Allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses in Ukraine by the invading Russian forces continue to pile up, and some of these incidents have been linked to a mercenary organization called the Wagner Group.
Sean McFate is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. He’s also a U.S. Army veteran and former military contractor, which he acknowledges is another term for a mercenary.
McFate spoke with me for our daily podcast The Decibel in May, about the Wagner Group: how it operates, what members of the group have said to him, and why hiring mercenaries might become more common.
Raman-Wilms: So let’s just start with the basics here. What is the Wagner Group?
McFate: The Wagner Group is a mercenary organization that works for Russia. But it’s not like a legal entity. It doesn’t have a legal charter anywhere. It’s owned and controlled by a Russian oligarch whose name is [Yevgeny] Prigozhin, and he is close to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. Basically, the Wagner group does the Kremlin’s dirty work overseas, and it’s been their weapon of choice the last eight years when they’ve expanded into Africa and expanded into the Middle East. And Russia’s not doing this with Special Forces or sort of some ex-KGB organization. They’re using the Wagner Group.
Raman-Wilms: What sort of work is this group typically hired to do?
McFate: So typically, they’re hired to do direct action or combat or assault. They’re doing that in Ukraine right now. They also do training and equipping, which they’ve done in the Central African Republic. They do regime security in, for example, Mali. Mali has had two coup d’états, there’s a military junta that’s in charge of Mali, and to coup-proof themselves, you know, they’ve hired the Wagner group to do it. So Wagner Group is giving the coup leaders high-end bodyguard details and they’re training and equipping a special sort of elite militia that’s just loyal to the coup leaders. In exchange for all these services, they get mining rights. We see that in Central African Republic, and in Mali. They get oil rights in Syria. And in Syria, they were asked just to simply kill ISIS [Islamic State], and they did that very effectively, with a lot of collateral damage. And so that’s another thing that they do: They commit war crimes. And again, because of the plausible deniability, even though we might all sort of snicker and say we know exactly who did that, like in Bucha, the massacre in Ukraine, it’s hard for international law to prove anything.
Raman-Wilms: And you call this a mercenary group? I feel like this is kind of an old term that we don’t use that much these days. What exactly is a mercenary?
McFate: A mercenary is exactly what people think about. These are foreign fighters who are going abroad to participate in other people’s wars, chiefly for profit. And they’re using force in a military or paramilitary way. These are not sort of gate guards at the shopping mall. These are sort of, you know, commandos or even infantry. There’s a lot of questions about what’s the difference between a private military company like Blackwater and a mercenary company like the Wagner Group. Academics and lawyers spill volumes of ink on this question, but basically it’s the same. I’ll add that I used to be in this industry myself for many years. And I can tell you from the inside, it’s just a term of art at the end of the day. Of course, I would describe myself as a private military contractor. But ultimately, you know, the Wagner Group, they are mercenaries.
Raman-Wilms: So you yourself were a private military contractor. Could you just expand on that?
McFate: So I used to be in the U.S. Army paratroopers as an officer, and then I left that and joined a private military company that worked chiefly, if not exclusively, for the United States of America. And I was their man in Africa. And I did things that would have traditionally been outsourced to, say, the CIA or special operations forces. And then I left working for the U.S. government clients and I worked sort of free market, for oil companies and stuff like that. And then I had this epiphany where I realized that there are no old people in my industry, or at least none that I liked. And I started to question my life choices and decided to leave. So I’m here now trying to pull back the curtain on this mysterious world. I write a lot about it. I track it. I talk to mercenaries around the world, including people in the Wagner Group.
Raman-Wilms: What has this group been accused of doing? Maybe we can start with Mali.
McFate: Well, Mali, Central African Republic, Syria, wherever they go, there’s a trail of things like rapes and murders and excessive force against civilians. Things that we in the West, even our military, we’re like, we don’t do that. But when you hire the Wagner Group, one of their chief selling points is human rights violations, because sometimes soldiers just don’t want to do that. Whereas if you’re a mercenary, that’s kind of part of the job.
Raman-Wilms: Let’s just back up a bit because everyone describes the Wagner Group as a Kremlin-linked organization. But Putin denies any connection to them. So how do we know that it’s tied to Russia and to Putin?
McFate: And also Prigozhin, who owns it, denies any knowledge of this. And that’s absurd. Putin’s legacy item is to recreate the Russian empire. And he’s taken great steps in recent years, most notably in Ukraine, to try to resurrect the superpower that was the USSR, but not under some sort of communist ideology, but under like, Czar Putin. He likes mercenaries because they give you plausible deniability. So if things go badly someplace or you want to commit human rights abuse as a policy, if they get caught, you can always back away and say, well, we don’t know who those Russians are. And as absurd as that sounds, it kind of works, believe it or not. So, you know, meanwhile, we have a lot of ties between the GRU, which is the Russian military intelligence organization, handling and even intelligence sharing with the Wagner Group.
Sean McFate speaks with The Decibel's Menaka Raman-Wilms about a mercenary organization called the Wagner Group. Subscribe for more episodes.
Raman-Wilms: This group has also been accused of operating in Ukraine and specifically in Bucha, where civilians were really brutally targeted. What do we know about how the Wagner Group was involved there?
McFate: We know from the past, like in Syria, that they engage in capture, torture and kill. In Syria and in Bucha, you see people with their hands tied behind their backs, shot to the head, to the neck. In Syria, they decapitated them. Some people might say, well, these are really sociopath rogue warriors. That is true. But it’s also true that this is a Russian policy, too. So German intelligence has intercepted a command from the GRU, the Russian military intelligence that traditionally handles – they don’t own them – they handle a volunteer group to do these types of things. But I do want to emphasize it’s not just the Wagner Group doing these horrific war crimes. It’s largely the Russian army.
Raman-Wilms: What does the Russian government gain if their army is doing similar things? What do they gain from having a group like [the Wagner Group]?
McFate: Well, before Putin’s blunder-ridden invasion of Ukraine, he used the Wagner Group to extend Russian influence in the shadows because of the plausible deniability. Now, Ukraine’s a different situation. As we all know, Putin thought this invasion would take three days and now it’s not. And so Putin is desperate, he needs soldiers. And if you can outsource it, you can conceal the costs of the conflict. So right now, hiring mercenaries allows Russia to keep on extending the conflict and minimizing Russian soldiers going home in body bags, which is a big problem for Putin’s domestics. But of course, the Wagner Group is getting killed. A lot of their new role in Ukraine is not really what it’s been in the last couple of years.
Raman-Wilms: Sean, how do you actually figure out what this group is up to and what they’re doing?
McFate: I mean, first of all, you’ve got Ukrainian sources, but you can’t trust them either because controlling the information space is controlling the narrative, the information. So Russia’s downplaying it, saying they’re not there. Ukraine’s up-playing it, saying they’re everywhere. But we have things like German intelligence agencies and others intercept messages and make them public without revealing the sources and methods. You have people like myself; I’ve been a close tracker of this group since 2013, 2014. And there are, you know, investigative journalists like Bellingcat who have sources and human networks on the ground. So all of us actually keep in quite close contact and we kind of pass around and verify or try to verify things we’ve heard, seen. And of course, I talk to members of Wagner, not members who are on the ground right now, but members who are elsewhere. And they kind of tell me a couple of things, too.
Raman-Wilms: What are they telling you about what they’re doing?
McFate: Most of them, they’re ex-soldiers from around the Russian-speaking world. They do it because they need the money. Some of them do it because they don’t know what to do with their life. Some of them do it because they’re sociopaths, you know? And what they’re telling me right now is that the war in Ukraine is going really badly. They know they’re cannon fodder. And the group has changed a lot as a result. Nobody’s happy in the Wagner Group. They’d all rather be working for like some Saudi prince someplace who pays a lot of money and just wants you to guard oil infrastructure. And there’s no real danger. But the way that Russia keeps the Wagner Group mercenaries from going abroad is that ironically, Russia has very strict anti-mercenary laws on their books. And even though the Kremlin hires these mercenaries to do their dirty work, if these mercenaries start looking for other clients outside of Russia, they arrest them and throw them in jail as mercenaries.
Raman-Wilms: So they’re hiring mercenaries here. But if these mercenaries are stepping out of line, they are charging them and penalizing them for being mercenaries.
McFate: It’s a very Russian solution. That’s right.
Raman-Wilms: Wow. Okay. How many people are in the Wagner Group?
McFate: So it’s been around since 2014, 2013, depending on who you talk to. My sources tell me that before the Ukraine war, they said about 10,000 to 15,000 people have gone through the doors of Wagner. That’s a big number. Most mercenary groups are, you know, much like 100 or less.
Raman-Wilms: What sort of accountability is there for a group like this, Sean?
McFate: There is no accountability for a group like this. Look at the Colombian mercenaries who assassinated the president of Haiti [in 2021]. We caught those mercenaries. We still don’t know who hired them. They don’t know who hired them. So somebody out there in the world assassinated a sitting head of state and cleanly got away with it. International laws are very weak on mercenaries, to be honest. There’s no precise definition of it. And even if you had good laws, who’s going to go into Ukraine and arrest all those mercenaries? Not the United Nations, not NATO. And also mercenaries can shoot the law enforcement dead. So because of these factors, growing clientele both in states and nonstates, the fact that international regulation is pretty powerless to stop it means that we’re seeing a trend line in the last 10 years of the growth of a mercenary industry in the 21st century.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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