Amid the rise of great power competition, Russia and China, near peer competitors to the United States, have been working to advance their technology, economic power, and military prowess in order to attain the number one position in the post-Cold War international system. After the September 11th attacks, the United States underwent a major shift toward a focus on combating terrorism and violent extremism. Nevertheless, the prospects of Chinese and Russian power continued to linger in U.S. security dialogue and remained among the top U.S. national security priorities. Amid the War in Ukraine, the Wagner Group has gained significant attention due to their active involvement in fighting for the Russian state. The Wagner Group is a private military company (PMC), and not officially a proponent of Russia’s military. Despite their widespread usage, private military companies are prohibited by Russian law (Bowen). The Wagner Group’s criminal activity and their subsequent emergence as an “army with an ideological component” (Cook) shows the threat convergence of both terrorism and great power competition. China remains an active user of private military companies. However, there is little information regarding China’s present use, and prospective future use of private military companies. The developments surrounding the Wagner Group indicate that change and action may be needed regarding the use of these private armies, and to ultimately prevent their misuse. In a multipolar world, the activities of the Wagner Group represent an evolving transnational threat in the use of private military companies.
Private Military Companies have a long history and were used extensively during Medieval times. “The Middle Ages were a mercenary heyday. Nearly half of William the Conqueror’s army in the 11th century was made up of hired swords, as he could not afford a large standing army and there was not enough nobles and knights to accomplish the Norman conquest of England. King Henry II of England engaged mercenaries to suppress the great rebellion of 1171-1174” (McFate 11). Europe during this period was harbored with mercenaries. “Medieval Europe was a hot conflict market, and mercenaries were how wars were fought. Kings, city states, wealthy families, the church—anyone rich enough—could hire an army to wage war for whatever reason they wanted: honor, survival, god, theft, revenge, or amusement” (McFate 11-12). After the Peace of Westphalia was signed, states monopolized control over mercenary forces and mostly outlawed their use (McFate 14-15). According to McFate (14), “Rogue mercenary units and the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War proved too greats, and state rulers began investing in their own standing armies, loyal only to them.”
The problems associated with private military companies in the past have trickled into the present day. According to McFate (15), “Mercenaries did not go extinct but were driven underground. Lone soldiers of fortune bounced between geopolitical hot spots and were secretly hired by rebel groups, weak governments, multinational corporations, and states. The decolonialization that followed World War II offered rich opportunities for these private warriors, especially in Africa.” According to McFate (15), the most widely accepted definition of a mercenary, which can be found in Article 47 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, is difficult to use. “The characterization of a mercenary is so restrictive yet imprecise that anyone can wiggle out of it” (McFate 16). The use of these private forces has been expanding quickly. “Private force is manifesting everywhere. After 150 years underground, the market for force is returning in just a few decades and is growing at an alarming rate” (McFate 6). The Wagner Group and its activities represent the overwhelmingly negative implications that come with the use of private security companies.
Although it has garnered attention through the War in Ukraine, the roots of the Wagner Group can be traced back before the Russian Annexation of Crimea in 2014 (Bowen). Before the annexation, Russia experimented with the use of private military companies. “According to media reports, Wagner evolved out of earlier Russian PMC outfits, including groups operating in Syria in 2013. During this time, Russia was experimenting with PMCs, including their role and relationship to the state” (Bowen). Notably, Russia did not make use of these private networks as much in Crimea. Instead, they stuck mostly with conventional military. In eastern Ukraine, however, the situation was different. “In Crimea, Russia achieved quick success through direct application of military power, while in Eastern Ukraine, its leadership took an entirely different approach” (Kofman et al. 75). According to Kofman (75), “Moscow leveraged private networks, some with their own agents, in the hopes of accomplishing this goal at low cost and with plausible deniability.” Similarly, Russia also used oligarchs and elites to aid deniability. “It made sense for Russia to use private networks of individuals, such as Malofeev, and their connections in Ukraine to achieve its objectives while maintaining deniability” (Kofman et a. 60). The investment in such mercenaries and oligarchies was thought to be difficult to control. As such, it was argued that Russia would refrain from using these irregular forces in the future:
Russia had too few of its own operatives in Ukraine at the onset of the conflict, especially given the size of the geography. It was not able to control the leaders and irregulars that it had sponsored—powerful personalities with their own ideology and interpersonal conflicts. In the future, Russia may avoid this approach in favor of covert action, backed
by conventional forces, which worked in Crimea. By employing paramilitaries, mercenaries, and ideologues, Russia invested in a mess instead of a constructive means to achieve political objectives. Despite several prominent assassinations and dismissals, the conglomeration of personalities and agendas continues to plague the present-day separatist republics. (Kofman et al. 64)
Russian use of private military companies in the present shows that they did not avoid this approach. The PMC was also reported to be involved with Russia and their operations in Syria (Bowen). Then, Wagner Group would spread to several other countries in Africa. Aside from the profits incurred from providing security services, the Wagner Group’s presence in Africa was for an even greater purpose due to their unofficial affiliation with the Russian state.
According to Kofman et al. (65), “Weak states often have powerful nonstate actors and vested interests. Russia’s periphery is replete with countries with weak national governments and without functioning institutions but with strong networks of undemocratic elites who could offer surprising resistance.” The case of Africa supports this. The Wagner Group in Africa follows a scheme in which resource rich states, particularly ones with weak governance, are targeted for the extraction of resources and the projection of Russian influence, in exchange for their protection. According to Fasanotti, “Russian President Vladimir Putin also seeks to create African dependencies on Moscow’s military assets and access African resources, targeting countries that have fragile governments but are often rich in important raw materials, such as oil, gold, diamonds, uranium, and manganese.” In the Central African Republic, this influence is evident. The government in the Central African Republic recently required university students to learn the Russian language (Flanagan). With these special deals, Wagner forces have gotten away with a myriad of human rights violations. These abuses have been committed primarily against civilian populations. “Wagner’s war crimes and human rights abuses in Mali are not an isolated case but rather the latest in an ongoing trend. In many of their past and ongoing deployments, Wagner has perpetrated a wide range of abuses against local civilian populations” (Doxsee & Thompson). The influence of the group in Mali remains present, with Malian authorities even refusing to allow anyone to investigate the atrocities:
Although reports of the massacre were met with international condemnation and calls for a UN investigation, including from the U.S. Department of State, the Malian junta has refused to grant access to Moura to investigators from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Russia, for its part, blocked a proposed UN Security Council request for an independent investigation into the killings. Given the government’s complicity with atrocities, it is increasingly difficult for observers to document atrocities or to provide aid to survivors. (Doxsee & Thompson)
In the Central African Republic, Wagner forces also committed various human rights violations and atrocities. “From the time Wagner arrived in the country, its troops were implicated in crimes against local populations, including frequent rapes of teenage girls in villages near its operating bases. Wagner-linked atrocities in the CAR multiplied as PMC troops became increasingly involved in combat operations” (Doxsee & Thompson). In the CAR, they have been suspected of killing journalists. “Three journalists were killed before an attempt to film Wagner contractors at Lobaye Invest-operated gold mines in July 2020” (Parens). Officials have taken note of the effects of the Wagner presence on terrorism:
Speaking before the United Nations Security Council this month, James Kariuki, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, warned of the “destabilizing role the Wagner Group plays” in the Sahel, a conflict-ridden stretch of territory spanning western and north-central Africa, from Senegal to Sudan. Speaking of the Kremlin-linked private military contractor, Kariuki concluded, “They are part of the problem, not the solution. (Clarke)
In a sense, the human rights abuses by the Wagner Group and other actors have created a cycle. The Wagner Group would take the security role that the state forces lack and fight other violent nonstate actors. Civilians affected by Wagner abuses would be forced to join these other actors, such as terrorist organizations, continuing the conflict:
Civilians, faced with these predatory actors, will be increasingly forced to look elsewhere—such as toward communal militias and jihadists—for security and basic services. While jihadist groups such as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) have similarly committed violence against civilians, they have also demonstrated an ability to construct political order, resolve land disputes, and offer protection to local populations. (Doxsee & Thompson)
Wagner Group’s criminal abuses has been shown to be a major destabilizing force in the continent of Africa. Because of these criminal acts, the Wagner Group, in late January 2023, was designated as a transnational criminal organization by the U.S. Department of the Treasury:
The Wagner Group has also meddled and destabilized countries in Africa, committing widespread human rights abuses and extorting natural resources from their people. Today, the Wagner Group is being redesignated pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13581, as amended by E.O. 13863, for being a foreign person that constitutes a significant transnational criminal organization. Wagner personnel have engaged in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions,
and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali. (Treasury Sanctions) These sanctions come with the formal acknowledgement by Washington that Wagner operations are criminal in nature (Faulkner). Notably, the United States dismissed the idea of a foreign terrorist organization designation against the Wagner Group. “But a congressional aide, requesting anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations, told The Hill that the administration opposes the legislation over concerns it could impede U.S. efforts to convince and work with African nations to end their associations with or dependency on Wagner” (Kelly). The Wagner Group has shown to have parallels with terrorist and extremist groups. The Wagner Group uses the social media app Telegram to communicate with the public. Telegram has been notably used by other extremist groups (Williams et al. 11). Wagner has been allegedly documented in public executions, which were posted online via Telegram. (Ladden-Hall). The most notable confirmation of a terrorist intent within the Wagner Group came in March 2023, when the group’s founder, Yevgeny Prighozin, announced that the Wagner Group would be an “army with an ideological component” (Cook). These developments show that a private military company, which is commonly attributed as a group for-profit, has evolved into a group with a likening to a terrorist organization.
Vladimir Putin chose to allow the Wagner Group to fight for Russia in the War in Ukraine. However, Putin and the Russian government could seek to maintain deniability for illegal actions in the use of PMCs (Stronski). The use of a private military company like the Wagner Group supports this denial by obscuring Russian involvement. “Aggressors obscure involvement in an attack often by using ostensibly nonstate actors, such as private military companies, as well as through cyber operations that are difficult to attribute and sometimes reinforced by public statements of denial by officials” (Atwell et al. 114). The Wagner Group’s unique status may allow plausible deniability for Russia:
Wagner Group often overlaps with Russian state foreign policy aims, but its position as an independent contractor lends it unpredictability, while giving Russia plausible deniability. The group offers the Russian state a valuable tool: the ability to test new environments for military cooperation without appearing heavy-handed or overtly involved. (Parens)
Nevertheless, Russia had continued to take steps to conceal any involvement in suspicious casualties. Generally, Russian military officials have refused to acknowledge the number of casualties that have resulted at the hands of Russian private military companies (Stronski).
Efforts have been made to uncover suspicious activity, particularly by journalists. There are cases of suspicious deaths of journalists covering these sensitive topics:
Russian official media present the military campaign in Syria as an unqualified success conducted with virtually no casualties. (Independent media outlets have covered the subject at significant risk: several Russian investigative journalists reporting on Russian PMCs have died under suspicious circumstances.) There are also credible reports that Wagner personnel have been involved in atrocities, including the torture and dismemberment of Syrian citizens. The lack of official affiliation with the Russian government allows Moscow to keep responsibility for such crimes at arm’s length. (Stronski)
Vladimir Putin may pursue plausible deniability, but their suspicious involvement in potential cover-ups should open a door for intergovernmental organizations and the governments of PMC host countries to lawfully act to investigate the casualties. International regulations or agreements might be needed to establish requirements for host countries to allow investigations of human rights violations prohibited by international law.
China, like Russia, banned private military companies, but private security companies (PSCs) have remained legal and become widespread (Markusen). “While China explicitly forbids PMCs, China legalized PSCs in September 2009. Since then, Chinese PSCs have rapidly proliferated, increasingly obscuring the line between security and military services” (Markusen). According to Weinbaum, “The distinction between a PMC versus a PSC is the difference between a for-hire military contractor versus a security team that merely protects a single static location, like a military base, embassy, or port.” China has multiple potential uses for private security companies. Protection became necessary for Chinese workers after they were repeatedly attacked:
On August 11, nine Chinese workers were killed in a blast in Pakistan, the latest in the string of attacks targeting Chinese citizens. The incident highlighted the vulnerability of Chinese nationals and assets abroad and the need to improve protection and security for workers in foreign countries. As a solution, China has come to see private military companies (PMC) as an eminently necessary tool. (Avdaliani)
Moreover, their services may be used to support the Belt and Road Initiative, a large economic project. “Therefore, finding a niche is as much an economic effort as it is a geopolitical one. Thus far, Chinese PSCs have found a market in the countries which are closely related to the BRI” (Avdaliani). In terms of great power competition, China may also use private military companies to for power projection:
As the United States is decreasing its military presence across the Eurasian landmass, this opens up the space for China’s projection of power into regions like Afghanistan and the Middle East. Expansion of influence brings risks on the ground and the need for the use of PMC rapid operations in the face of the absence of central governments’ proper security services. (Avdaliani)
Just like Russia in Africa, the lack of an adequate government with a stable security force may serve the same benefits to China. The only known Chinese action in managing private military companies is that they are a signer to the Montreux Document. Importantly, the document is “not a legally binding instrument” (The Montreux 9). This makes the document more like a guide, with no real penalty if a signer is found in violation. “Contracting States have an obligation to provide reparations for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law caused by wrongful conduct of the personnel of PMSCs when such conduct is attributable to the Contracting States in accordance with the customary international law of State responsibility” (The Montreux 12). With plausible deniability, China may still deny if any actions of Chinese PSCs are in violation of international humanitarian law.
As the world may become multipolar, with multiple powerful state actors competing against each other, Russian and Chinese investments in private military companies raise concern for U.S. and global security. As such, measures may be needed both at the national and international level to ensure that private military companies, if not outlawed, are used properly and with complete regard to international law. The United States State Department should follow European counterparts and designate the Wagner Group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. “Wagner’s designation would inhibit Russia’s ability to expand its international influence as the group wields terror all too effectively to advance Russian strategic interests. Designating Wagner would counter Russia’s continued violation of international norms and help protect innocent citizens around the globe” (Urban & Downing). Additionally, more research and study may be needed to examine the ideological motivations of Wagner recruits, Yevgeny Prighozin, and other Wagner financiers.
The United States should engage with international partners to discuss the expanding use, and misuse, of private military companies. At the international level, a binding document regulating private military companies may be ultimately needed to ensure that these companies are not used for any of these negative purposes. This may be created by an intergovernmental organization, such as the United Nations. The United States and other “Big Five” members should lead the effort to enact regulation. Additionally, trusted diplomats should convene with the governments of PMC host countries to help decrease their reliance on these destabilizing violent non-state actors. Most importantly, full accountability is needed when private military companies commit crimes and abuses. Russian officials and oligarchs, and host country governments that are complicit in Wagner’s abuses have evidently not been properly handled diplomatically. Because Russia may be expected to continue with plausible deniability, new international regulations may be needed to allow investigators into countries that are accused of turning a blind eye on abuses committed by private security forces. While the Montreaux Document provides decent guidance, it does not have any force of law. As such, a new, binding agreement on PMCs might be needed as they become more widespread.
As mentioned, states had outlawed the use of private security companies due to the mess and bloodshed that resulted from their use. Based on their activities in the present, it can be reasonably argued that the deadly history of private armies has continued to repeat itself. Only now, private military companies have evolved to do the bidding of powerful state actors. And, in the case of the Wagner Group, they have shown that they can be motivated by ideology, and not just by profit. Action is needed to reveal the deadly consequences of widespread PMC misuse, and to ultimately hold mercenaries, financiers, and state sponsors accountable.
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