AUTHOR: Raunaq Singh Bawa
(Student at Bhavan Vidyalaya School, Chandigarh)
When talking of Privatisation of warfare, usually American groups come to mind, most prominently the Blackwater group. For those unaware about Blackwater (now called ‘Academi’), it is a(n) (in)famous Private Military Company (PMC), which is believed to operate in countries like Yemen and Iraq, at the behest of US and its regional allies. It gained notoriety in 2007, for the Nissour Square Massacre, where Blackwater personnel reportedly killed 14 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 others.
However, this article addresses a relatively lesser-known private military group, Russia’s Wagner Group. Wagner PMC first rose to prominence in 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, after a hotly disputed rebellion and referendum in favour of Russia by the local population.
The controversial element of this event was the presence of the ‘Little Green Men’, i.e., masked soldiers, in green uniform with no identifying insignia, who actively participated in the rebellion in Crimea. They did so by effectively immobilising the Ukrainian army and the state apparatus in Crimea: by occupying Simferopol International Airport, the Parliament in Simferopol, and blockading the Ukrainian army and its naval bases. While initially touted as ‘self-defence forces’, on 17th April 2014, President Vladimir Putin admitted the involvement of Russian Spetsnaz forces, in order to create “suitable conditions for a referendum”. Further, retired Admiral Igor Kasatonov also revealed information about the involvement of Russian military in the Crimean annexation.
However, closer scrutiny revealed the presence of an entity far more intriguing—the Wagner PMC. It is largely believed that Wagner was actively involved in the annexation of Crimea, providing important assistance to the Russian Special Forces and engaging in direct assaults against the Ukrainian military.
Crimea is believed to have acted as a testing ground for these private actors, where Wagner PMC emerged as a leader among the various players involved, which is why it now forms a crucial part of Russia’s plans in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Wagner Group, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin (a close aide of President Putin), has, not unlike the Blackwater Group for the US Government, acted as a private military instrument for the Russian Government, whilst allowing Russia to maintain plausible deniability, due to its absence of formal links with the Russian military. It is an effective geopolitical tool used by Russia to exert its influence in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and Ukraine’s Donbass region, among others.
It is common knowledge that Bashar al-Assad would have been toppled by Syrian Rebels and ISIS forces years ago, had it not been for the concerted efforts of his allies in Moscow and Tehran. Interestingly, the support from both show remarkably close parallels: On the one hand, Russia supplied its elite Spetsnaz Forces along with the Wagner Group (an irregular player), while Iran supplied its elite Revolutionary Guard Corps along with Hezbollah forces (also an irregular player). The Wagner Group in particular was instrumental in the capture of the ISIS strongholds of Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor. However, it also triggered a hair-rising international crisis, when Wagner Group forces, in a failed raid, attacked a stronghold controlled by US-supported Kurdish fighters and US forces themselves, resulting in several casualties on the Russian side (with different sources putting numbers anywhere between 4 and 200).
While not a direct confrontation between the militaries of both powers, the incident sparked international tensions, and it took high levels of diplomatic damage control to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.
Today, even as the Wagner Group is active in Syria, it is also making forays into Libya. Libya has been embroiled in a devastating civil war, ever since the overthrow and killing of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 (yet another example of how the West has a propensity to overthrow dictators without providing the afflicted country with an alternative government to fill the resultant vacuum). Libya is divided between the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by strongman Khalifa Haftar.
Russia has actively supported Haftar’s forces in Libya, and it is well-known (though not admitted by Russia) that it has dispatched fighters from the Wagner Group to Libya, especially as snipers and drone operators. These mercenaries are important force-multipliers for Haftar’s army and may well be a decisive factor in the Libyan War.
The rise of the Wagner Group merits deep analysis as a geopolitical phenomenon in itself, and is of particular interest to ‘Kremlin-Watchers’. PMCs like Wagner are an important asset in the arsenal of Vladimir Putin and the Russian military, who are seeking to re-establish Russian influence in various corners of the globe, notably in Eastern and Central Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
The rise of the Wagner Group parallels the resurgence of Russia as a potential superpower on the global scene. Crimea and Syria, two of Russia’s most successful military actions since its devastating war in Georgia in 2008, both have seen Wagner PMC play an important role. Russia is now able to plant its own proxies in these countries, while being able to maintain plausible deniability, since none of the fighters are affiliated with the Russian military.
The Wagner Group is also an important supporting asset for the Russian military. If one observes notable arenas like Crimea, Syria, or Libya, one observes a pattern, wherein-
- Local Proxies: Russia first will cause escalation by giving material and diplomatic support to its preferred local proxy in the conflict (For example: Assad in Syria, Haftar in Libya).
- Private Proxies: Then, players such as Wagner are sent in to directly assist the local proxy by acting as supporting elements and force-multipliers, such as the snipers and drone operators in Libya.
- Military Intervention: Finally, once the Local and Private proxies have jointly weakened the rival party, Russian military will come onto the scene, and ‘clean up’.
Private mercenaries are a predominant strategic asset for Russia, and a means of projecting power. The rise of these PMCs is also indicative of Russia’s rising global stature and a regaining of the hard power it has historically enjoyed, and thus, we must be mindful not discount Russia as a significant contender in the global tussle for power. Russia has significant capabilities to harm Western interests through its growing military strength, and I would argue that these are equivalent to Chinese capabilities to do the same through their growing economic strength.
Wagner PMC—From Russia, with love.