The history of mercenary military activity goes back centuries, but modern-day Private Military Companies are a complex and controversial phenomenon in the global security landscape. Simone Rinaldi and Daniela Irrera argue that their role, and the implications of their use, raise significant challenges for the actors who employ them
Private Military Companies (PMCs) – organisations with military and security personnel – offer a range of military, paramilitary and security services to governments, the private sector, international organisations, and non-state actors.
PMCs are not new; traces of them date back to the Middle Ages. But these groups underwent significant growth during the latter half of the twentieth century. Throughout the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union used private military contractors for a variety of tasks, including logistics, infrastructure management, combat service support, consulting and, in some cases, covert operations.
In recent years, PMCs have evolved considerably. The US-based Blackwater (now Academi), and the South African Executive Outcomes, gained notoriety for their involvement in international conflicts. Often deployed in unstable contexts of asymmetric warfare, PMCs have been involved in security operations, military training, protection of critical infrastructure, and intelligence. In some cases, as in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, PMCs have fulfilled tasks similar to those entrusted to regular forces. Their engagements, however, have not been without incidents of crime and brutality.
By employing private military companies, states can dissociate themselves from direct involvement in conflict, and maintain a non-partisan image among their electorate
There are many reasons why states and other global players use PMCs. They offer flexibility, rapid response, and specialist expertise. States can employ PMCs to perform sensitive or controversial tasks. This enables them to dissociate themselves from direct involvement, and to maintain a non-partisan image among their electorate. Another advantage is that PMCs reduce defence costs: there is no drain on state-owned personnel or equipment for protecting economically important infrastructure.
The 2022 invasion of Ukraine brought attention to the Wagner Group, a Russian PMC with anomalous characteristics. The Group has also been active in recent military operations in Sudan, Libya, Mali, and Syria. The main difference between Wagner and its predecessors is its huge volume of personnel. Wagner operates as a fully-fledged armed force, with land, sea, and air capabilities.
In Ukraine, Wagner is deployed in a conventional state-vs-state conflict. Essentially, it has become an independent spin-off of the Russian armed forces. Its actions stand in contrast with many Western PMCs, which are involved in post-conflict restoration, or low- to medium-intensity asymmetrical conflicts.
Wagner depends upon economic and military resources that overlap with Russian armed forces, yet it operates independently from them
Russia and the Wagner Group enjoy very close connections. Unlike other private companies, Wagner depends upon economic and military resources that overlap with Russian armed forces. In many cases, armoured vehicles or aircraft, and the personnel trained to operate them, move directly from Russian army or air force units into Wagner Group ranks.
The Kremlin’s extensive use of Wagner vehicles, equipment and personnel led to rapid expansion, to the point where Wagner now employs over 50,000 personnel. The true number, however, is difficult to estimate because of deployments on multiple fronts in the Ukraine conflict. To overcome their manpower shortage, Wagner opened up recruitment to former prisoners without military experience, thus strengthening its bargaining power with the Kremlin.
The Kremlin frequently uses Wagner as its foreign policy instrument. Wagner operates independently from conventional forces, and spans a wide range of operations. The Group has become not simply a branch of the Russian military, but a legitimate international non-state actor. Wagner has its own strategic and political line, with elements of Soviet-era nostalgia, and extreme right-wing Russian ultranationalists who dare to defy orders from the Kremlin.
On 24 June 2023, Wagner forces, led by Evgenij Prigožin, rose up against Vladimir Putin. Their aim was to overthrow, or at least dictate, the political agenda of a global power. The Group's leadership used its political and military power, built up over many years, to oppose not only Putin's government but the Russian Defence Ministry. There is considerable overlap between Wagner forces and the Russian Defence Ministry. Indeed, Wagner's leadership has even sought to replace them.
Since the 24 June rebellion, Wagner has lost power, though it remains a non-state actor with its own potentially independent political clout
The governments of France, Estonia, Ukraine, Lithuania and the UK all designate Wagner a terrorist group. This is clear evidence of its high-profile international reputation and the political power it has acquired. Wagner has become a non-state actor with its own potentially independent political clout. As such, it can play a strategic role on the global military chessboard.
Wagner is also important in the way it erodes Russian national sovereignty. The events of 24 June, although still not fully accounted for, are unprecedented. Since the rebellion, Wagner appears to have lost power, and personnel. Despite the death of Prigožin, Wagner remains an international player, and an important PMC case study.
The growing presence of PMCs, and Wagner in particular, raises concerns about accountability, transparency, and respect for human rights. The regulatory and normative challenges associated with states' use of PMCs are the subject of fierce debate. The international community should pay urgent attention to them.