Moscow's mercenaries: How Russia is swelling the global market for private military companies

Moscow's mercenaries: How Russia is swelling the global market for private military companies
Analysis: In an era of increasingly privatised warfare, Russia is spearheading the use of mercenaries to expand its influence.
8 min read
17 February, 2021
Moscow is increasingly using mercenaries to expand its spheres of influence. [Getty].
What do we think about when we hear the term 'mercenaries'? For the president of Mozambique, the word has only one meaning - control - and he is willing to pay handsomely for it.

Filipe Jacinto Nyusi has two problems; the unrest in the troubled but resource-rich Cabo Delgado region and the jihadists who are taking advantage of it. The conflict has been ongoing since 2017 but escalated in 2020 following a series of gruesome attacks. Over 420,000 people have been displaced in the mainly Muslim province.

To deal with the growing threat, the Mozambican leader made offers to several private military companies. In the end, he chose a shadowy mercenary outfit with alleged ties to the Kremlin, the Russian Wagner Group, who said they would get the job done quickly.

However, the plan did not work. Several Wagner mercenaries were killed in ambushes in areas completely unknown to the Russians, who have no previous experience with the southern African terrain. In their place, the Mozambican government hired the DAG company, led by South African Colonel Lionel Dyck. 

He had served in the army of what turned into the white colonialist former republic of Rhodesia in Zimbabwe and has extensive experience in conducting asymmetric fighting. The irony is that in the 1970s, Rhodesia's army, which included Lionel Dyck, attacked Mozambique and Zimbabwe's guerrilla bases, which Filipe Nyusi's party had sheltered. Times are changing.

All signs indicate that Africa is the new arena for experiments in the military industry, and it is there that we can see what military action across other theatres of conflict will soon look like. War is the same - but warfare is changing. Although the UN bans mercenary forces under some treaties, this too is changing. The data show that there are more mercenaries in Africa than anywhere else in the world. Some of them date back to colonial times such as Rhodesia. 

Examples from Africa, Syria and Libya show that mercenaries successfully enforce Putin's foreign policy in areas where the Kremlin has direct interests

In the years when many African countries gained independence, mercenaries supported separatist movements and participated in coups. Many young people enrolled in private companies in the 1990s to fund their university education. Mercenaries and former marines fought in Katanga as it tried to secede from the Congo in the early 1960s and in Biafra, where separatists were leading an independence movement from Nigeria. In 2004, a former British Special Forces officer, Simon Mann, attempted a coup in Equatorial Guinea.

In the past, Western governments have looked half-heartedly at the activity of mercenary companies in serving their economic interests. Today, Russia is gaining a leading position in this area, with the Kremlin increasingly using mercenaries to expand its influence. Most of these mercenaries' activities go through the Wagner company, whose main sponsor, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is one of Putin's closest associates and known for his actions from Ukraine to Syria and Libya. 

Read more: From Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh: Russia
and Turkey's complex regional rivalry

Shortly after the Mozambican president met with the Russian president in 2019, Wagner received a contract to protect gas fields in the country. Mozambique is currently developing the largest energy project in Africa, where France, via its megacompany Total, has visible interests.

With the expanding political and economic influence of Russia in Europe, the Middle East, and cyberspace, it is not surprising that the presence of Moscow in Africa did not garner much attention until the beginning of 2019 and the presence of Wagner in Libya. Many of Russia's actions in Africa reflect Vladimir Putin's desire for a foreign policy under his leadership and military adventurism that restores the country to its former place among the superpowers.

Clearly, there is a geopolitical dimension. Africa is home to 25 percent of the world's countries, and Russia is not the first country to try to create a political bloc to serve its interests in the UN and other international institutions. In this regard, the African continent offers excellent opportunities for the deployment of global "active events" that allow Moscow to return to its former spheres of influence. 

At the same time, it is developing its geo-economic strategy for access to valuable mineral resources in countries torn apart by internal conflicts and instability, and for the export of finished products and weapons systems. The focus on African countries is by no means accidental, as Moscow must carefully allocate its resources and international commitments after the annexation of Crimea, given the imposed political and economic isolation. 

Mercenaries offer several major advantages. They are cheaper than regular armies, highly trained, and allow military operations without visible state involvement

In this regard, given the dynamics of events, fierce competition with the West and the search for parity with the East, Moscow is looking for new allies. It is in the process of re-establishing old Soviet-era ties and establishing new ones that the tools offered by private military companies will prove most useful, as they fit perfectly into Russia's "package of deals", first introduced widely in Syria.

This includes arms sales and sending military advisers engaged in the training of regular armed forces and paramilitary groups to wage anti-guerrilla wars and quell riots in the 'client' countries, in combination with bodyguards for the political elite, as well as providing 'political technologists' to take care of strengthening their unstable power.

Wagner has worked with several African regimes. In Sudan, the company assisted long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir as he tried to quash protests in the country, which eventually ousted him from power. In 2018, hundreds of Wagner fighters arrived in the Central African Republic to guard diamond mines, train the local army and guard President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, whose real power does not go far from the capital. In Guinea, where Russian aluminium giant Rusal is heavily involved, Wagner joined President Alpha Conde, who faced bloody protests against the new constitution, allowing him to remain in office for a third term. 

In Libya, despite the UN embargo, Wagner has deployed 1,200 members and staff in support of General Khalifa Haftar's rebel forces, which have besieged the capital, Tripoli, for a year. US Africa Command`s satellite images showed Russian Air Force planes directly supporting Wagner.

Read more: A gateway to Africa: Russia's new naval base in Sudan

However, Libya emerged as a failure for the mercenary company after Turkish-backed Libyan government forces managed to reverse Haftar's offensive. The general left several mass graves with hundreds of bodies found by Tripoli's forces in the city of Tarhuna. In other areas, such as Bani Walid, there is evidence of torture at Wagner's headquarters.

Private companies usually say they are plugging security holes that could otherwise lead to chaos. In the Central African Republic, for example, France withdrew much of its military forces in 2016, leaving just the United Nations and a small European mission, which failed to bring order. Wagner arrived just in time.

In 2015, the South African company STTEP appeared in northeastern Nigeria, training local forces in their battle against Boko Haram jihadists. Their contract was terminated by President Muhammadu Bukhari, who said government forces had to deal with it on their own – but they would eventually fail. 

Mercenaries - and Russia is aware of this - have several major advantages. First, they allow state denialism. By using them, governments can sponsor military operations without visible involvement. Second, mercenaries are efficient, experienced, and mobile. Third, they are cheaper than maintaining a regular army unit. Soldiers receive lifelong pensions, while mercenaries have only their contracts.

In conflict zones around the world, Russian forces have occupied a grey area between the army, mercenaries, and operations invisible to the public

They are also cheaper than the expensive heavy weapons that governments import. Sometimes Western governments like the United Kingdom help mercenary companies to provide military power to profitable leaders in Asia or Africa. Russia does so directly through a link between Putin's businesspeople and Russian foreign policy theorists. In the Russian model, the boundaries between private and public interests are blurred.

Mercenaries are here to stay. Companies like OAM, run by another Rhodesian, John Gartner, operate in at least eighteen African countries. Although on paper it opposes the use of mercenaries, the UN is also softening their tone. There is already a code relating to mercenary work, according to which the UN is recruiting similar forces for planning, demining, and training local security forces. Most Western companies have already adopted some of the UN rules in their treaties, and mercenaries are committed to acting on them, such as banning civilian attacks. 

Read more: Warm waters at last: Russia's expanding
military footprint in the Middle East

Russian mercenaries, on the other hand, have not accepted such clauses in their contracts. Moreover, they still do not exist officially, as Russian laws prohibit them. As the examples from Africa, Syria, Libya and the CAR show, these companies are not only real but also successfully enforce Putin's foreign policy in areas where the Kremlin has direct interests.

Indicative of this new model is the case of Kiril Shadrin. In 2015, Shadrin was a loyal Russian soldier. Later, he became a "volunteer" in Donbas, and in 2017 he appeared in Syria, where he fought in a Syrian paramilitary pro-government group under the supervision of Syrian and Russian intelligence. There are several cases in conflict zones around the world such as the Shadrin's - Russian soldiers occupying the grey area between the army, mercenaries, and operations invisible to the public. 

As private warfare re-emerges, there will be increased media reports about mercenary groups, and Russia will be the main driver. Expansionist appetites for Russia's foreign policy in the Middle East and military involvement abroad in general, combined with lobbying pressure from the oil and gas powers, have created today's situation.

The escalating conflict in the Central African Republic highlights the role played by mercenaries from neighbouring countries in inflaming tensions. Indeed, the data is clear that the mercenaries – i.e. Russian groups – worsened the conflict there. 

But the Kremlin is "closing its eyes" if it is profitable, and in the case of the CAR, persistent tensions have led to more deals and a stronger presence.

Ruslan Trad is the author of 'The Murder of a Revolution' and co-author of 'The Russian Invisible Armies'. His journalistic work is focused on PMCs, Syria, and conflict zones. Follow him on Twitter: @ruslantrad