Prigozhin’s Revolt Reveals Dangers and Flaws of Depending on Mercenaries


Yevgeny Prigozhin may not have succeeded in realizing his ambitions, but his revolt had the unintended impact of focusing worldwide attention on the wider and serious problems involved in increasing dependence in many countries on mercenary fighting forces.

Russia had used the soldiers of the Wagner PMC (private military company) in several military campaigns in recent times. While this may have served narrowly perceived objectives from time to time, Russia and Putin were rudely reminded of the dangers of allowing a private army to grow too big. However, serious dangers of private mercenary armies exist not just for Russia but several other countries as well, and above all such armies are a menace for the prospects of world peace.

While mercenaries have played an important role in various conflicts in world history, their recent emergence as an important military phenomenon started with the USA military inventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the peak of these two military interventions, 50% of the USA personnel posted in these countries were private personnel and contractors, with the number in Afghanistan peaking even further. Many of them were not armed soldiers, serving as cooks, caretakers, suppliers and in other supportive work,  but significant numbers were armed too, and in addition several of them were from poorer countries, as companies supplying men found it cheaper to recruit them.

According to Department of Defense figures, in 2018, out of nearly 50,000 private foreign personnel or contactors, nearly 60% were foreigners, while there were 2002 armed military contractors, 1256 of them being foreigners.

Actually the foreign participation in US outsourcing of its wars appears much bigger—and more dangerous—if one looks more closely at who the sub-contractors are. There was a tendency for the US companies who won the contracts to further sub-contact the work to local sub-contractors who could be expected to be more capable of handling local dangerous conditions.

A 2 billion dollar contract for supplying provisions, using trucks, to US army units, for example, was won by a US company which in turn sub-contracted to strong, armed Afghan groups, operating independently or for some bigger warlord. However some of these sub-contractors were in fact working against the Afghanistan government. They were also involved in various criminal and cruel practices. Thus they got strengthened by using US funds, while the mandate of US forces was to work against such groups. It was difficult to track what such sub-contractors were up to, particularly as the sub-contractor could further sub-contact part of the work to another local party.  A NATO official quoted in a study quipped that he cannot be expected to know the sub of the sub of the sub!

Some of the private US mercenaries were involved in such serious human rights violations as the Nissour Square massacre in Iraq, and some regular US army commanders said that these mercenaries were very difficult to control and discipline. Despite this their use went on increasing as they cost lesser, could be used for work considered objectionable or dangerous for regular forces, and their increasing numbers and even deaths were not as politically controversial as those of regular US army soldiers (even though several of the mercenaries had served earlier in regular US army, navy or police units, including some elite ones).

In fact Erik Prince of Blackwater, a leading US agency for supplying private personnel for conflict zones, went to the extent of recommending outsourcing of Afghanistan and similar conflicts almost entirely to such private agencies, with an American Viceroy, saying that what muddling Pentagon could not achieve in 17 years could be achieved very quickly by the CIA and 6000 mercenaries. Ideas on increasing role of mercenaries were finding several supporters in the USA, and the Department of Defense spent $160 billion on private security contractors, in addition to the spending by other departments.

Close ally Britain also followed with increasing dependence and spending on mercenaries. Increased spending by such resourceful countries on mercenaries gave them more legitimization than anything else could, and also strengthened the financial base of such companies, with several of them opening offices in leading cities like New York, Washington, London and Dubai. Hence several other countries also started looking at the potential of hiring more mercenaries. Some of the richest persons and companies also started recruiting more mercenaries to guard their mines or oil or other valuable assets in conflict zones. The Nigerian government hired mercenaries for action against the terrorist group Boko Haram. On the other hand, some terrorist groups also started recruiting mercenaries to serve their short-term interests. Most surprisingly, some philanthropic agencies started recruiting mercenaries to guard their charity work in conflict zones.

At the end of one conflict or contract several mercenaries would be rendered unemployed, looking for work elsewhere. The longer term employment in Iraq and Afghanistan had familiarized some of them with the tricks of the trade too. So several of them started setting up new agencies, or roamed around in search of new conflict zones, or even starting new conflicts if need be for anyone offering adequate funds.

Hence with increasing number of experienced and armed soldiers moving around the world in search of more conflicts (including new conflicts), the prospects of world peace have been seriously harmed. In addition there are more and more soldiers operating in various conflict zones with less care for and less information regarding the ethical obligations flowing from various conventions and treaties.

All this is very alarming and backward moving for a world that desperately needs to move forward on the path of peace. There is urgent need for moving beyond narrow consideration to make internationally accepted efforts for curbs on the growth of mercenary armed forces and the companies/corporations associated with them.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Earth without Borders and Man over Machine.

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