead-end jobs in South Africa until again called to the colours, the green-back ones. Together with Mike Hoare, former commander of Five Commando, they launched an abortive coup against the Seychelles Government of Rene Albert in November 1982 with a hotch-potch of South African military adventurers. He had promised to take me, a hungry young journalist, on his next mission but stood me up. Just as well: it could have been a career-limiting move.

Hoare and the gang escaped by hijacking an Air India aircraft. Puren, part of a one-man self-designated forward reconnaissance unit, was left behind. As he heard the aircraft thundering overhead, he admitted to himself that he was in big shit. He spent 19 days in hiding before surrendering. Together with four other advance party scouts also captured, he was sentenced to death. Only the intercession of Archbishop Desmond Tutu saved them. Diplomacy got them an early release.

But the spirit never dies. When he heard that I was reporting on the wars in southern Angola in the mid-Eighties, he asked me to take a proposal to UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. At over 70 years and in an age of Mig-23’s, Rooivalk attack helicopters and Mi-24 helicopters, Puren offered to build Savimbi an air force. Such the limitless optimism and naiveté of the old-style mercenary.

Puren died impoverished in a rough part of the port city of Durban. His death was hastened, his wife Julia insisted, when they were attacked and robbed in their apartment by two students from a nearby college. She said he had the look in his eyes she had seen so often in the Congo, the look of a man about to die.

Yet I learnt some things from Puren and his mob. First, many mercenaries of that era were disconcertingly charming and interesting, some educated, but all entirely lacking an internal moral compass. The lure of excitement and money suborned all nobler aspirations.

Second, most died broke. The same impetuosity that drove them to freebooting rapidly dissipated the proceeds. None seemed to regret either their lives or their penury: they lived and died content with the embers of their memories.

Third, Puren’s generation of African freebooters are as lost a phenomenon as the Victorian adventurers who studded the history of that trampling march towards global hegemony. Gangster mercenaries served in the Biafran and early Angolan wars of the Seventies. The more professional Executive Outcomes, the South African mercenary group comprising veterans of the 15-year border wars operated in Angola, Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea in the Nineties. They were the forerunners of the modern Private Military Companies (PMCs), the most notable being Blackwater (now Academi), which supported the Western efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Wagner is proud to claim it as its conceptual progenitor, but Wagner, through its franchises, is infinitely more dangerous and untethered, perhaps more so now that its leaders are gone.

There is a fourth thing I learnt about mercenaries. They are dodgy employees, capable of switching sides at a moment’s notice or taking out their leaders. Just ask the Romans. Vladimir Putin has belatedly grasped the point which is why he is asking Russian mercenaries to sign pledges of allegiance to Russia. In a world in which developed countries are too refined to commit their military to the wet-end business of war, there will always be room for a Wagner. And so another historical analogy: after 500 years, the Middle Age private fighting companies, the Condottiere, are back big time.


Brian Pottinger is an author and former Editor and Publisher of the South African Sunday Times. He lives on the KwaZulu North Coast.


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David Yetter
DY
David Yetter
7 months ago

I believe during the Cold War there were some mercenaries with a residuum of a moral compass: they would gladly fight for pay, but only if it was in an anti-Communist cause.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  David Yetter

The Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) of Oman, being one such example of this heroic behaviour.

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
7 months ago

Surely the SAF were a national army, supported and trained by members of the British Armed Forces. What was the mercenary connection?

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Roddy Campbell

“Contract Officers”. QED.?

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Roddy Campbell

“Contract Officers”. QED.?

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
7 months ago

Surely the SAF were a national army, supported and trained by members of the British Armed Forces. What was the mercenary connection?

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  David Yetter

The Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) of Oman, being one such example of this heroic behaviour.

David Yetter
DY
David Yetter
7 months ago

I believe during the Cold War there were some mercenaries with a residuum of a moral compass: they would gladly fight for pay, but only if it was in an anti-Communist cause.

Jerry Carroll
JC
Jerry Carroll
7 months ago

All of the West appears to be dissolving at roughly the same rate. Britain, France, Germany, Canada, the US, the future doesn’t look bright for any of them. And China and Russian aren’t in great shape, either. There is a big door-stopper book here for a historian who perhaps is yet unborn. That assumes there will still be a civilization where such a work could be researched and written and people to read it.

Jerry Carroll
JC
Jerry Carroll
7 months ago

All of the West appears to be dissolving at roughly the same rate. Britain, France, Germany, Canada, the US, the future doesn’t look bright for any of them. And China and Russian aren’t in great shape, either. There is a big door-stopper book here for a historian who perhaps is yet unborn. That assumes there will still be a civilization where such a work could be researched and written and people to read it.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago

How very odd that a South African journalist should fail to mention one of the most notorious mercenary escapades of recent years, the farcical attempt to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea by one Simon Mann Esq.
Mann, ex- Eton, Scots Guards, SAS, and latterly a mercenary outfit calling itself ‘Sandline International’*, brought the good name of professional mercenaries spectacularly into disrepute but the sheer naïveté and incompetence of his ‘operation’.
He was fortunate to escape with his life.

(* Sandline had previously operated very successfully in Angola, thus making its other Director, one Tim Spicer Esq, also formerly Scots Guards, a very rich man indeed.)

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
7 months ago

Worth reading the book ‘Cry Havoc’ to discover the extent of their disaster.

Christopher Barclay
CB
Christopher Barclay
7 months ago

Simon Mann was one of the founders of Executive Outcomes.

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
7 months ago

Worth reading the book ‘Cry Havoc’ to discover the extent of their disaster.

Christopher Barclay
CB
Christopher Barclay
7 months ago

Simon Mann was one of the founders of Executive Outcomes.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago

How very odd that a South African journalist should fail to mention one of the most notorious mercenary escapades of recent years, the farcical attempt to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea by one Simon Mann Esq.
Mann, ex- Eton, Scots Guards, SAS, and latterly a mercenary outfit calling itself ‘Sandline International’*, brought the good name of professional mercenaries spectacularly into disrepute but the sheer naïveté and incompetence of his ‘operation’.
He was fortunate to escape with his life.

(* Sandline had previously operated very successfully in Angola, thus making its other Director, one Tim Spicer Esq, also formerly Scots Guards, a very rich man indeed.)

N T
NT
N T
7 months ago

i missed the part about how they become more dangerous.
also wondering how that happens if mother russia cuts them off.

N T
NT
N T
7 months ago

i missed the part about how they become more dangerous.
also wondering how that happens if mother russia cuts them off.

Simon Diggins
SD
Simon Diggins
7 months ago

@Charles Stanhope. Contract officers with SAF were not mercenaries; they were employed directly by, and had made an oath of loyalty to, Oman and its constitutional leader, HM Sultan Qaboos. Yes, they were on a contract, but so are many members of militaries; one of Putin’s problems is that his conscripts can’t fight in Ukraine; they would have to volunteer to become ‘regulars’.

Mercenaries, by contrast, are paid by their employing company and work for them.

We are slightly immune from these distinctions in the U.K. today, but it was not always so. In the past, distinctions of service (even in general war) were drawn between Regulars, Reservists, Territorials and Volunteers. Those distinctions have been largely eliminated as we morphed into the ‘One Army’ concept but elements of difference still remain.

So, please accept that SAF contract officers were, and are, not mercaneries.

(BTW I was not a SAF Contract Officer but ‘Loan Service’: unlimited commitment (ie we were allowed, indeed expected, to fight) but even we had a ‘get out of jail’ card: we did not have to obey orders that would not have been given by a British Officer. This came to a head in 1987 during Operation SAIF, when the then COSSAF (the first Omani to hold the post) made a series of completely bizarre decisions.)

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Simon Diggins

What a pity you didn’t make your comments a little earlier!
UnHerd is a ‘fire & forget’ forum, and sadly any further discussion would be pointless.
Suffice to say this a very ‘murky’ area both legally and socially.

Alex Carnegie
RC
Alex Carnegie
7 months ago
Reply to  Simon Diggins

The distinctions you make are valid but so is the article’s general caution about states employing foreigners in their militaries. The British officers may have sworn an oath of loyalty to the Sultan, but some of them helped overthrow Qaboo’s father. They may not have been mercenaries but some did exceptionally well in the aftermath of the coup. On the other hand, it is entirely true that it is unlikely Oman would have survived the Dhofar War without their assistance. Nothing is simple.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

I don’t know how you could possibly describe the late Timothy Landon Esq as anything other than a mercenary.

The swearing of an ‘oath’ is frankly an irrelevance and just part of the legal gymnastics exercised by some to avoid the odium of being called a mercenary, when it is patently self evident that this is exactly what they are.

Why the term Mercenary has become so pejorative is interesting, and maybe as a direct result of the Geneva Convention, Article 42, which denies mercenaries the status of Prisoners of War.

Another contemporary conundrum exists over the Gurkhas, the Papal Guard and the French Foreign Legion.
In all these cases none of these are nationals of the State they serve, even if some may ultimately be rewarded with citizenship after the requisite number of years service, rather like the ‘Auxilia’ of Ancient Rome.

More than two centuries ago (Dr) Samuel Johnson made the apposite remark “All men think meanly of themselves for NOT having been a soldier, NOR having served at Sea”. As long as we still think like this, there will always be a place for mercenaries in our society and just as well.

Last edited 7 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

I don’t know how you could possibly describe the late Timothy Landon Esq as anything other than a mercenary.

The swearing of an ‘oath’ is frankly an irrelevance and just part of the legal gymnastics exercised by some to avoid the odium of being called a mercenary, when it is patently self evident that this is exactly what they are.

Why the term Mercenary has become so pejorative is interesting, and maybe as a direct result of the Geneva Convention, Article 42, which denies mercenaries the status of Prisoners of War.

Another contemporary conundrum exists over the Gurkhas, the Papal Guard and the French Foreign Legion.
In all these cases none of these are nationals of the State they serve, even if some may ultimately be rewarded with citizenship after the requisite number of years service, rather like the ‘Auxilia’ of Ancient Rome.

More than two centuries ago (Dr) Samuel Johnson made the apposite remark “All men think meanly of themselves for NOT having been a soldier, NOR having served at Sea”. As long as we still think like this, there will always be a place for mercenaries in our society and just as well.

Last edited 7 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Simon Diggins

What a pity you didn’t make your comments a little earlier!
UnHerd is a ‘fire & forget’ forum, and sadly any further discussion would be pointless.
Suffice to say this a very ‘murky’ area both legally and socially.

Alex Carnegie
RC
Alex Carnegie
7 months ago
Reply to  Simon Diggins

The distinctions you make are valid but so is the article’s general caution about states employing foreigners in their militaries. The British officers may have sworn an oath of loyalty to the Sultan, but some of them helped overthrow Qaboo’s father. They may not have been mercenaries but some did exceptionally well in the aftermath of the coup. On the other hand, it is entirely true that it is unlikely Oman would have survived the Dhofar War without their assistance. Nothing is simple.

Simon Diggins
SD
Simon Diggins
7 months ago

@Charles Stanhope. Contract officers with SAF were not mercenaries; they were employed directly by, and had made an oath of loyalty to, Oman and its constitutional leader, HM Sultan Qaboos. Yes, they were on a contract, but so are many members of militaries; one of Putin’s problems is that his conscripts can’t fight in Ukraine; they would have to volunteer to become ‘regulars’.

Mercenaries, by contrast, are paid by their employing company and work for them.

We are slightly immune from these distinctions in the U.K. today, but it was not always so. In the past, distinctions of service (even in general war) were drawn between Regulars, Reservists, Territorials and Volunteers. Those distinctions have been largely eliminated as we morphed into the ‘One Army’ concept but elements of difference still remain.

So, please accept that SAF contract officers were, and are, not mercaneries.

(BTW I was not a SAF Contract Officer but ‘Loan Service’: unlimited commitment (ie we were allowed, indeed expected, to fight) but even we had a ‘get out of jail’ card: we did not have to obey orders that would not have been given by a British Officer. This came to a head in 1987 during Operation SAIF, when the then COSSAF (the first Omani to hold the post) made a series of completely bizarre decisions.)

Tyler Durden
TD
Tyler Durden
7 months ago

Blinken and Nuland were banking on him playing the role of Rasputin in the Winter Palace, so Putin really had to get medieval on his derrière to polish him off.
But apart from being the first proxy war by the Washington neocons, what has made this ghastly war novel is the use of a substantial mercenary force. And that iself is pretty Medieval.

Tyler Durden
TD
Tyler Durden
7 months ago

Blinken and Nuland were banking on him playing the role of Rasputin in the Winter Palace, so Putin really had to get medieval on his derrière to polish him off.
But apart from being the first proxy war by the Washington neocons, what has made this ghastly war novel is the use of a substantial mercenary force. And that iself is pretty Medieval.

Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
7 months ago

He who takes up the sword shall . . . what?

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

“Live by the sword, die by the sword.”*

(*Derived from Mathew 26:52.)

N T
NT
N T
7 months ago

i don’t think that @dumetrius was ignorant, i think he was pointing out that the rest of the sentence went AWOL.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  N T

Who said he was “ignorant “, not I.

Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
7 months ago
Reply to  N T

Yes, sloppy proofreading seems to be par for the course with Unher

Richard Craven
RC
Richard Craven
7 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

Ha h

Richard Craven
RC
Richard Craven
7 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

Ha h

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  N T

Who said he was “ignorant “, not I.

Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
7 months ago
Reply to  N T

Yes, sloppy proofreading seems to be par for the course with Unher

N T
NT
N T
7 months ago

i don’t think that @dumetrius was ignorant, i think he was pointing out that the rest of the sentence went AWOL.

Shale Lewis
NF
Shale Lewis
7 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

Go to bed without any supper.

Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
7 months ago
Reply to  Shale Lewis

That’s a very cruel punishment, I agree.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Shale Lewis

And no Ovaltine!

Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
7 months ago
Reply to  Shale Lewis

That’s a very cruel punishment, I agree.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Shale Lewis

And no Ovaltine!

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

“Live by the sword, die by the sword.”*

(*Derived from Mathew 26:52.)

Shale Lewis
NF
Shale Lewis
7 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

Go to bed without any supper.

Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
7 months ago

He who takes up the sword shall . . . what?

William Edward Henry Appleby
WE
William Edward Henry Appleby
7 months ago

I recommend reading “Firepower” by Chris Dempster and Dave Tomkins, to get an insight into the Angolan war.

William Edward Henry Appleby
WE
William Edward Henry Appleby
7 months ago

I recommend reading “Firepower” by Chris Dempster and Dave Tomkins, to get an insight into the Angolan war.

Doug Bodde
DB
Doug Bodde
7 months ago

A-team brah.

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
7 months ago

A former member of the Parachute Regiment said to me leaders of Muslim countries in sub -Sharan African countries are using Wagner because French politicians are not allowing 2 eREP – Legion Parachute to undertake what is needed to defeat Islamic Terrorists. The consequence is western leaning Muslim nations, threatened by Islamic Terrorism are using Wagner and therefore will come under the influence of Russia. Russia stands by her allies such as Assad in Syria while M Gaddafi who had come over to the West is betrayed by us, murdered by Islamic Extremists and as well we, hastily withdraw from Afghanistan, leaving vast amounts of equipment.
How long before countries such as Uganda and Keny which suffer from Islamic Terrorist attacks employ Wagner? The other benefit for African leaders is that they do not have to listen lectures on homosexuality and transgenderism from the West.
The lack of tough worldly wise leaders in the West who would use whatever means needed to thwart Putin was why he invaded Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine, supported Assad and Wagner gains in support in Africa. Putin assessed tht there would no effective opposition to his actions. Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Iran have joined the BRICs group of nations which if Iraq as well then much of the Worlds oil, gas and mineral wealth will be under the control of countries antagonistic to the West and largely dictatorial. What future a free democratic World?

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
7 months ago

A former member of the Parachute Regiment said to me leaders of Muslim countries in sub -Sharan African countries are using Wagner because French politicians are not allowing 2 eREP – Legion Parachute to undertake what is needed to defeat Islamic Terrorists. The consequence is western leaning Muslim nations, threatened by Islamic Terrorism are using Wagner and therefore will come under the influence of Russia. Russia stands by her allies such as Assad in Syria while M Gaddafi who had come over to the West is betrayed by us, murdered by Islamic Extremists and as well we, hastily withdraw from Afghanistan, leaving vast amounts of equipment.
How long before countries such as Uganda and Keny which suffer from Islamic Terrorist attacks employ Wagner? The other benefit for African leaders is that they do not have to listen lectures on homosexuality and transgenderism from the West.
The lack of tough worldly wise leaders in the West who would use whatever means needed to thwart Putin was why he invaded Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine, supported Assad and Wagner gains in support in Africa. Putin assessed tht there would no effective opposition to his actions. Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Iran have joined the BRICs group of nations which if Iraq as well then much of the Worlds oil, gas and mineral wealth will be under the control of countries antagonistic to the West and largely dictatorial. What future a free democratic World?

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
7 months ago

Surely what is imporatnt are the aims and achievements of the soldiers? Do their actions increase or decrease the number of innocent killed?

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
7 months ago

Surely what is imporatnt are the aims and achievements of the soldiers? Do their actions increase or decrease the number of innocent killed?

martin logan
ML
martin logan
7 months ago

Putin eventually did the right thing with regard to Vagner–but far too late.
There’s a reason why they stopped using mercs for most of the last 350 years.
As the writer notes, they often develop political goals of their own, which then clash with those of their employers.
Also well to remember that most of the barbarian groups that eventually took over the Roman empire (called “foederati”) were on the same model. And almost all inevitably developed their own political goals, and betrayed Rome.
Prigozhin may have sincerely believed he was just demanding that the war be fought better. But any challenge to political authority weakens it. Either it refuses the advice and remains dysfunctional, or it accepts it, and looks ever weaker.
Killing Prigozhin did get rid of a loose cannon, but it also degraded Putin’s power, and permanently.
So, it is richly ironic that the force that helped bring down the Roman Empire may also help bring down “the Third Rome”–the collapsing Russian empire that Putin is so desperately trying to save.
Urra!

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
7 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

How much of our predictions are wishful thinking? The only period of democratic rule in the history of Russia was from 1990 to 2000 and it brought economic ruin. Russians are better off under Putin than in the period of 1990 to 2000. Putin like Stalin has been ruthless at killing any people who threaten him. The German officers failed to kill Hitler. Mao, Lenin, Stalin and Khomeini all died of natural causes.

The Wagner Group is useful for extending Russian influence in the World If any government wanted to destroy the opposition why not employ Wagner, especially if they were anti- Western. Putin was a Lt Colonel in the KGB and trained in subversion, how to underdermine countries and is therefore good at spotting threats.
The way to reduce Putin’s power is to develop hydrocarbon deposits and bring oil down to $20/barrel for four years, develop minerals outside of Russia, South Africa and China and increase fertiliser and grain production. If Russia has no money cannot afford weapons and pay soldiers. The free democratic West needs to comprehend the inter action of technology, resources, transport, industry and warfare to undermine the dictatorial countries in the World, not financially support them in their attack on us. It is time time the West stopped selling rope to these dictatorial countries who only wish is to use it to hang us.