In the entire drama surrounding the Wagner group’s ‘mutiny’ against the Russian state headed by President Vladimir Putin the main issue is this: why did Putin allow a private mercenary group to undertake combat operations in Ukraine? Putin may choose to describe the Russian invasion of Ukraine which began on February 24 last year as a ‘special military operation’ but it has been a war unleashed against Ukraine. Wars of the kind undertaken by Putin against Ukraine have to be fought by national armies under a unified command which is, through formal administrative and constitutional mechanisms, accountable to the country’s political leadership and in some countries to legislative oversight. The same principle should also apply even if the war is called a ‘special military operation’ against a neighbouring state.
These propositions are not merely theoretical but of practical utility. This is because a duality or multiplicity of command in a war inevitably leads not only to confusion but to bickering, heartburn and accusations as have been witnessed between the Wagner group and the Russian ministry of defence. In extreme cases, and the Wagner mutiny, would fall in this category, it can lead to major adverse consequences to the entire war effort. It is being argued that one reason why the Wagner group was used was to maintain deniability when breaking the rules of war was to be undertaken by Russia during the Ukraine invasion. This is an argument of despair and reveals major weaknesses in Russia’s war fighting capabilities. Indeed, it is a sure recipe for a ‘solution’ worse than the problem itself.
In conceptual terms the use of entities such as the Wagner group represent the outsourcing of war. Russia is not the only state which has done so. The United States too has used what are euphemistically called ‘contractors’ in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their functions included guard duties of sensitive installations, training of local forces and logistical support of regular US troops. These ‘contractors’ are employees of companies, some of which became controversial, for they were accused of profiteering. In Iraq and Afghanistan there were instances, when ‘contractors’ used force against local Afghans and Iraqis. A particularly notorious and controversial case was in September 2007 in Mansour, Iraq when contractors belonging to the Blackwater company killed twenty Iraqi civilians. These contractors who were travelling in two vehicles in a crowded area claimed that they came under attack and used force in self-defense. However, credible accounts indicated that their vehicles’ movement was impeded because of heavy traffic and the contractors had no reason to open fire.
The fact is that the use of private companies which are permitted to use force in foreign lands in conflict situations is not covered by any international convention. This is unlike the regular armed forces of countries which are obliged by the Geneva Conventions to adhere to the rules of war. Most countries, like the United States, who use contractors enter into agreements to give some legal cover to the use of force by these contractors. Sometimes these agreements do not comply with the full range of laws of the countries where these contractors operate. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai’s protection team, for a long time, relied not only on Afghan personnel but contractors belonging to a US company. Some Afghans considered this arrangement an affront to Afghan honour. They felt that Karzai could not trust fellow Afghans and therefore had to rely on foreigners for his personal security. Other Afghans were concerned about the legality of foreigners protecting the President. The precise legal arrangement relating to the immunity, if any, given to the contractors if they had to use force to protect President Karzai was never publicly revealed.
The fact is that these contractors employed by private companies are mercenaries. To put is somewhat crudely they are guns for hire whatever sophisticated veneer is sought to be given to them. Unlike national armies that are committed to national defence these mercenaries and the companies are dedicated to profit. For decades mercenary bands and companies have made the African continent their happy hunting ground. The mineral resources of the continent have been a source of attraction for multinational companies. They act with weak governments who often rely on private foreign ‘security’ companies to protect the operations of these mining companies. Some of these private ‘security’ companies themselves get involved in the lucrative business of illegal mineral extraction. Some years ago, there was great focus on ‘blood’ diamonds. These diamonds were extracted illegally and through a great exploitation of human rights. According to media reports senior officials of the African Union (AU) have called for the “complete exclusion of mercenaries from the African continent”.
While the United Nations system has been seized of the problems associated with private security companies since around 2005 there has been insufficient will on the part of the major powers to really take effective action to put an end to them. This is on account of commercial as well as security and strategic reasons. Indeed, for some countries the use of so-called non-state actors become part of their strategic doctrines. This is despite the fact that they are double-edged weapons which often turn against the sponsoring state. This Wagner mutiny has, in one sense, been a prime example of this danger. Despite some of these acute problems it is unlikely if there is a likelihood of international cooperation to prevent the operation of private ‘security’ companies for huge profits are at stake.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.