“A true warrior can only serve others, not himself…When you become a mercenary, you’re just a bully with a gun.” — Evan Wright
“I wandered the earth a mercenary, daring the gods to kill me but surviving because part of me was already dead.” — Barry Eisler
“A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself.” — Joseph Pulitzer
“Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world that a Freeman, contending for liberty on his own ground, is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.” — George Washington
I want to take one more look at the use of Private Military Companies (PMCs) and Private Security Companies (PSCs) as elements of influence by both large and small countries. If you remember, this started with the introduction of “Liga” onto the battlefield in Ukraine with the express mission of assassinating President Zelenskyy and his family as well as other dissenting national leaders such as cabinet members, governors, and mayors.
This is turning into a perfect case study of possible scenarios for future combat operations by both large and small countries. PMC/PSCs bring with them a certain economy of force and a proposition of deniability, as has been made evident by President Putin’s total deniability of any connection to the Wagner Group/Liga in Syria, Libya, and now Ukraine.
What I want to do is to take an aerial view of how PMCs/PSCs are being used in four specific realms and how each one has its own model for execution. In the end, no matter the model, the fact remains that these companies can be significant and effective means of influence for national diplomatic efforts. Last week we saw from a quote by Carl von Clausewitz that conflict is just an extension of diplomacy. The use of private contractors is a great tool for the diplomat to use without ever recognizing that they are being used.
We will take a brief overview of each of these four groups; Liga (Russia), Academi (USA), Executive Outcomes (South Africa), and the Chinese, which has about 30,000 different names. What we will discover is that these mercenaries are little more than bullies with guns, and business is good.
We will discuss this week four significant Private Military Companies (PMCs)/Private Security Companies (PSCs). These companies are global in their reach and have a full spectrum of operations that they are able to execute. As I often do, I want to start by establishing a caveat. It is easy to interpret what I am saying is that all who work for a PMC/PSC are bad people. Please do not hear me say that. A significant number of these contractors are cooks, drivers, construction workers, translators, and administrators. They all have their reasons for working their particular job. Not all missions accomplished by PMCs/PSCs are nefarious. And in many cases, they provide a valuable and necessary service, such as private security guards.
I suppose that the more I research this topic, what I am discovering is that the real missteps are those taken by national leaders who are hiring guns to do their dirty work. These leaders are carrying out dirty diplomacy and are paying for it with taxpayer dollars. It is simply a dirty business with marginal accountability.
Let’s take a look at four companies and models that are leading the way globally in this field of private adventurism and warfare.
“Liga”… The Wagner Group
In a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies article they did a nice job clarifying exactly who Liga is and how they are being used by the Russian government to carry out high-intensity conflict missions while retaining the ability to deny that there is any connection. The Russian private military company Liga, formerly known as the Wagner Group, may appear to be a conventional business company. However, its management and operations are deeply intertwined with the Russian military and intelligence community.
The Russian government has found Wagner and other private military companies to be useful as a way to extend its influence overseas without the visibility and intrusiveness of state military forces. As a result, Wagner should be considered a proxy organization of the Russian state rather than a private company selling services on the open market.
The historical and legal background of private military companies in Russia
The post-Cold War era brought a renaissance of private security companies (PSCs) and private military companies (PMCs). Both state and non-state actors have frequently relied on their services, as these companies are more flexible, cheaper, less accountable, and often more capable than regular militaries. Conflicts of the 21st century, particularly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, saw PMCs getting involved on all levels, from providing logistical support to high-intensity operations.
Post-Soviet Russia followed the trend of privatization of state violence relatively late, mostly due to the internal resistance of the armed forces, as well as economic hardships. While there are thousands of private security companies operating in the country, guarding infrastructure and providing VIP-protection services, private military companies still can not be established legally on the territory of the Russian Federation. Although certain legal loopholes, to be explained later, made it possible for a few companies resembling Western PMCs to operate in the 1990s, Russian PMCs gained worldwide attention only in the 2010s as a result of their participation in the wars in Syria and Ukraine.
Russia builds on the Soviet Union’s long history of operating proxy forces abroad. For example, the so-called Soviet Volunteer Group was an air force detachment deployed to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Nominally, all the pilots and technicians were volunteers, and Moscow officially denied any connection to them; in fact, they belonged to the Soviet Air Force. A few years later, during the Winter War against Finland, the Soviet Union used the puppet government of pro-Moscow Finnish politician, Otto Wille Kuusinen, as a cover for its attack on Finland. The 400,000-plus strong attacking force nominally belonged to the Kuusinen-government; however, this cover was so weak that Moscow abandoned it before the end of the war.
In the Cold War era, the Soviet Union sent thousands of military specialists under the cover of “advisors” to many conflicts worldwide, primarily in the Middle East. Soviet advisors played an important role in modernizing the armed forces of Syria, Egypt, Libya, and a number of other states. In the 1990s, Russian “volunteers” participated in the separatist conflicts of Moldova and Georgia, while the Russian state officially denied its involvement in the conflicts and labeled them civil wars.
More recently, Russian military scholars have closely studied how the United States and its allies employed PSCs and PMCs in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, Russia had direct, though sporadic, contacts with Western PSCs in Afghanistan. The arms trafficking network of Viktor Bout occasionally even cooperated with several PSCs while it provided logistical services to the U.S. forces in Iraq.
The Kremlin has developed its own view of PMCs. Instead of approaching the question from the budgetary perspective—namely that PMCs are more flexible and cheaper than the regular military—Russia perceives them mainly as political-military tools of state influence, which can be employed under the cover of plausible deniability. As pointed out by Anna Borshchevskaya, in 2009 several special operations units of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) were subordinated directly to Chief of Staff Nikolay Makarov. Though there is no direct evidence, these units were probably intended to become the personnel source for PMCs to be set up in the future. A year later, Makarov publicly spoke about the need to use PMCs “for delicate missions abroad.”
The logic prevailed: in April 2012, when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was asked in the Russian Duma whether he supported the idea of creating a network of Russian PMCs, he replied positively and emphasized that PMCs could be tools of influence abroad, allowing the realization of national interests without the direct involvement of the state. For example, he noted that such companies could provide protection of important facilities as well as training for foreign military personnel abroad. Both plausible deniability and Moscow’s rich historical experience played key roles in Russia’s considerations about setting up PMCs.
Another motivation for using PMCs is that it permits the Russian state to hide personnel losses from the Russian public. As these formations are formally private companies, their losses do not count in the official Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reports of how many servicemen have died or been injured. Thus, Russian MoD reports about the lost voennosluzhashchie (servicemembers) never include losses suffered by Russian PMCs operating in the same operational theater. The same logic allows Russia to deny the involvement of its proxies in the conflicts, as PMC contractors do not count as voennosluzhashchie. This is significant because Russian PMC operatives often fight on the front lines and attack difficult positions, and their losses are much higher than those of the regular military.
Executive Outcomes (South Africa)
Executive Outcomes (EO) was established in 1989 as a wholly-owned and registered South African company. Since its establishment, EO’s mission has remained largely unchanged – the provision of sound military advice, training, and logistical support, but, as a dynamic company, EO’s mission statement is continually reviewed to ensure flexibility and survivability in a growing worldwide competitive market.
EO has earned an indisputable reputation as a highly competent military advisory company—a fact that even EO’s fiercest critics acknowledge—and has built a solid history of success, an achievement which is attributed to its highly effective workforce.
During its brief history, EO has operated in support of armed forces, law enforcement agencies, and private corporations in Southern Africa, West Africa, South America, and the Far East.
EO is based in Pretoria, South Africa, manned mostly by former members of the South African Defense Force, and has proven to be a decisive factor in the outcome of multiple civil wars in Africa. Involved in forcing rebels to the negotiating table in Sierra Leone and, more well known, for contributing to the Angolan government’s success in forcing UNITA to accept the Lusaka Protocol in 1994, EO reportedly had a web of influence in Uganda, Botswana, Zambia, Ethiopia, Namibia, Lesotho, and South Africa.
Even though the firm’s expertise lay in fighting bush wars, it has diversified and reportedly operates 32 companies, whose interests range from computer software to adult education. The firm’s tactic of quickly regaining control of a client country’s mineral-rich regions is well-documented. Within a month of Sierra Leone’s hiring of EO in May 1995, government forces had regained control of the diamond-rich Kono district, which produced two-thirds of Sierra Leone’s diamonds. In Angola, oil- and diamond-producing regions were the first areas secured by government forces trained by EO. The firm also reportedly mined gold in Uganda, drilled boreholes in Ethiopia, and had a variety of interests in other countries.
Academi (Blackwater, USA)
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Global Security journal introduced Academi (Blackwater) like this:
As a general rule, children from wealthy and politically connected families no longer serve in the military. Erik Prince was an exception. He enlisted in the Navy in 1992 and joined the Navy SEALs in 1993, where he served for 4 years. In 1997, he saw an opportunity to start his own company and created Blackwater Security Consulting (BSC). He has said, “We are trying to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did for the Postal Service.”
Erik’s father, Edgar, co-founded the auto-parts giant Prince Corp., based in Holland, Michigan. The religious family sent Erik to parochial school and made him a shareholder of the firm at a young age. After Edgar Prince died in 1995, the family sold Prince Corporations automotive unit to Johnson Controls for $1.35 billion. Erik, then 26, walked away with at least $50 million.
Blackwater emerged as a team of dedicated professionals who provided training to America’s military and law enforcement communities and risked their lives to protect Americans in harm’s way overseas. Under the direction and oversight of the U.S. Government, Blackwater provides an opportunity for military and law enforcement veterans with a record of honorable service to continue their support to the United States.
After 9/11, when the United States began its stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and then Iraq, the U.S. Government called upon Blackwater to fill the need for protective services in hostile areas. Blackwater responded immediately. Blackwater personnel supporting the country’s overseas missions were all military and law enforcement veterans, many of whom have recent military deployments. No individual protected by Blackwater has ever been killed or seriously injured. There is no better evidence of the skill and dedication of these men. At the same time, by 2007 over 30 brave men had made the ultimate sacrifice while working for Blackwater and its affiliates. Numerous others had been wounded and permanently maimed.
The all-volunteer professional force after the Vietnam War employed the so-called Abrams Doctrine. The idea was that the US wouldn’t go to war without the sufficient backing of the Nation. Outsourcing circumvented this doctrine. It allows the administration to almost double the force size without any political price being paid. If war is privatized and private contractors have a vested interest in keeping the war going, the longer the war goes on, the more money they make.
China and its liberal use of Private Military and Security Companies
It is clear that China is committed to global economic and political dominance. However, It has little that it can use to emulate previous colonial powers or the United States. China has no real expeditionary force militarily or the ability to project its power with a large blue-water Navy as Britain did or the United States currently does. Though it is the world’s second most powerful economy globally, China still remains only a regional power politically and militarily. Because of this, China will have to resort to a distinctly Chinese way of protecting its own assets globally as well as fulfilling its political/diplomatic goals and agendas.
First, overseas Chinese Private Military and Security Companies (PMSC) are now a designated part of a newly established Belt and Road National Security Intelligence System. On the basis of a “government-led, multi-participant” method, the new intelligence system (according to the management guidelines) plans to make intelligence collection, particularly overseas, more transparent and accessible across ministries.
Overseas Chinese PSCs are expected to join Chinese embassies in reporting and engaging in intelligence gathering under this new system. Funded by the Chinese government, an increasing number of academic studies on national intelligence systems in foreign countries have emerged in recent years.
This is an increasingly essential field of study for the future of warfare. It is just too tempting for national leaders to have this kind of tool at their disposal to not use it, especially when it is being rather effectively used by other nations. I predict that when the Ukraine invasion is all said and done there will be thousands of dead mercenaries from Liga. They are not counted among the casualties from their standing armies. This is just another example of the lack of transparency in employing PMCs.
Many of the violent atrocities will also be attributed to these private fighters, whether they did it or not. Once again, it allows leaders to deflect any accountability from sticking to them. These foreign fighters who are coming to Ukraine to fight on behalf of the Ukrainians are a two-edged sword. I understand the desire to help, but it leaves the door wide open for the Ukrainians, especially President Zelenskyy, to be accused of war crimes, as Putin no doubt will also be facing when this is all said and done.
Modern warfare is rife with complexities. The governance of warfare through the Geneva Convention, good or bad, is an attempt to protect the lives of the innocent as well as the vulnerable. Ghost-like fighters roaming the battlefield with zero accountability is a terribly dangerous cocktail. It will devolve the struggle into a conflict of revenge, where both sides will engage in horrific acts of violence towards each other, as well as the elderly, women, and children.
Pray for peace in Ukraine. This struggle has the potential to get way out of hand quickly. Support humanitarian support missions, such as those designed to help the vulnerable. Resist the temptation to take up arms to help the Ukrainians. This entire conflict is going poorly for President Putin. The Russian economy cannot stand up to these kinds of pressures globally forever.
The West must choose: Either arm Ukraine or enable Putin’s genocide… https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/the-west-must-choose-either-arm-ukraine-or-enable-putins-genocide/?mkt_tok=NjU5LVdaWC0wNzUAAAGDlHBjBGpdJLUbZxlblNreNOoD8JAWzPF3wm4R-fV6AoqayIJRxymx-X_bVrYB4uhLjwfw0ZZdWq9_hr8ENhys_irhwOhRRDRilacOiLcaCg
And if Ukraine is not difficult enough for the world! READ THIS… ISIS Redux: The Central Syria Insurgency in March 2022…https://www.counterextremism.com/blog/isis-redux-central-syria-insurgency-march-2022
For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Isenberg, David (November 1997). “Soldiers of Fortune Ltd.: A Profile of Today’s Private Sector Corporate Mercenary Firms”. cdi.org. Center for Defense Information.
The Privatisation of Violence: New mercenaries and the state Archived 8 October 2006 at the Wayback Machine Christopher Wrigley CAAT March 1999
L, Albert (27 November 2020). “Private Military Contractor Executive Outcomes Revived After 22 Years”. Overt Defense.
Staff Reporter (24 January 1997). “Africa’s new-look dogs of war”. No. Online. Mail & Guardian. Africa. Retrieved 16 July 2015.
Cilliers, Jakkie; Mason, Peggy; Pech, Khareen (January 1999). “PEACE, PROFIT, OR PLUNDER? The Privatisation of Security in War-Torn African Societies:- Chapter 5: Executive Outcomes – A corporate conquest p.106, №18”
Singer, P. W. (2003). Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Updated ed.). New York: Cornell University Press. p. 101. ISBN 9780801459603.
Forsyth, Al J. Venter; foreword by Frederick (2006). War dog: fighting other people’s wars: the modern mercenary in combat (1. ed.). Philadelphia, Pa.: Casemate.