Putin’s Hitmen: How Mercenaries Serve the Kremlin at the Expense of Stability

Photo released by the Ukrainian Security Service allegedly depicting Wagner Group mercenaries at an unknown location. Photo Credit: VOA News

Volodymyr Zelensky sits in a chair next to the podium as he conducts a press conference, wearing the olive-green military clothing that has now come to symbolize his defiant resolve to fight against the Russian invasion. Bodyguards with assault rifles flank him after the Ukrainian president survived at least three assassination attempts by Russian mercenaries. This revelation came amidst reports of more than 400 fighters from the Wagner Group operating in Kyiv to decapitate the Ukrainian government and facilitate the Russian armed forces’ advance into the country. In such conflicts mired by violence, the presence of mercenaries like the Wagner Group contributes to the degradation of regional stability and is emblematic of a blatant disregard for order and the rules-based system that holds leaders accountable for using tools of violence. This article will highlight the Wagner Group’s utility as an instrument of power for the Kremlin, its detrimental effect on the political stability of the region in which it operates, and finally, how the dubious legal basis for its existence complicates efforts to hold the group accountable for its crimes.

But first, what exactly is the Wagner Group? Most Western governments consider the group to be a tool of Russian grey zone warfare, but analysts have yet to find concrete evidence directly linking the mercenaries to the Kremlin. Researchers can find no definitive record of a company with that name, but they characterize the group as a network of mercenaries supposedly established by a former Spetsnaz and GRU officer, Dmitry Utkin, and funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close aide to President Vladimir Putin. Its mission involves paramilitary activities in support of its clients (often the governments of other states), the dissemination of disinformation, and the extraction of valuable resources in regions where it operates. Its main base, jointly operated with an elite GRU unit located to the east of the Crimean Peninsula, adds to the speculation of the group’s connection to the Russian state.

If these mercenaries are indeed acting in the interests of the Kremlin, they have become a convenient tool to project Russian hard power beyond its immediate vicinity. Since its first appearance during the 2014 Ukraine crisis, the Wagner Group has participated in conflicts beyond the former Soviet space, deploying to countries in the Middle East and Africa that present opportunities for Russia to expand its influence. In 2018, a New York Times report revealed a battle in Syria’s Deir al-Zour Province between U.S. troops and a group of pro-Assad Russian fighters that American military and intelligence officials identified as members of the Wagner Group. In October 2021, Mali extended an invitation to the mercenary group to replace the French troops withdrawing from the region. Now, its presence in Ukraine in the midst of the ongoing war demonstrates its utility as a supplement to the Russian military’s campaign to topple Kyiv.

The use of mercenaries not only affects the security of the country in which they operate but also could have significant consequences for the stability of the region. Russia’s recent interest in the Sahel and other Sub-Saharan countries comes at a time when France, a security guarantor for the region for over a decade, has decided to cut back its troop presence amid its failure to stabilize the region from jihadists. Given the opposition expressed by the other members of the G5 Sahel – a group of five nations in the Sahel region formed to combat Islamist militants – when Mali began negotiating a contract with the Wagner Group, many argue that the move would most likely undermine military and political cooperation within the alliance and even lead to its collapse.

Furthermore, because the mission of these mercenaries is mainly to protect clients and mine for resources in the region, they have a contractual obligation to prop up these governments, which, in many cases, seized power through coups and have a tenuous basis for legitimacy among their people. Military dictatorships offer no solution to the issue with jihadists and might even exacerbate popular discontent and protests that further undermine regional stability and security. Mercenaries supporting these regimes are complicit in the endless political crises in these conflicted countries. A United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries and private military companies (PMCs) concluded that employing groups like Wagner could radicalize the existing conflict and the differences in ideological and political motivations and objectives could further complicate efforts to resolve these crises.

What makes the Kremlin’s use of mercenaries like the Wagner Group more egregious is the country’s constitutional ban on PMCs. Despite the ban, the Russian government uses a loophole in the legislature that allows state enterprises to employ their own private armies for protection. Yet in practice, Wagner mercenaries are highly patriotic and usually act when Russia’s national interests are at stake. Russia is therefore free to employ these fighters to advance its foreign policy agenda while simultaneously hiding under a veil of plausible deniability. This legal ambiguity becomes more nefarious when considering the unsolved murders of Russian journalists investigating the activities of the Wagner Group. If the organization was involved either directly or indirectly in these deaths, the government can disavow any role it played in the matter, even if the group’s history of acting on behalf of the state implies its involvement.

Yet Russia is not the only country that employs private military companies, and its mercenaries are certainly not alone in committing atrocities in the countries in which they operate. Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, private security contractors in the United States and Europe have witnessed an increasing demand for work in Ukraine. This phenomenon of contractors appearing in conflict zones dates back to the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While many of them solely provide physical security and reject accusations of being guns for hire, there are still cases of private contractors engaging in combat and even committing atrocities, as in the notorious case of Blackwater operatives in Iraq in 2007. However, the key difference between Western and Russian private security firms is that the West holds contractors from their respective countries accountable and requires that they follow their laws, demonstrated by the criminal conviction of the Blackwater contractors on charges of murder, manslaughter, and use of a firearm. The ambiguous legal status of mercenaries under Russian law offers no such recourse and allows the Russian state to use private contractors to commit sanctioned violence with impunity.

Solutions to this problem are not easy, especially if countries like Russia refuse to prosecute or even recognize crimes committed by mercenaries of their own nationality. An example of an attempt to bring justice for an atrocity committed by Russian mercenaries is Ukraine’s failed operation in 2020 to apprehend those responsible for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and other crimes committed in the Donbas region in 2014. After luring these Wagner mercenaries into accepting an international assignment to guard a Russian oil facility in the Middle East, Ukrainian intelligence attempted to bring them to Kyiv by plane by forcing an emergency landing on their way from Moscow to Istanbul. However, Russian travel restrictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic forced the Ukrainians to use Minsk as a departure point instead. Suspecting Russian meddling in Belarus’s presidential elections, security forces detained the mercenaries, foiling the daring sting operation. Had the Ukrainians been successful, individuals complicit in the deaths of the passengers of MH17 may have been held accountable for their actions. More generally, political reform in both Russia and the countries that employ the Wagner Group is required to dissuade them from irresponsible use of mercenaries that only serve the interests of those in power at the expense of domestic and regional stability. The UN Working Group on mercenaries recommended a binding international regulatory mechanism that dictates the framework under which states could employ private contractors. While Putin is unlikely to agree to an international framework that would strip him of convenient tools like the Wagner Group, the very public bounty hunt for President Zelensky and other members of his government in the ongoing war in Ukraine could encourage the United States and other members of the international community to regulate mercenary activities more robustly. Until such regulations are implemented, dictators like Putin continue to be free to sow chaos and bring death and destruction wherever their interests lie.

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