After nearly eight years of a continuous European military presence in Mali, the French and German Ministers of Defence suddenly threatened to withdraw their respective troops from the long-standing military missions in support of the Malian efforts in counterterrorism in September 2021. The reason? The government in Bamako had allegedly begun negotiating with the Russian Wagner Group to receive more international support in combatting the various jihadist movements on its soil. French Minister of Defence Florence Parly warned: “If Mali commits to a partnership with mercenaries […] it will lose the support of the international community”. A few months later, reports of Wagner operating side by side with Malian armed forces in counterterrorism operations have been confirmed. Yet what is the Wagner Group, and why is it a threat that, next to more official military activities by Russia, is becoming more and more of a concern to the international community?
The Wagner Group (группа Вагнера in Russian) is a company offering military services independently from Russia’s official armed forces. Wagner’s origins are obscure, and the group continues to present somewhat of a mystery for media and governments alike. The name is said to stem from Dmitri Utkin, an ex-Spetsnaz officer, whose nom de guerre is Wagner, in a nod to the German classical composer Richard Wagner. Another name commonly associated with the group is Evgeny Prigozhin; also nicknamed “Putin’s Chef” for his catering business and his services to the Kremlin, this oligarch is considered as the principal financial source for the group, although he denies any links to Wagner.
The geographic presence of Wagner is continuously expanding and increasingly concerning the international community, as the case of Mali illustrates. According to Wagner’s official website, following missions in Ukraine – likely in support of separatist forces in the Donbass region, although this is not mentioned –, they are active in a wide range of African countries such as Mozambique or Libya, and have additionally become involved in the Syrian civil war. Moscow officially supports Syrian President Assad’s regime, and for instance deploys military planes for air strikes against Syrian rebel positions. However, Wagner forces on the ground seem to have played a greater role than Russian official military involvement might make seem. Present in Syria since 2015, the group were notably involved in the beheading of an alleged deserter of the Syrian army. This underlines one of the major concerns associated with Wagner: the numerous allegations of severe human rights violations committed by members of Wagner in the field in Africa and in the Middle East.
Wagner’s presence in the Central African Republic (CAR) marks an even clearer case in point. On 8 June 2021, the French government announced the suspension of its military cooperation and financial aid for the CAR. France cited the Russian influence and “complicity” from the Central African government in a Russian anti-French campaign as its reasons for the suspension. The CAR, torn apart by continuous conflicts between rebels and government forces, is a country rich in minerals, and has thus sparked international economic interest. A UN peace-keeping mission – the Minusca – has also attempted to bring some stability to this nation. The Russian presence in the country is however not only linked to economic interests, but has become politically significant too, not only in the context of the French withdrawal. The members of Wagner sent to the CAR are described as simple military “instructors” for the Central African armed forces (FACA) by Russia. However, reports and investigations have revealed that they may be far more active than the term “instructor” suggests, and by doing so, they enable Russia to lend military aid without risking an official military campaign and possible interference from the West. In the CAR, Russian mercenaries are accused of human rights violations, reaching from torture to extra-judicial executions. In a stark contrast to this, Wagner and Moscow have chosen to portray the Russian military presence in the country as an act of heroism, cementing the image of Wagner soldiers as saviour-like figures in the propaganda film “Tourist”, produced jointly with the Central African state in 2021.
Russian officials associated with Wagner have maintained silence over both the accusations of human rights violations and the active role Wagner employees seem to play in foreign conflicts. This is very likely due to the fact that, ironically, companies like Wagner are officially banned in Russia. What’s more, a number of Russian investigative journalists working on finding out more about the paramilitaries have died in unclear circumstances. Journalist Maxim Borodin’s sudden and unexplained death after falling from a balcony was considered a suicide by Russian authorities; the three journalists Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksander Rastorguyev and Kirill Radchenko were killed while investigating the group in the CAR in 2018. Up to this day, it is unclear why and by whom they were murdered. While it has not been formally proven that their research activities directly led to their assassination, it is yet another cause for concern related to Wagner.
The Wagner Group qualifies as what is known as a PMC, meaning a “private military company”. The use of PMCs in comparison to regular armed forces or intelligence services has arguably increased over the last decades; PMCs usually provide a variety of services, ranging from offering security guard services to training military personnel for combat to taking on a more active role in conflicts themselves, although this latter function often takes place in a legally grey area. Wagner is not the only PMC in the world. Indeed, the use of such companies is increasing, especially in the US, where Constellis, which merged several security and military service providers under its name, is the biggest company in this sector. Similar enterprises exist around the world and in particular in countries with long-standing histories of conflict or involvement in international conflicts.
The existence of PMCs highlights a few major problems in modern-day warfare and military organisations: for one, PMCs create a considerable dilemma with regard to international law concerning military conflicts. The Geneva Convention forms the basis of legal regulations in warfare, yet there are a number of difficulties with regards to the regulation of PMCs as private companies operating in the military field. For instance, when contractors belonging to a PMC take on a role more active than merely providing training or passive support to armed forces, their legal status becomes problematic. Military activities for personal profit in a country that is not necessarily one’s own can make a contractor pass to a mercenary status; neither civilian nor soldier, mercenaries have become a global legal problem especially when it comes to prosecution of war crimes or human rights violations – such as is the case with Wagner – as existing legislation either provides loopholes or is insufficient. While the United Nations Mercenary Convention was specifically designed to prohibit the use of mercenaries, it was only ratified by 35 countries. Countries that actively use PMCs such as the US, the UK, Israel or Russia were not among them, allowing their mercenaries to operate freely.
In this context, mercenaries, highly-trained soldiers on hire for anyone who pays them and with few legal restrictions to their activities, can become a threat; the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise in July 2021 is a primary example. Those responsible for murdering him in his private residence have been identified as a group of mostly Colombian mercenaries and ex-soldiers of the Colombian army. Colombia, a country itself haunted by interior conflict for decades, relies heavily on its armed forces in the fight against drug lords and thus produces a significant number of highly-trained veterans, who then become a popular choice for recruiters of PMCs.
But PMCs also shine light on another problem that is often overlooked in military organisations around the world. As they largely consist of ex-professional soldiers and special forces operators in particular, this suggests that there is an issue when it comes to reconverting and reintegrating ex-military personnel into society. While armed forces around the world offer reconversion courses for those ending their service, the transition from military to civilian society is more difficult than an average change of profession. Issues such as PTSD, injuries resulting in disabilities, isolation from friends and family after long periods of absence due to missions, as well the dichotomy between the clear structures of the military and the individualism of civil existence make adapting to “normal life” for ex-soldiers without adequate support highly difficult. While some resort to behaviours such as addiction or risk turning to crime, for others returning to a form of military service through becoming a so-called “contractor” for a PMC is an attractive alternative, as it allows them to return to an environment where they feel a greater sense of belonging than in civil society.  For the PMCs, on the other hand, an experienced veteran with previous military training is just as attractive as the PMC is to that veteran. They do not have to spend money training their new contractor and can rely on the veteran’s past experience instead.
Wagner could thus be qualified as a mere expression of a more global problem. The outsourcing of military conflicts to private companies makes war even more of a business than it already is, and risks complicating the existing problems of legal responsibility, national and economic interests and human rights abuses. Yet we should not forget that Wagner’s case remains particular; as a PMC with very likely links to the Russian government through Prigozhin and with its soldiers accused of severe human rights violations in several zones of conflict, Wagner should be seen as more than just a symptom of the changing landscape of warfare: it is also a military threat from Russia. Under Putin, Russia’s expansionary and threatening stance on the international political and military scene has arguably increased. It could be said that this mentality can be found with Wagner too: on their website, they state, referring to the number of completed operations “И это только начало!”. In translation, the sentence means “And this is only the beginning”.
 Verma, Priti “Reintegration of ex-Military Personnel with Civil Life – A social Issue and Big Challenge: An Empirical Study”, International Journal of Engineering and Management Research (June 2020), pp.94-95.
Next to completing my undergraduate degree at Durham University, I also work as a journalist and plan on doing a Master’s degree in journalism and international security in France. I am thus particularly interested in issues such as European defence politics, conflict in post-Soviet countries and the individual human experience of war.