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Wittner: Russian mercenaries deployed in hotspots around the globe

For centuries, substantial military operations have been conducted by mercenaries, ranging from professional soldiers hired to fight wars for European potentates in the 14th century to the combat forces of Blackwater, a private company employed by the U.S. government to undertake violent activities in the “War on Terror” of the early 21st century.

Today, the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian company engaged in the thriving mercenary business, is perhaps the leading private enterprise partner in global military ventures.

Employing as many as 10,000 military personnel, it is headquartered in the Russian town of Molkino, adjacent to a military base run by Russia’s military intelligence agency. It relies heavily on Russian support and guidance for its far-flung operations.

The Wagner Group was reportedly founded in 2014 by Dmitry Utkin, a Russian military veteran so enamored of Adolf Hitler that he named the mercenary organization after the Führer’s favorite composer, Wagner. The financial backing came from Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With many Russian veterans eager to pay off debts and secure employment, recruitment proceeded rapidly. The Wagner Group’s first significant operation came later that year, as the Russian government dispatched about a thousand of the company’s armed soldiers, wearing unmarked uniforms, into the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine to bolster an uprising of pro-Russian separatists.

In the 2014 Ukraine invasion and mercenary ventures that followed, the outsourcing of a military project to the Wagner Group provided major advantages to the Russian government.

In these shadowy circumstances, the Kremlin could deny it was staging a military attack on another nation. And if anything went wrong, the Kremlin could thus avoid domestic political repercussions.

When a soldier worked for Wagner, recalled Marat Gabidullin, a former company commander, he was on his own because his job didn’t officially exist. With the company not registered in Russia or anywhere else, its soldiers had no legal standing.

That also meant, Gabidullin said, that its soldiers were relieved of any consequences for their behavior.

Indeed, freed from legal responsibility, and subsequently dispatched farther afield, members of this covert Russian army violated human rights with impunity.

In Syria, the Wagner Group’s soldiers, fighting to maintain the Assad dictatorship, were filmed laughing as they used a sledgehammer to break the bones of a Syrian army deserter before dismembering his body and cutting off his head. In the Central African Republic, UN investigators reported that the Wagner Group’s forces tortured, raped, and murdered civilians, forcibly recruited child soldiers, and engaged in widespread looting.

In Libya, Wagner mercenaries reportedly booby-trapped civilian homes with explosives attached to toilet seats and teddy bears. According to Human Rights Watch, between 800 and 1,200 Wagner Group operatives in that country, working to install a friendly warlord in power, planted antipersonnel land mines in the suburbs of Tripoli that killed or maimed large numbers of civilians.

The Wagner Group’s armed forces have been particularly active in Africa, where, in addition to terrorizing the Central African Republic and Libya, they have been operating in Mozambique, Sudan and Mali. According to a May report in The New York Times, these forces “ally with embattled political and military leaders who can pay for their services in cash, or with lucrative mining concessions for precious minerals like gold, diamonds and uranium.”

In Mali, where the ruling military junta employed Wagner’s armed forces to fight rebels, they swooped down in helicopters on a crowded marketplace in Moura in late March. In concert with junta soldiers, they seized large numbers of civilians.

Over the next five days, they looted houses, held villagers captive, and executed masses of them. According to the Times, the Russians “marauded through the town, indiscriminately killing people in houses, stealing jewelry, and confiscating cellphones to eliminate any visual evidence.”

Witnesses and analysts said that, by conservative estimates, the death toll in Moura ranged from 300 to 400, mostly civilians.

Responding to questions about the massacre, Prigozhin, Wagner’s manager, praised Mali’s current leader, its military and its actions in Moura. He denied the presence of any Wagner operatives in Mali, declaring it “a legend” that the Wagner Group even existed.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov remarked on Italian television in May that the Wagner Group was, indeed, present in Mali. He said it was providing security services on a commercial basis.

According to a French senior diplomat in Mali, about a thousand Wagner mercenaries are stationed there at more than a dozen military bases, security outposts and checkpoints.

Not surprisingly, Wagner operatives have also been deployed to assist with Russia’s 2022 war in Ukraine.

A few weeks before the invasion, many veterans of past Wagner operations were invited to join what was advertised as a “picnic” there. To provide the tainted Wagner forces with deep cover, however, the mercenary units were given new names.

Not to be outdone in the mercenary game, Blackwater founder Erik Prince suggested to U.S. President Joe Biden that he dispatch aging U.S. fighter jets and retired U.S. pilots to Ukraine to defend it from the Russian invasion. But Biden rejected the scheme.

Like the activities of other mercenary enterprises, those of the Wagner Group continue the historic practice of hiring soldiers of fortune to wage war. And, like the problem of war, the problem of mercenary operations seems unlikely to be solved without a substantial strengthening of international security institutions, among them the United Nations.

Are the nations of the world willing to take this step? Or would they prefer to live with the disasters being produced by today’s mercenaries?

Dr. Lawrence Wittner,  is a professor of history emeritus at the State University of New York and the author of Confronting the Bomb. He is syndicated through PeaceVoice.

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