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Perils of private armies go beyond Wagner in Russia

Private armies allow sovereign countries plausible deniability of atrocities that take place during conflicts. They cock-a-snook at international conventions
Last Updated : 27 June 2023, 11:52 IST

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The dramatic events in Russia, where Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the private force called Wagner Group, led an unsuccessful rebellion against the Russian State bring into focus the role of private armies in modern war.

Wagner Group is significant because the private army fought the Ukrainian armed forces across a vast area in the heart of Europe and prevailed over both frontline Western weapons such as HIMARS, Storm Shadow missiles and Switchblade drones as well as war-drilled tactics of NATO-trained Ukrainian armed forces. Its victory in the siege of Bakhmut showed the world that private armies can deploy war resources efficiently and remain motivated throughout a conflict with far greater flexibility in tactics reflected in the Wagner Group tying down vastly bigger number of Ukrainian forces and neutralising any flanking manoeuvre that the Ukrainians tried.

Prigozhin's mercenaries have also won major battles in Africa. In Sudan, it assisted Russia-backed Omar Bashir troops till he was eventually overthrown in 2019. In Mali, it has helped in stalling elections, while in Libya it perused Russia-backed rebel leader Khalifa Hiftar. In the Central African Republic, the Wagner Group helped the incumbent regime against rebel forces in a bloody and successful series of battles. In Mozambique, on behalf of the government, it fights terrorist groups linked to Al-Shabaab.

Mercenary ‘Advantages’

The Wagner Group is not the first private army to make international headlines. During the United States-led invasion of Iraq, Backwater — a mercenary group founded in 1997 — became widely known for its controversial activities in Iraq during the early 2000s. As a private military company, it played a significant role in providing security services and military support to the US government and its allies. It was so powerful that the US media did not even refer to it as a private army, but as ‘armed contractors’.

Private armies come with four major advantages. The first is military expertise. Blackwater, for example, recruited personnel with extensive military experience, often from elite special forces units, providing the company with a pool of highly-skilled operators. Their expertise allowed them to carry out complex missions and handle high-risk situations effectively.
The second is that private armies allow for flexibility and quick response to emerging security challenges, allowing for swift action in critical situations.

The third is that private armies allow sovereign countries plausible deniability of atrocities and human rights violations that take place during such conflicts. The Wagner Group’s operations in Africa demonstrated Russia's ability to deploy military capabilities without official acknowledgement. This allowed Moscow to maintain plausible deniability, avoiding direct involvement in the conflict, while achieving its objectives through proxy forces.

The fourth is that private armies are cost-effective. They are cost-effective, both in the short and long run, when compared to maintaining standing armies. Money thus saved by cutting revenue expenditure can be allocated to other modernising goals.

The Flaws

Despite these advantages, private armies have some structural flaws. They are by their very conception a mercenary force and open to the highest bidder. That the CIA would have interest in a revolt against the Russian regime and that the revolt was likely the reason why Putin starved the Wagner Group howitzers, helicopters, and ammunition in the crucial phase of the Bakhmut siege, underlines that Putin cut his private army to size just in time.

The defining issue with non-State actors such as private armies acting as instruments of nations as agents of armed action in international relations go beyond a Blackwater in Iraq or a Wagner in Ukraine. They strike at the very heart of international relations and point to the increasing impotence of international institutions such as the United Nations and the African Union. These murderous collectives are not bound by protocols that govern the laws of war, such as the Geneva Conventions.

It is striking that the world has learned nothing from 300 years of conflict where, in countries such as India, the private armies of a trading firm (East India Company) subjugated a civilisation. It is time to rein in the private toughs. Yet, it’s not about to happen, as the success of the Wagner Group shows they may have undesirable repercussions, but they deliver results on the battlefield.

(Ninad D Sheth is a senior journalist.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 27 June 2023, 05:51 IST

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