July 09, 2023

The Wagner Group versus Russian State Army

B Arjun

PRIVATE military contractors (PMCs), a euphemism for corporate military entities, are back in the news. This time, it is the Wagner Group, a Russian PMC whose leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, staged an apparent armed rebellion against the Russian State. The Russian government had contracted the Wagner Group's services for the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin, known as "Putin's chef" and manager of his online troll army, betrayed his boss and now finds himself abandoned by the Russian State in Belarus. It appears that the Russian government is disbanding the Wagner mercenary force and is likely to claim the group's heavy weapons and military hardware.

During the Ukraine war, the Wagner Group gained significant publicity, which also brought attention to its close association with Putin. Both internally and externally, Putin faced pressure to curtail the activities of the PMC. France has declared the Wagner Group a terrorist organisation and urged other western governments to treat the group similarly. The Russian State army was also unhappy with a private army interfering in its war efforts. With mounting external and internal pressure, Prigozhin had to be sacrificed to provide sufficient distance for President Putin to maintain plausible deniability.

Putin needs to be blamed for following in the footsteps prescribed by the west and using mercenaries to project power overseas. The Wagner Group has been engaged in operations in many African and Arab countries. Prigozhin, the figurehead of the group, has been discarded, but Wagner is unlikely to withdraw from Africa because Russia wants to retain its influence on the continent. The future of Wagner's operations in five African states, including the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, remains uncertain.

In 2007, Blackwater, the notorious American PMC, made headlines when its mercenaries killed 14 civilians, including two children, in Nisour Square, Iraq. The four Blackwater mercenaries involved in the Nisour Square massacre were tried in US courts and sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2014. However, Donald Trump pardoned all four in 2020.

The western media's coverage of the Wagner Group reeks of duplicity. Propaganda chiefs in the west, followed by their online news outlets and commentators, began demonising the Wagner Group even before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, labeling it as a mercenary force, while praising Anglo-American private militaries as contractors or responsible corporate entities. Western media extensively covered Wagner Group's operations and the atrocities committed by it in Africa and Syria, referring to it as Putin's private army that helped the Russian president avoid international accountability for his actions.

The west introduced private armies in Iraq, and since then, the trend of mercenarisation has gained momentum, leading elites in various middle and low-income countries to embrace privatisation in the name of greater efficiency and cost-cutting. The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was exploited by the military-industrial complex (MIC) to push its neoliberal agenda of privatising military operations. The Pentagon bought into the idea, ostensibly to reduce the political costs of wars and perpetuate "forever wars."

Despite calls to condemn the privatisation of combat, the corporate media tacitly supports the corporatisation of war, justifying the return of mercenaries in the defense sector as a natural progression in a capitalistic economy. PMCs operate under contracts with foreign governments and are also hired by their own governments to perform security duties in foreign countries. This allows America, for example, to partake in foreign security operations with scant accountability. In 2012, the US State department hired Blue Mountain Group, a British security company, to guard the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Initially, former soldiers trained in national armies were hired by private military companies, but as the trend gained momentum, many local individuals with little military training are hired by these companies. It is reported that the Nepali Gurkhas are keen to join Russia's Wagner group. Russia is offering Nepali Gurkhas citizenship and better opportunities as contract soldiers. Even the United Nations is contemplating using private contractors for peacekeeping missions.

Even in the west, a few officials and academics believe that the trend towards privatisation of military functions is risky and, at times, dangerous. However, they only urge regulation of the sector rather than fully abandoning it for the greater interest of society. What matters to the elite is that the top 1per cent continues to dominate the world stage. Betting on this neoliberal trend now appears to be riskier than before. However, if you expect to hear the media openly worried about supporting a Frankenstein monster, you will miss the deep global elite networks that preserve the predominance of neoliberal ideology favouring security privatisation.

The ruling elite across the world are united powerfully by contempt for the power of the public sector to ameliorate the lives of the masses. Their pronouncements reveal a shared conviction that an older world order based on multinational companies, like the East India Company, managing nations is coming back.

The Chinese authorities allow their citizens and media to openly discuss the recent mutiny in Russia basically because the Communist Party of China has always derided these private options in the military. China has employed private security companies to guard its investments in various infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative. It has also employed a "maritime militia" in the South China Sea, but it has refrained from using a private army for any overseas operations. This is largely because the Chinese State and the party continue to believe in Mao Zedong's dictum: "The party commands the gun, the gun must never be allowed to command the party." However, as Chinese interests expand, it is difficult to imagine that China would not resort to using mercenaries like other major powers.

What lessons might India learn from the recent Wagnerian drama in Russia? Some would say that there is nothing for India to imbibe from this episode as we do not have private armies. India has yet to dilute civilian control over the armed forces since the days of independence. Surprisingly, the mutiny in Russia is yet to provoke a crisis of self-doubt in the corridors of power in New Delhi because the dominant classes in India are predisposed towards greater participation of private sector not only in defence production but in defence logistics that includes military supplies, ordinance and maintenance operations. With growing strategic ties with the US, there is every likelihood of American PMCs coming to India and tying up with local firms to provide military services.   The question is will the Agniveers who  retire from the army be picked up by PMCs?