By Thalif Deen
Just after a band of mercenaries tried to oust the government in the Maldives back in 1988, I asked a Maldivian diplomat, using a familiar military catchphrase, about the strength of his country’s “standing army.”
“Standing army?” the diplomat asked with mock surprise, and remarked perhaps half-jokingly, “We don’t even have a sitting army.”
With a population of about 250,000, around that time, the Maldives was perhaps one of the few countries with no fighter planes, combat helicopters, warships, missiles, or battle tanks—an open invitation for mercenaries and freelance military adventurers.
As a result, the island’s fragile defenses attracted a rash of mercenaries and bounty hunters who tried to take over the country twice—once in 1979, and a second time in 1988.
Although both attempts failed, the Indian Ocean island refused to drop its defenses. It not only initiated a proposal seeking a UN security umbrella to protect the world’s militarily vulnerable mini states but also backed an international convention to outlaw mercenaries, namely the 1989 “International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries.”
In the U.S., a mercenary is called a “soldier of fortune,” which is also the title of a widely circulated magazine, and subtitled the “Journal of Professional Adventurers.”
The adventures—and misadventures—of mercenaries were also portrayed in several Hollywood movies, including The Dogs of War, Tears of the Sun, The Wild Geese, The Expendables, and Blood Diamond, among others.
When the Russian Wagner Group hit the front pages of newspapers worldwide, it was described as a private mercenary group fighting in Ukraine.
The New York Times said on June 30 the Wagner Group provided security to African presidents, propped up dictators, violently suppressed rebel uprisings, and was accused of torture, murder of civilians, and other abuses.
But the failed coup attempt by Wagner threatened, for a moment, the very existence of the group.
A military adviser to an African president, dependent on mercenaries, implicitly linked the name Wagner to the German composer Richard Wagner.
And the official was quoted as saying “If it is not Wagner anymore, they can send us Beethoven or Mozart, it doesn’t matter. We’ll take them.”
A July 14 report on Cable News Network (CNN) quoted a Kremlin source as saying the Wagner group, which led a failed insurrection against Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, was never a legal entity and its legal status needs further consideration.
“Such a legal entity as PMC Wagner does not exist and never existed. This is a legal issue that needs to be explored,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.
Peskov refused to disclose any further details on the meeting between Wagner head Yengeny Prigozhin and Putin, which reportedly took place several days after the aborted rebellion in June.
Besides Ukraine, mercenaries have been fighting in Central Africa, Mali, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya. In Syria, there was a para-military group called Slavonic Corps providing security to President Bashar Assad battling a civil war—and later by the Wagner Group.
And in Mali, there were over 1,500 mercenaries fighting armed groups threatening to overthrow the government.
Ironically, the U.S. which once used the Blackwater Security Consulting Group during the American occupation of Iraq, has imposed sanctions on several African nations deploying mercenaries.
Antony J. Blinken, U.S. secretary of state, said in early July that the United States is imposing sanctions on several entities in the Central African Republic (CAR) for their connection to the transnational criminal organization known as the Wagner Group and “for their involvement in activities that undermine democratic processes and institutions in the CAR through illicit trade in the country’s natural resources.”
“We are also designating one Russian national who has served as a Wagner executive in Mali. Wagner has used its operations in Mali both to obtain revenue for the group and its owner, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, as well as to procure weapons and equipment to further its involvement in hostilities in Ukraine.”
The United States has also issued a new business risk advisory focused on the gold industry across sub-Saharan Africa.
Specifically, the advisory highlights “how illicit actors such as Wagner exploit this resource to gain revenue and sow conflict, corruption, and other harms throughout the region.”
Death and destruction have followed in Wagner’s wake everywhere it has operated, and the United States will continue to take actions to hold it accountable, said Blinken.
Dr. Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, told IPS it is certainly good that the United States is finally taking leadership in opposing the use of mercenaries.
The Iraq War—which then-Senator Joe Biden strongly supported—relied heavily on the use of mercenaries from the Blackwater group. Similarly, during the Cold War, the CIA used mercenaries to support its military objectives in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.
“Whether such actions targeting the Wagner Group is indicative of an actual shift in U.S. policy or simply a means of punishing a pro-Russian organization remains to be seen,” he said.
Dr. Simon Adams, president and CEO of the Center for Victims of Torture, told IPS throughout history, big powers have often used mercenaries. From trying to hold back anticolonial struggles to the horrors of the Cold War in Latin America or Africa, there is nothing new in that.
“But I think the big change is that the international community has become more intolerant of these guns-for-hire and privatized armies who believe that they can operate outside of International Humanitarian Law, and are often rampant abusers of human rights,” he pointed out.
And it is much harder these days for their state sponsors to deny responsibility for their actions, he added.
The Wagner Group has been implicated in numerous atrocities in Ukraine, Central African Republic, and a number of other places, he said.
“They deserve all the opprobrium that has been heaped upon them. The challenge now is not just to sanction them, and to try to hold the main war criminals accountable under international law.”
The bigger challenge is to ensure that no other big state or major power engages in these same nefarious practices the next time it suits their own partisan interests to do so, declared Dr. Adams.
Meanwhile, according to an article in the National Defense University Press, private force has become big business, and global in scope. No one truly knows how many billions of dollars slosh around this illicit market.
“All we know is that business is booming. Recent years have seen major mercenary activity in Yemen, Nigeria, Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. Many of these for-profit warriors outclass local militaries, and a few can even stand up to America’s most elite forces, as the battle in Syria shows.”
The Middle East is awash in mercenaries. Kurdistan is a haven for soldiers of fortune looking for work with the Kurdish militia, oil companies defending their oil fields, or those who want terrorists dead, according to the article.
“Some are just adventure seekers, while others are American veterans who found civilian life meaningless. The capital of Kurdistan, Irbil, has become an unofficial marketplace of mercenary services, reminiscent of the Tatooine bar in the movie Star Wars—full of smugglers and guns for hire.”