Private military companies are exploiting conflicts across the globe, says Marcel Plichta, and the British Government can play a key role in holding them to account
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favourite mercenary group now rarely leaves the headlines. News on the Wagner Group, the pre-eminent Russian Private Military Company (PMC), jumps from brutal fighting in Ukraine to illegal resource extraction in Africa and buying weapons from North Korea.
For all the coverage that Wagner gets, the international response to the group’s rise has been sluggish.
The UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into Wagner, for which I and other colleagues submitted evidence of its crimes in the Central African Republic and Mali, but the committee has not yet released its final report.
In the US, legislation such as the ‘Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act’ proposes extremely modest measures and shows no signs of passing in the near term. However, that may be changing.
Two weeks ago, the US took a high-profile step by designating Wagner as a transnational criminal organisation (TCO). This is the latest in a series of sanctions on Wagner, its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and mining companies that help to extract and smuggle their gold.
As much as the US wants to, in the words of one official, “identify, disrupt, expose, and target those who are assisting Wagner”, Washington cannot do it alone. Wagner’s operations and financing are global and will require the combined efforts of the US, UK, and countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa to meaningfully degrade their operations.
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The UK has an opportunity to lead the global effort to stop Wagner.
The first and most immediate way is by establishing an international intelligence-sharing network on the group. New reports suggest that the US State Department is increasingly worried about Wagner, but combining efforts and bringing in international partners helps to harmonise sanctions and gets everyone on the same page about the best courses of action to degrade the group in future.
Confronting Wagner requires international consensus so the UK should also press its partners to make intelligence on Wagner available to regional organisations like the African Union as well as the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries. Not all intelligence can be shared for practical and security reasons, but the UK cannot afford to be overzealous in guarding intelligence that brings Wagner’s crimes to light.
UK leadership means getting as many countries as possible to the table, especially those from regions where Wagner operates. Plenty are concerned about Wagner, whose contractors and are far closer to them than the UK. For instance, Chad has routinely voiced concerns about Wagner activity near its borders.
We must change the approach of regional organisations – so far more concerned with punishing the states that hire Wagner – by working with them to stop Wagner and address the security vacuums that tempt countries to hire the group in the first place.
In the longer-term, the UK should spearhead war crime investigations into Wagner in Ukraine, Syria, and Africa.
Unlike intelligence-gathering, investigating war crimes means gathering evidence to a sufficient standard that it can be used in court with the express intention of making it public. Should the UK go down this route, it is vital to start gathering evidence soon – using the evidence to convince the international community that Wagner is worth taking legal action against.
It is by no means certain that most members of Wagner would face a war crimes trial, but creating a repository of evidence is an inexpensive first step, and a signal that the UK is willing to be a global leader in confronting violations of international law and the law of armed conflict.
Wagner’s criminal activity is deeply harmful, but Wagner is a particularly nasty symptom of deeper dysfunction. In the Central African Republic and Mali, Wagner only entered the picture after UN Peacekeeping missions, regional security initiatives, and bilateral assistance from countries like France failed to deliver.
Even if Wagner is brought to heel, the security challenges faced by these countries will not go away and equally amoral PMCs – Russian or not – will continue to profit from global conflicts. After Mozambique kicked out Wagner, the country brought in a South African PMC, that was also accused of serious abuses. If the goal is to end killing and exploitation at its source, the UK should ask itself and its partners to rethink how they pursue peace abroad, even if the conclusions are difficult to face.
Marcel Plichta is a PhD student in International Relations at the University of St Andrews and a former analyst for the US Department of Defense
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