by Nicolai Due-Gundersen
The year 2014 was a difficult one for the Middle East but an interesting one for Russia. While the Muslim world watched the rise of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), Russian President Vladimir Putin was reversing Russia’s ban on private military contractors (PMCs), after admitting in a 2012 interview that they “should be considered”. That year saw the birth of the Russian Wagner Group, headed by a former Ukrainian soldier who sided with Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists before establishing his own mercenary unit. Wagner’s ties to Putin saw them quickly migrate from combat in Ukraine to the current civil war in Syria. Up to 2,500 Wagner troops are believed to be fighting for Russia and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Wagner Group is only the latest advance in Russia’s flirtation with private warfare. While not the first state to engage in foreign adventures with mercenaries, Russia is setting a dangerous new trend—namely, using mercenaries solely for combat rather than for logistical and peripheral support of their armed forces. Such aggressive intervention adds a new façade to Putin’s power abroad. “Russia’s intervention in Syria has served several of [Putin’s] interests,” explains analyst Joshua Yaffa. “It saved the Assad regime from defeat, holding off the spectre of a regime change, and secured Russia an undeniable and influential role in the geopolitics of the Middle East”.
Other analysts take their observations further. Dr. Kiril Avramov and journalist Ruslan Trad argue that Syria is being used as “an experimental playground” for Russia to perfect “hybrid proxy warfare, blurring the lines between official foreign policy and private groups, Russian action and that of independent parties” to create an ambiguous grey zone of privatised and state-driven combat. “Publicly, [Wagner’s] designation was solely security provision, however, as it became evident in 2018, for the past two years, the company has been very actively involved in training, intelligence collection and forward operations on behalf of Assad’s army. On paper, no official links between the Russian forces in Syria and Wagner exist. [Yet], Wagner personnel are actively augmenting the Russian troops on the ground”.
In addition to achieving Russia’s goals in Syria, deploying PMCs like Wagner Group changes the politics of foreign intervention. With Wagner Group concentrated in sensitive Middle East zones, Putin can lower the political costs of achieving his geostrategic goals. Plausible deniability is easier with contractors. Indeed, continued use of mercenaries allowed Putin to officially declare a withdrawal of Russian troops from strategically vital parts of Syria, knowing full well that mercenaries could replace state soldiers. At the same time, their involvement in the Middle East can still be promoted as a form of propaganda. Take Russia’s so-called ‘ISIS Hunters’. Closely linked to Wagner Group, the Hunters have been given Russian and even Arab media coverage since their 2017 augmentation of Syrian forces against the Islamic State. In an ironic twist, their own propaganda videos feature graphic images of their mercenaries advancing against ISIS fighters, with the Hunters mimicking ISIS threats by promising to execute 100 ISIS fighters for each Russian hostage seized by the terrorist group in 2017. The publicity given to the ‘ISIS Hunters’ along with ISIS’ own public claims of capturing Russian mercenaries illustrates how the privatisation of warfare can blur lines all too quickly. Avramov and Trad agree. The significant interaction between mercenaries and Russian armed forces abroad collapses “the boundary between public and private […] in the name of claiming official armed forces operational successes, while reducing the body count via PMCs”.
If anything, Russia’s trend of outsourcing warfare is only growing beyond Syria and the Middle East. In addition to being contracted by Assad in exchange for 25% of the profits from assigned oil fields, Wagner Group has recently expanded into Africa. By the start of 2018, Wagner Group had been hired by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to bolster his regime’s security. Wagner staff were expected to ingratiate themselves with a leader wanted for war crimes (he’s since been deposed) so as to gain Russian trade deals for the gold, diamonds and uranium they were being paid to guard. The importance of natural resources to Russia should not be underestimated as part of Putin’s privatisation of warfare. A year after its arrival in Sudan, Wagner Group also sent its mercenaries to the Central African Republic (CAR). Here, Russia is clearly blurring the lines between state armed forces and commercial actors, having signed weapons deals with the Central African Republic a year before Wagner Group’s arrival. While Russian sources argue that the forces in CAR are merely instructors training local troops, observers have noted the presence of Wagner Group in unstable regions that boast natural resources.
The end of the Cold War acted as a catalyst for the rise of private warfare. The United States is well known for this trend in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet it is America’s former adversary that is expanding such commercial combat even further, with the Middle East and Africa as its new chessboard. After the Arab Spring, it would seem the dictators of Africa are the new gold mine for private military operations. At the end of the day, however, we should not forget that private military companies often represent state interests. Wagner Group has become Putin’s open secret, as evidenced by the alleged killing of Russian journalists reporting on the group. Even U.S. journalists have been targeted, emphasising Putin’s desire to hide official links between Moscow and Wagner to maintain plausible deniability, lowering the political costs of combat while expanding his Middle East ambitions. A new Cold War has begun, rooted in a warfare of subversion, guerrilla tactics, corruption and strategic alliances in conflict zones. The US and its allies are watching closely.
Nicolai Due-Gundersen is a political commentator at Kingston University, London and author of The Privatization of Warfare (Cambridge: Intersentia). He is former adviser to the Arab Institute for Security Studies in Jordan. Follow him on Twitter @DueGunderse.