Written by Olivier Guiberteau
In late February 2022, after what seemed like months of well-known build-up, Russian forces finally breached the Ukrainian border and the invasion began. In the coming days, weeks, and eventually months, it became clear that Russian military readiness was far from perfect and the conflict has since degenerated into a brutal battle of attrition with no clear end in sight.
In the opening weeks, Russian forces suffered appallingly high casualty rates as their soldiers, many of whom were conscripts with little to no idea of what lay ahead of them when they were ordered to the border under the rather hazy directive of carrying out training drills, struggled badly against the well organised Ukrainian defenders.
The exact number killed or injured is unknown, with the Kremlin still offering up hopelessly optimistic figures, but it’s thought that a reasonable guess might lie northward of 50,000. Considering their supposed military capability, it has been a harrowing war for Russian soldiers on the ground.
But the conflict has also opened up a slither of insight into a side of modern warfare that we almost never hear anything about – a tightly guarded dirty secret that most nations have participated in at some point or another – the use of military contractors, otherwise known as mercenaries.
Amid the chaos of the early weeks of the Russian invasion, a single, mysterious name began to emerge – The Wagner Group. Now, we should say from the very outset, that this shady organisation officially doesn’t exist and there is plenty that we don’t know about it.
The Wagner Group, also known as PMC Wagner Group, is thought to be a Russian paramilitary organisation that either operates as a private military company, or as a private army controlled by the Kremlin’s dark overlord. Is there really a difference? Well, it’s hard to say. Military contractors, as we’ll be coming to shortly, have been around for millennia and are still used around the world, but are generally not exclusively attached to a single government, or indeed a single person. A private army on the other hand can be used to circumnavigate a nation’s laws governing warfare and illegal killings.
There are said to be close to 10,000 soldiers in the Wagner Group, drawn from countries around the world. They have participated in conflicts against groups considered terrorist organisations, such as ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, but have also fought against the Free Syrian Army and are thought to have been responsible for several massacres in the Central African Republic where their presence inflamed the country’s civil war.
Wherever the Wagner Group has fought, they’ve always done so while being closely aligned with traditional Russian forces or in line with official Russian doctrine that many believe goes to the very top of the Kremlin. We’ll be coming back to the Wagner Group towards the end of the post, but for now, let’s go back to the very start.
Today, the term mercenary carries with it an almost distasteful image. A hired gun willing to kill for money who, throughout the 20th Century, appeared in some of the most horrific conflicts on the planet in order to help sway the situation to the benefit of one side or the other.
But this is our modern interpretation of what a mercenary is and the fact is that hired soldiers have been part of warfare for thousands of years. The word mercenary comes from the Latin word, merces, meaning wages or pay, and for almost the entirety of history, the terms soldier and mercenary were practically synonymous.
The idea of large standing armies only really came into being during the Napoleonic Wars when the French Emperor formed a vast army that gradually crushed all before it, forcing other nations to assemble similar-sized armies.
For thousands of years, armies were typically small but were often bulked up using hired help. One of the earliest recorded instances was a huge mercenary army named the Ten Thousand which was employed by Cyrus the Younger of Greece in 401 BC in an attempt to wrestle control of the Persian Empire from his brother.
The Carthagians used large numbers of mercenaries during the Punic Wars against the Romans, but this rag-tag group drawn from North Africa, Gaul, the Iberian Peninsula, and elsewhere, proved far from ideal. Or perhaps it was simply how the Carthagians went about recruiting for their mercenary army that was the problem. Soldiers would often hold family members hostage and so forcing men to fight for Carthage with hatred already embedded in their souls. This led to the Mercenary War, a mass revolt involving close to 100,000 foreign soldiers, which began in 241 BC.
The indomitable Hannibal used a large number of mercenaries when he outrageously breached the Alps and invaded Roman territory, while Alexander the Great also supplemented his Greek forces with 5,000 foreign mercenaries when he invaded Asia in 334 BC.
Things changed little for over a thousand years. Around half of William the Conqueror’s army, which successfully invaded Britain in 1066, were mercenaries and the medieval period should probably be regarded as the heyday of the mercenary.
Everybody was up to it, even the Pope. In 1209, Pope Innocent III ordered a primarily mercenary army to crush a heretical sect in Southern France. Even to this day, the Vatican is protected by the Swiss Guard which was a mercenary group that was established in the early 16th Century.
As the Medieval period progressed, so too did the use of mercenaries, along with the actions of what can only really be described as roving bands of murderous thugs. Around Europe, it became common for armed groups to encircle a city and demand a ransom otherwise they would raise the city to the ground. The Italian city of Siena had to pay for its survival an astonishing 37 times between 1342 and 1399.
The way mercenaries were being used and recruited began to change during Europe’s Thirty Years’ War between 1618 and 1648. With large armies of 50,000 men throwing themselves at each other, the casualty figures were brutally high and it led to a more industrialised form of mercenary recruitment. Men with an entrepreneurial spirit and a disdain for morality saw no problem in forming large regiments of soldiers and then leasing them out to the highest bidder. Count Wallenstein was perhaps the most famous such case, amassing a fortune that made him one of the richest men in Europe before he was murdered by one of his clients.
However, the mightiest war seen in Europe up until that point also sparked the beginning of the downfall for the Medieval mercenary. The Thirty Year was ended by the Westphalian Sovereignty, a principle of internal law that stated each nation has exclusive sovereignty of its borders. This essentially created what we see today around the world and set in motion a huge shift that would see the rise of nation-states and the gradual decline in mercenary use.
The Fall of the Mercenary
By the early 19th Century, using mercenaries openly had effectively been outlawed – though nations still employed hired help to do their bidding but in a much more clandestine manner. The Dutch and British governments used mercenary armies in Asia but under the shadowy pretext of being employed by a company, i.e the British East India Company.
The collapse of mercenary use directly parallelled the emergence of nation-states, with large armies that could be used to both defend their borders as well as keeping their people in check. Nations could no longer risk large bands of roaming soldiers without a strong connection to a particular country and some of the last recorded use of mercenaries – for the time being at least – came during the Crimean War.
The two world wars of the 20th Century completely redefined warfare. With vast armies, sometimes numbering in the millions, and vigorous nationalism everywhere you looked, the days of the hired soldier appeared well and truly over.
When World War Two ended, and the two goliaths of the era, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged, both with military budgets that could easily maintain mid-sized countries, the use of mercenaries, at least in an official capacity, remained almost non-existent. But once again, things slowly began to change.
Independence & Civil Wars
As the world moved into the 1960s, a slew of independence movements rippled across the globe. Many who had fought for their overlords during World War II understandably now demanded freedom and in 1960 alone, 17 African countries emerged from the yolk of colonialism to take their place on the world stage.
Yet sadly, for many, this led to vicious civil wars that sometimes lasted decades. This insecurity, coupled with vast riches often plundered from natural resources, led to the gradual reemergence of the mercenary.
The cold war saw a new group of mercenaries emerge – dashing daredevils seeking high adventure and even greater paychecks. Their stories often bordered on the fantastical and it’s hard to escape the feeling that many were simply attempting to live out their wild boyhood fantasies of war in exotic locations.
These were well-trained killers, make no mistake about it, but there was frequently a dashing air to them that often made them cult heroes – at least in the early days.
Perhaps the most famous – or perhaps infamous would be more appropriate – name during this period was Thomas Michael Hoare – who came to be known simply as Mad Mike Hoare. An Irish man, born in Calcutta, Hoare led several mercenary missions in the Congo during the 1960s, and also a failed coup in Seychelles in 1981 which led to a 10-year prison sentence – of which he only served three.
Another famous name was Robert Denard, a Frenchman who participated in a catalogue of African conflicts. Most agree that he was given express consent by the French government to do so in an attempt to shore up influence in the country’s former colonies. Denard was a swaggering charismatic character, once described as “a warrior king out of Homer” by a South African journalist. His most audacious actions came on the small island nation of Comoros where over a span of 14 years he instigated four separate coup attempts. After the third, he was installed as head of the new president’s private security but it was widely believed that the real power lay with Denard and his French backers.
And finally, we have the little-known but scarcely believable tale of the American stamp collector fighting for the Royalist army during the North Yemen Civil War. Bruce Conde, an avid stamp collector from childhood, was said to have struck up a correspondence with the son of the king of Yemen as a child after writing to the royal house asking for stamps from the country. This led to both a lifelong friendship but also a passion for the Arabic world.
He eventually moved to Beirut to learn the language before arriving in Yemen in 1958. There he renounced his American citizenship and converted to Islam while also setting up the country’s first attempt at selling its stamps to private collectors. Things turned sour in Yemen and after spending three weeks in Cairo airport, because he had had his Yemenese passport confiscated and was essentially stateless, he eventually arrived back in Beirut.
In 1962, after the king of Yemen had been deposed, Conde moved back to Yemen and joined the Royalist army fighting the republic insurgency. Eventually rising to the rank of general, Conde was highly respected among the Yemeni but could do little to help their plight and fled the country once again in 1970, never to return.
A Dark Side Emerges
If the early Cold War had been categorised by boy scout warriors, things began to get a whole lot darker during the 1980s and 1990s. Single soldiers were being replaced by effectively small private armies and their appearance in different areas of the world often led to horrific bloodshed.
Money was unquestionably behind the changes. With vast amounts of natural resources being unearthed across Africa and unscrupulous leaders seeking to gain control by any means, several regions collapsed into horrific fighting often fuelled by mercenaries and staggering amounts of weapons being imported.
Angola was one of the first places that saw a large number of openly acknowledged mercenaries. The ominously named ‘Executive Outcomes’ was a South African private military firm founded in 1989 and is generally considered one of the first of its type. They fought in both Angola and Sierra Leone and apparently even approached the United Nation with a view of deploying in Rwanda to help prevent the country’s genocide – for $150 million that is.
Many of those fighting for Executive Outcomes came from the South African special forces but also included men who had fought for the uMkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s paramilitary wing, and the Azanian People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress. Not too long before, the notion of black and white men fighting on the same side would have been unheard of, but for the right amount of money, anything was now possible.
In the early 1990s, a company called Sandline International was formed and gained contracts to fight in Sierra Leone for the ousted President Kabbah and also in Liberia where they participated in a rebel attempt to oust President Charles Taylor. However, Sandline really hit the headlines for its involvement in Papua New Guinea and the infamous Sandline affair, a political scandal that brought down the government.
When it emerged publicly in 1997 that the Papua New Guinean government had agreed to pay Sandline International $36 million, money that had been gathered through cutbacks in education and health, to help quell a regional conflict in the country, all hell broke loose as the country teetered on the verge of a military revolt. Eventually, the contract was cancelled and some degree of order was established, but the name Sandline had been well and truly dragged through the mud, along with the reputation of mercenary armies – or private defence companies to use their shinier, more acceptable moniker.
The Modern Era
In the last couple of decades, the use of mercenaries has exploded once again. The U.S used several firms, such as Blackwater, ArmorGroup, and G4S Secure Solutions, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, primarily to defend bases, oil complexes, and other valuable assets.
And it’s here where things get quite murky. With tens of thousands of well-trained conventional soldiers in both countries, you’re probably asking yourself why the U.S needed to spend vast amounts of money to hire mercenaries.
To put it bluntly, it provides guns on the ground that aren’t constrained by normal military law, and with a reported 700 lobbyists representing for-profit military contractors in D.C, it’s also a massive industry that is not only well protected but expanding exponentially. To give you an idea, it’s been reported that the U.S has spent roughly half of the $14 trillion military budget since 9/11 on for-profit contractors – which includes weapons suppliers and of course hired soldiers.
When people talk about the shadowy ‘military-industrial complex’ this is certainly part of it, but the use of mercenaries also allows countries to minimise visible human loss because private contractor deaths are not compiled with the same figures as official military casualties.
But you need only look at Iraq and Afghanistan to see how wrong this can go. It was employees of L-3 Services that were accused of torture in the Abu Ghraib jail, while Blackwater faired terribly during the conflict with a litany of charges against it, including rape, murder, and outright military failures including the 2004 Fallujah ambush which resulted in the deaths of 4 contractors. They have since changed their name to Academi, which sounds much more pleasant, but really does little to mask the firm’s true roots
This is a huge business today, with G4S Secure Solutions said to be the second largest private employer in the world – after Walmart – with a staggering 625,000 employees across 125 countries. Private military contractors are now used across the planet and for the right price a small personal army can be yours.
This brings us right up to date and back to the secretive organisation known as the Wagner Group which is currently operating in Ukraine. Private military companies are illegal in Russia, and officially the Wagner Group doesn’t exist but they have fought in Crimea, Syria, the Central African Republic, and Sudan.
Yet the notion that they are really private is dismissed by most. The Wagner Group is seen as an extension of the Russian army – or even as Putin and his cronies’ private army – used to fight wars in return for future profits, as was said to be the case with Syrian oil and golvd mining in Sudan. Thought to pay in the region of $4,000 a month and use the communication service Telegram to direct its members, the Wagner Group is currently said to be recruiting heavily within Russia and outside to try and fill the gap caused by the huge loss of life in Ukraine. These are not so much mercenaries as unofficial soldiers for the Russian elite – the darkest side yet of what is often referred to as the second oldest profession in the world.