The Dark World of Private Military Contractors

A growing system that could revolutionise, if it has not already done so, the way in which war is waged. Private military contractors are no longer simple mercenaries paid by some small emirate or warlord. These paramilitary organisations have become fully-fledged parallel armies used increasingly by the superpowers in order to manage conflicts in which they do not want to (or cannot) deploy their own soldiers and control areas of strategic interest in which the authorities of allied states have difficulties (economic, logistical or simply military).

There is nothing romantic, if there ever was, in the mindset of the contractors. But once the field has been cleared of ethical questions (which every use of these men entails), it should be clear that they can no longer be deemed secondary when it comes to understanding wars. Their use is now not only well-established but also extremely widespread. And the industry that has been created with their deployment (the Italian newspaper La Repubblica has reported that the business is worth almost USD 400 billion) confirms the utmost importance of a sector that now has a political, diplomatic and economic value equivalent to that of fully-fledged armed forces parallel to those of national authorities.

Contractors in the pay of Moscow

The question has become particularly important in the last few weeks because numerous investigations have brought to light the presence of Russian nationals (who cannot be defined as soldiers because they do not belong to the armed forces) within the ranks of General Khalifa Haftar. The strong man of Cyrenaica has always enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Kremlin which has been confirmed by numerous visits to Moscow as well as by relationships based on interwoven interests not only with the Russian energy giants but also with various sectors of Russian intelligence and diplomacy (and the allies of Vladimir Putin). Further, this relationship was confirmed in the siege of Tripoli when, with the announcement of the so-called “zero hour” by the Field Marshal, the presence of Russian “mercenaries”, in particular the Wagner Group, became clear. Their presence had already been feared by the British secret services who had pointed out the possible presence of Russians in Derna well before the advance on Tripoli and the simultaneous possibility of a Syrian scenario for Libya. This was a possible scenario in respect of which MI6 had obviously conducted an in-depth analysis, given that the reality is not, it would seem, far from London’s warning.

The presence of Russian contractors in Libya is of course only a part of the Kremlin’s strategy in relation to Libya and all the conflicts in which it is directly or indirectly involved. Because if it is true that the Wagner Group is operating alongside Field Marshal Haftar in order to control the war that has devastated Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, it is also true that Cyrenaica (and now Tripolitania as well) are just two of the areas in which Wagner is operating on behalf of Moscow. Russian mercenaries were killed in Mozambique in November in an operation that caused not a little perplexity in the international community. Not only because of the violence with which the Russians were killed but also because of the physical presence (unfortunately confirmed by their deaths) of fighters in the service of the Kremlin in a country in which Russia has had strong political links since the days of the Soviet Union. Money, arms and energy – the tracks upon which Russian strategy in Africa runs – also involved Mozambique. And the presence of Russian militiamen has made plain that Russia needs to ensure that its interests are safeguarded.

These interests that are not very different from those that Russia has in the Central African Republic where, not by chance, there are other contractors also from the Wagner Group who made the headlines due to the death of some journalists (Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastorguyev and Kirill Radchenko)  who were travelling from Bangui to Bambari. The Russian government described it as a robbery. But the same local and African media blamed Wagner and the alleged trafficking of the organisation with the local authorities. This episode has remained shrouded in mystery. What is certain however is that nobody has denied the presence of Russian mercenaries in the country whilst the local authorities hid behind the authorisation given to Russia by the UN to support the efforts of the Central African Republic to monitor the territory.

Syria and the Ukraine

From Africa to the Middle East, Russian contractors of the Wagner Group (generally ex-soldiers and ex-members of the GRU) are however definitely present in Syrian territory. Indeed, the mercenaries have often been used by the Kremlin specifically to ensure that Moscow’s regular forces do not have to intervene in difficult situations or in any case where it would be reasonable to assume that the troops would face a very high degree of risk. The war in Syria was (and is) an enormous commitment for Putin: dead soldiers are never accepted by public opinion. But in this case too there has never been an insignificant number of risks. Photos of Russian “civilians” in military uniform, tanned as a result of the scorching sun of the desert, who arrived in Russia on often anonymous flights from the Middle East have on several occasions made plain their deployment in theatres of operation. And in February 2018, for four interminable hours, American soldiers and the US air force had an extremely fierce clash with Wagner fighters, probably 500 of them. There were dozens of dead in the ranks of the mercenaries on the plain of Deir Ezzor: there is no official figure. But what is certain that for the first time US and Russian forces (albeit paramilitaries) faced each other in Syria, causing dozens of casualties.

Similarly it is not known exactly how many Russian contractors have died in the Ukraine where these forces have for years been definitely present in the armies of the pro-Russian republics and across the entire eastern Ukrainian front. In particular, it has been confirmed that contractors were used in the battles of Debaltseve and Starobesheve. No official figure has ever been released in relation to the number of casualties in this case either. The whole matter is shrouded in mystery.

Mercenaries and the Pentagon

Russia is clearly not the only power to use contractors. Indeed, in reality the United States has for some time now been engaged in a strategy that provides for the greater use of private military companies in the management of war scenarios where Washington is no longer interested in having a massive troop presence.

The first and most important scenario in which this strange cohabitation exists between contractors and soldiers is Afghanistan. In the United States’ longest war, the fighters of the private agencies employed by the American government have numbered in the thousands. And there have been thousands of deaths: a sign that when it comes to mercenaries it is always wrong to produce the biased interpretation that only non-western powers and states use them. An investigation by the Washington Post has even confirmed that the number of victims amongst the contractors in the service of the United States exceeds (by a long way) that of soldiers, reaching the record figure of 3,814 fallen. An enormous figure if one considers the very little publicity given to the use of these private companies by the Pentagon but which demonstrates that the strategy conceived by Donald Trump (and Erik Prince) relating to the “privatisation” of the Afghan war should not be seen as something disconnected from US strategy. On the contrary, contractors have always been an essential component of the strategic plans of the US armed forces in a war that for some time now has been seen by public opinion as a complete failure and devoid of any utility.

Contractors and the privatisation of conflicts (Infographic by Alberto Bellotto)

But this war, even if it cannot be won, certainly cannot be abandoned. It is also for this reason that the White House has given the order to try to privatise it. Furthermore, a private company costs less than regular forces (tens of millions of dollars less) and a dead soldier, in terms of social perception, is worth much more than a civilian who goes to war with a company. As La Repubblica recalls, the Congressional Budget Office has clarified that “an infantry battalion in a war costs 110 million dollars a year, whilst a private military unit costs 99 million”. It goes without saying that 20 million less, every time, means a not insignificant saving. And it is an investment that America has put so much into that the federal government spent in five years (between 2007 and 2012) about 160 billion dollars on these companies. Their services can be used in various contexts, from the training of regular troops to conflicts where the United States does not want to make plain that it is full involved, even though it has an interest in supporting the ally in the field.

Contractors in the service of Beijing

China is not immune from the use of contractors either. Indeed, the figures demonstrate that the business of private military companies is growing so much that they are now companies with an enormous turnover that Beijing uses to control all the areas in which it does not want to use its regular forces. The same objective as that of the USA and Russia has therefore been set by the Dragon which, with the New Silk Road, knows it cannot leave the interests and infrastructures that it is constructing all over the world in the hands of forces that, above all in developing countries, do not guarantee that the territory is clearly controlled. And, above all, they do not guarantee loyalty to their Chinese ally or its interests.

For this reason, it must come as no surprise that in the last few years China has made a clear decision to use PMCs. Indeed, the Chinese government has taken a further step forward. Whereas previously the country’s giants largely used foreign private companies because, as also reported by Eastasia, Chinese contractors were considered inexperienced now preference is given to the use of Chinese companies who in this way train in the field and above all prevent the dollars invested by the Chinese authorities from ending up in a river generally connected to other powers (the United States and Russia first and foremost). This is also demonstrated by the contracts signed by Blackwater with China for operations that Beijing has always wanted to keep strictly confidential.

But above all this makes it easier to keep Chinese interests in some way under wraps within the great cauldron of the bureaucracy of the empire. The Chinese government has sent private companies to protect its workers in South Sudan and Iraq, but has also secured the interests of the corridor with Pakistan, the ports of the New Silk Road and the so-called “Pearl Necklace” of the Indian Ocean. Further, as reported by Xinhua, the investments made in security abroad have already cost the Chinese authorities tens of billions of dollars. And this business is bound to increase given the growth of Chinese interests outside its territory. The reluctance of Beijing to send troops outside the country makes everything clearer.