Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Herbert Wulf  |  28 June, 2023

Their Business is Military Force: The Wagner Festival is Cancelled

Image: Svet foto/

In less than 24 hours, the march on Moscow of the Wagner troops led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of this military company, was over. The short-lived coup was more like an operetta than a revolution. It remains to be seen whether this attack has permanently weakened Vladimir Putin's authority and power. However, the withdrawal of Wagner's mercenaries does not mean that the network of private military companies will no longer play a role in future.

Prigozhin and his estimated 50,000-strong troops, have attracted attention not only in the Ukraine war through the use of brutal force. They have been used as a foreign policy tool of the Kremlin for several years. The mercenaries are deployed in some conflict zones where Russia pursues political and/or economic interests.

Around 5,000 of Wagner's fighters and regular Russian soldiers have been fighting in Syria to support Bashar al-Assad's regime in crushing the Arab Spring, fighting the "Islamic State" and the Kurds pushing for independence in his country. As payment, Evro Polis, a company in which Prigozhin has a stake, received generous oil concessions.

The UN denounces crimes such as torture, looting, rape by the Malian armed forces. They have been held in power by Wagner mercenaries and Russian arms shipments since the 2021 coup. The Malian government has made it unmistakably clear to the UN-mandated peacekeepers from various countries, including France and Germany, that it no longer needs their services. They feel more comfortable with Wagner troops.

Since 2017, the Wagner company has been training the Sudanese armed forces and it controls  the extraction of mineral resources in the Dafur region. Gold exports to Russia are an important source of income.

In  the Central African Republic (CAR), around 1,000 to almost 2,000 Wagner fighters are said to have been deployed since 2018 to defend the government from rebels. In the CAR, too, the Wagner companies are paid with logging rights, and mining rights for gold and diamond mines. The New York Times quoted Abdoul Aziz Sali, a mining economist from the Central African Republic, at the end of last year: "The Russians control everything."

Wagner's involvement  in Mozambique ended quickly after failing to suppress the uprising in the region of Cabo Delgado, which was occupied by the Islamic State.

Finally, Wagner mercenaries have been deployed in Libya for almost a decade to support Khalifa Haftar, who rules the east of the country, in his fight against the government in Tripoli.

The U.S. Treasury Department classified the Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organisation and imposed economic sanctions on it. But Prigozhin simply copied the business idea of "commercialization of military force" from companies in the United States. Hundreds of companies, not only the dubious Blackwater company or CACI Systems and Kellogg, Brown & Root in the USA, but also Sandline International and Armor Group in Great Britain, sprang up like mushrooms in the mid-1990s. These companies offered all military and military-like services: combat and post-conflict operations; military training; repair and maintenance of weapons systems and vehicles; collection of intelligence information; interrogation of prisoners of war; asset protection; and support of troops and police personnel in operational theatres. Due to their sometimes brutal operations, criminal investigations were carried out. There are clear parallels in Wagner's business model, both in the commercialization of violence and the brutal approach to war situations.

At the height of the war effort of the U.S.-led military coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were at times more contractors than U.S. soldiers deployed in the two countries. In some theatres of war in the Ukraine, Wagner’s troops had outnumbered the Russian armed forces as well. At the time of the aftermath of the war in Iraq and during the conflict in Afghanistan, a report of the U.S. Congress' Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrated the dimensions of this secretive force. The Commission found that the number of personnel of private military and security companies contracted by the Pentagon amounted to almost 250.000 people in Asia in 2009.

This boom of private military companies had various causes.  The liberalization of the market, the deregulation concepts and neoconservative economic programs have led to the free movement of goods and services, but also to the globally-organised privatization of wars. Another reason is bottlenecks in the recruitment of soldiers. In addition, some governments like to resort to privately-organised groups rather than their own armed forces, because public criticism of rising numbers of fallen soldiers is more problematic than that of dead mercenaries. And, after all, jobs in military companies are attractive. The contractors are much better paid than soldiers. In the case of Wagner, many prison inmates hope to regain their freedom after their service in the Ukraine war.

At the end of the 1990s, there was a veritable gold-rush atmosphere, which also found its imitators in Russia. "Rent-a-Soldier" was no longer utopian as the normatively positive policy of privatization, the neoliberal concept, the lean state, to streamline the state and curtail and privatize its tasks, did not stop at privatization of water and energy supplies, railways and other public services. Military and police were included.

The conduct of wars and participation in armed conflicts became an attractive and profitable business for some of the participants in the war, despite the negative consequences for society as a whole. In its ideal form, the state guarantees the security of its citizens, both internally and externally. This is the core of what is traditionally called the state monopoly on force. However, privatizing large parts of military and security services challenges and undermines the state monopoly on force because it outsources this monopoly to private actors. It is therefore not surprising that conflicts between state and non-state actors erupt, as is now the case with the Wagner uprising.

An interesting "cultural" aside is the name of the Wagner Group. Why Wagner? What does the blustering head of the Wagner militia, Yevgeny Prigozhin, have to do with the celebrated German composer Richard Wagner? The name of the Wagner militia goes back to a former member of the Russian armed forces, Dmitry Utkin, a Wagner co-founder. Utkin is an admirer of Adolf Hitler, whose favorite composer, as is well known, was Richard Wagner. Utkin gave himself the nom de guerre Wagner, and he also called his mercenary troops, co-founded by Prigozhin, Wagner.  The preference for Richard Wagner and his music is no coincidence. Many of Wagner's operas deal with war, murder, struggle, militarized everyday life, which is illustrated with warlike fanfare tones: "Der Ring des Nibelungen", Wagner's most famous opera, the "Flying Dutchman" or "Lohengrin" and "Parsifal" are set in the military milieu, or, as the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" put it at the end of June, "even in the area of the elite troup of the Grail Knights". No wonder that not only Hitler but also the leadership of the Wagner Group are admirers of Richard Wagner. The present Wagner festival is over but not the commercialization of military force.

Perhaps the sarcastic bon mot is helpful: “Wagner’s music sounds better than it actually is.”


More articles from Herbert Wulf:

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Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Councils of SIPRI and the Centre for Conflict Studies of the University of Marburg, Germany. He is the author of Internationalizing and Privatizing War and Peace (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmilan, Basingstoke, 2005)