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S1E10 – Candace Rondeaux, Professor of Practice at the School of Politics and Global Studies and a Senior Fellow with the Center on the Future of War at Arizona State University shares her insights on the rise of Russian mercenaries, including the Wagner group, in various conflicts around the world. What’s driving the increasing prevalence of mercenaries, and what, if anything, can be done to reign in these actors to ensure human rights and International humanitarian laws are respected?


This podcast was originally published March 31, 2021

Hello, I’m Chris Galvin and I’m pleased to introduce the 10th episode in ICoCA’s podcast series, Future Security Trends Implications for Human Rights. I’m going to be in conversation today with Candace Rondeaux, professor of practice at the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University and a senior fellow with the Center on the Future of War, which is a joint initiative of ASU and New America. The focus of our conversation is Understanding mercenaries, War, Wagner, and why we should care.
So, Candace, first I’d like you to unpack for us the definition of mercenaries. Many people use the terms mercenaries, private military contractors, and private security companies interchangeably. But the International Code of Conduct defines security services as guarding and protecting persons and objects such as convoys, facilities, designated sites, property, or other places, whether armed or unarmed or any other activity for which the personnel of companies is required to carry or operate a weapon in the performance of their duties. So, for ICoCA, there’s an important distinction between private military companies that can be engaged in offensive action and private security companies that are in the protection business. How useful is it to distinguish between private military and private security companies, and where does the mercenary label fit in?

Well, it’s a good question that is probably best unpacked by first defining what is permissible and what is not permissible under the laws of war. It is permissible for, as you say, private security forces to protect infrastructure, to provide security forces, for instance, for very important people, VIPs, to provide background intelligence for, again, for security purposes in the context of operations abroad. So, those things are permissible and we sort of tend to think of two different types of organizations that fit within that permissible category. So, private military contractors are mostly in a defensive posture protecting buildings, construction projects, infrastructure, and so forth.
Private military security contractors are a little bit more forward in their operations, potentially offensive in their operations, depending on the circumstances. So, they might work in much more hostile situations, much more chaotic situations where there are a number of armed combatants on the ground who change the security landscape.
Mercenaries kind of fit into this kind of latter category, insomuch as they tend to be hired for offensive operations in which territory is being acquired essentially. So, moving in on territory that is not already under control. Operationally, they share the same sort of footprint or a similar footprint to private military security contractors operationally. Under international law, under the Geneva Protocols, a mercenary is defined as a person who is an armed combatant, who fights for profit, essentially for personal financial gain. Unfortunately, that definition is a bit old, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s and it doesn’t really reflect the changing character of war today. Today, most mercenaries are not independently sort of jumping into the middle of wars by themselves, singularly like some sort of Rambo-style superhero. Most mercenaries, in fact, work for small contracting contingents, many of whom contract with large parties that either are working for multinationals or are multinationals, or in many cases, increasingly, they are deployed by state-run multinational companies, primarily in the energy sector.
In the case of Russia, for instance, what we know about the so-called Wagner Group is the primary contracting party here really is the Russian state. The intermediary contractor is oftentimes Gazprom, Stroytransgaz, state-run enterprises that deploy their own forces into places like Libya, the CAR, or Mozambique. So, in fact, on paper, Russian mercenaries or Russian Wagner Group fighters may look like mercenaries, but in reality, they are a PMC contingent that should technically fall under the oversight of international humanitarian law. So, there’s a little bit of a gray zone there, but that that gray zone piece is an intentional obfuscation about the responsibilities of the armed combatant parties.

And just on the who’s doing the hiring here. So, you mentioned multinationals are one of the clients of these private military contractors. I mean, are we talking about, big brand name companies that we all know?

Well, there’s certainly well-known in the world of energy. Gazprom is probably one of the largest gas producers in the world and might be rated second, or third, somewhere in there in terms of its reach and in terms of its production volume, and its distribution networks. It’s a very large company, but it is state-owned and it is state-managed, and it is considered under Russian law, a strategic enterprise. So, everything that it does outside the borders of Russia is considered a strategic operation. And that is where the Wagner group comes in. Sort of how it works is the Ministry of Defense is technically under strategic enterprise or strategic sector is tasked with supporting the protection of that strategic resource. So, when Gazprom deploys out to, let’s say, Syria, it really is technically because it’s also occurring in a theatre of war, there are military technical agreements in place, but also because gas and oil production is considered a strategic resource, the Ministry of Defense is kind of the main contracting party that orchestrates all of the protective services, including the PMC contingents that are deployed under the so-called umbrella of the Wagner Group.
So, that’s kind of how it works. And also, of course, another big player here is Stroytransgaz, which is one of the largest oil and gas engineering firms in the world. They have operations everywhere, but they are very big in some of the kind of former Soviet client states in the Middle East. So, Syria, Algeria, and Libya are sort of three key points of entry for Stroytransgaz. And again, there you see code deployment, right? Because you can’t have oil and gas production from Gazprom without the construction to go with it from Stroytransgaz. And so when we talk about the Wagner group, what we’re really talking about are the contingents and detachments that are employed by those state-run enterprises. The administrative process is kind of run primarily by the Ministry of Defense through another bunch of subcontracting bodies.

So, I mean, there are large Western multinationals, including oil and gas companies, name brands that we know here and they’re somewhat transparent about the fact that they contract private security companies. Why do we not know? Why is there this opacity around the Wagner Group?

That’s a good question. There are a couple of different reasons. One, the Russian state is still in the process of transitioning from a predominantly state-run economy. Today it’s safe to kind of characterize the Russian economy as sort of semi-privatized, especially in the realm of Russia’s military-industrial complex. So, that is those companies that make munitions and deploy helicopters and aircraft to places like Syria and Libya, those are primarily under the control of the Russian state. Russia has not succeeded, unfortunately, in diversifying its economy away from a model where the state owns the vast majority of capital when it comes to energy production and military industrial production. And that’s problematic for a couple of different reasons, not least of which is when the Arab Spring began back in 2010.
At first, starting with Egypt and Tunisia, yes, it caused a quake for the Russian government, but not nearly as serious as when the war in Libya began in 2011. And then, of course, very shortly after Syria. Those two locations are extremely important for Russian oil and gas production as well as the deployment of weapons. And so, they’re big markets, basically is the best way to describe them. And so one reason why it became challenging for Russia to deal with that situation was because of the UN embargoes that were later imposed on the Assad regime and then the Gadhafi regime in 2011-2012. Russia made a very open and very public decision to continue with the execution of existing contracts from Rostec, the primary weapons provider out of Russia, as well as other contracts that were extant in the energy sector. And it was declared very openly, but the problem was that open declaration didn’t mitigate the challenge around the potential for interdiction of shipments of goods and services to these places, Syria and Libya, that were under embargo. And so, the Wagner fiction was in some ways created to create plausible deniability for Russia that in fact it was not in breach of the embargo and those were some other mysterious Russian-speaking people who were delivering large-scale platforms to these war zones.

So, I mean, you’ve mentioned various theatres, as it were, that the Wagner group and Russian contractors are involved in, whether Syria or Libya. I know the Central African Republic is another. And one I’d like to turn to is Mozambique, specifically the conflict currently taking place up in the Northeast in Cabo Delgado. The Mozambique government apparently contracted the Wagner group to assist with security in the region, though my understanding is that they left after suffering a number of casualties. A private South African military contractor took up the reins after Wagner pulled out, Dyck Advisory Group. Now, Amnesty International recently released a report alleging human rights atrocities committed by Dyck. And while this, along with the atrocities committed by Islamic militants, has garnered a lot of media attention and, the terrible humanitarian crisis that’s going on in Cabo Delgado right now, there’s been much less attention on the impact, if any, of the various large multinationals in the extractive sector who presumably contract security companies to guard their operations in the region. So why aren’t we hearing about how they might fit into the mix there?

Well, a couple of things are important to keep in mind. So Cabo Delgado, of course, is this extremely impoverished coastal region of Mozambique. But it just so happens to be adjoining one of the largest natural gas fields in that part of Africa. So, there’s a lot of offshore activity in terms of exploitation that is expected to happen over the next decade or so, maybe even two decades. So, it’s an extremely important and lucrative potential port gateway for energy trade.
At the same time, Mozambique is a place that historically, of course, has a lot of roots in a long-ago war that many people will not remember. That went on from the 1960s and 1970s, which essentially pitted the Soviet Union against the United States in a proxy war and also Cuba I should mention. Since then things had stabilized for a time in Mozambique, but as with many kinds of post-Cold War legacies, the challenge of an overly centralized government in Mozambique still persisted. And what that has meant on paper, in practical terms, is that some areas of the country are not well governed. And Cabo Delgado happens to be one of those areas. And because of these pre-existing relationships with Moscow, the Mozambican government turned to Moscow for help when it began encountering challenges with Islamists in that region.
Now, I just will point out that we weren’t talking about Islamists in that region 20 years ago or even ten years ago and it’s precisely because the discovery of oil and gas in the region has had probably a very significant effect on the political economy and the escalation of conflict in the region. So, there’s kind of a synergistic relationship, right, between natural resource discovery in a place and then the sudden kind of fight for resources when governments do not do well in distributing goods and services. We know this to be kind of just a truism of the origins of conflicts of today. But it just so happened that, of course, the capacity of the Mozambican government to deploy in that area was constrained by two things. One, just sort of experience and the ability to kind of be mobile in a place like that is a very difficult terrain. And then, of course, having a dependency from, again, from this prior legacy of needing weapons from Russia. Already there was already this pre-existing kind of line supply chain line. Instead of going to buy new fancy, expensive things from, say, a NATO provider, why not just go with what you already have and what your troops already understand how to deploy with? And so, that first experiment with bringing in Russian, primarily private military security contractors was really about just servicing a supply chain need that was already in place and that frankly, had a lot of pressure on it because, of course, there was more fighting in the area. Of course, famously, I think it was in 2019 that there were a number of incidents involving Wagner troops facing off against Islamists in the area. Unfortunately, I think several were actually beheaded during one of the confrontations. And so, I think Russia got a little gun shy and so did the Mozambican government and started shopping around for new potential providers and Dyke obviously was one of them. But now I understand that the Green Berets, the US military advisers have also come into the region to provide support.

Control of resources and resource extraction seem to be a red thread in understanding the predominance of private military contractors. Are there any other circumstances where we’re seeing more use of mercenaries and private military contractors around the world, and not just from Russia, but other states?

Well, I think one of the common conditions or common denominators for states that go shopping for private military forces, natural resources, and extractive capacity is certainly a key dynamic that catalyzes the search for more secure or more securitization of a given territory. However, I think one of the common patterns is also states with large amounts of debt. States that really have not been able to operate where they collect internal revenues, where they don’t have a lot of history of steady and stable foreign direct investment. Therefore, they find themselves in huge amounts of debt to the IMF and to other creditors. Those states tend to be more vulnerable and have a greater appetite for risk when it comes to using private military security contractors in their territory. And oftentimes a big part of that pattern where you have large-scale debt is large-scale corruption in terms of government capture, state capture of resources that really actually belong to the citizens themselves. So, that’s a very common pattern that we see. And certainly, those states in today’s world tend to be clients of, for instance, large-scale infrastructure projects backed by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and on top of that, that also that kind of very big, large-scale foreign direct investment from China to create roads, to create transportation nodes, ports, etcetera, that kind of large scale investment is often paired with the additional exploration by Russian state enterprises. It is not to say that they are the only operators in those in those countries in those settings, but simply to say that there is again, there is kind of a synergy between what China does in terms of making big inroads, especially in Africa, and then what Russia has an ambition to do with kind of piggybacking on that investment.

So, I want to turn to what to do about regulating, if that is at all possible, these kinds of organizations. In the International Code of Conduct, we work with private security companies, as I mentioned at the beginning, we’re very much focused on companies who are in the business of securing concessions, sites, whatever it may be and they’re in the guarding business. And there is transparency from their clients about the fact that they contract these kinds of organizations. But how do you regulate a sector that is really essentially kind of underground?

Well, we have to look at the incentive structure. And it’s important to note that there is and has been for the last decade, a very robust debate within the Russian State Duma about how and whether to normalize and legalize the Russian private military security sector. And there is a whole contingent out there that believes it is time for the Russian state to create a set of regulatory provisions that will allow them to operate in a more aboveboard fashion in an interesting kind of call for transparency. Parts of the Russian state, again, it has their own kind of factions as with any other state, see that that could be a threat to control over large parts of the military-industrial complex. So, there’s kind of a tug of war inside Russia, between wealthy elites on both sides that would like to see the private security sector normalized and regulated a little bit more heavenly and therefore create more transparency in their outward operations. But until you see a change in leadership, I think at the very highest level in the Kremlin, that’s probably not going to happen.
There are ways, I think, for the international community to really, one, begin a dialogue with contingents inside of Russia. That are looking to privatize, to normalize the private security sector. And I think that dialogue needs to take place soon because it’s clearly bubbling up now. There are some serious challenges in the Central African Republic in particular that I think are going to be hearing about. There are allegations of all kinds of things like war crimes and the use of chemical weapons. Again, not substantiated yet, but if that does turn out to be true, that is certainly going to escalate the concern around Russia’s use of private military security contractors in a big way.
So, I think it’s incumbent on the international community right now, especially stakeholders like ICoCA and potentially even the ICRC, to really be in a much more aggressive posture in their dialogue with internal stakeholders inside Russia who are thinking more logically about the long-term implications of the way the private military security contracting industry is structured right now. That’s a first step. And then the second step is, again, there needs to be an investigation into the various areas where we know Russian military contractors are deployed. I think there needs to be a much more robust investment in research so that we can understand whether or not they are in compliance with existing embargoes so that we can understand whether they’re in compliance with international humanitarian law and where, in fact, pressure can be applied for more compliance with rules and norms.

Finally, if you could say a few words. You’ve already mentioned China here, but looking forward to 5 or 10 years. What are the different potential paths that we may go down and where does China fit in with this? Is there a danger of it going down the kind of Russian route, or is there another path that we may take?

It’s a little bit hard to see. What we do know is that the Belt and Road Initiative has catalyzed a lot of investment in the private security sector. A good example of this, of course, most famously, we’ve heard about Operation Opus, which was this botched deployment of British Australian, and American mercenaries off the coast of Libya that all went very badly and we know that that group is tied to Blackwater’s former CEO, Erik Prince. That is all public, that has been discussed and reported in by the UN in its own reporting on that situation. And we also know that CITIC Group, which is a very large-scale China State Enterprise, is the primary backer of that particular set of contingents that was deployed in that situation.
So, I think what we’re going to see is continuing growth, meaning there’s an appetite in China just for these services. There’s going to be some creative solutions. Most of them are going to reside in trying to find middleman partners like the UAE as a kind of supporting hub and then potentially working with small-scale Russian contingents, perhaps other types of contingents that can operate. It’s all going to be very situation-dependent and case-dependent, but I certainly think we can anticipate growth. But I think most of what we’ll see in this early period is China will be outsourcing that kind of work to other non-Chinese nationals.

Well, we are engaging ourselves with China. We have a number of Chinese private security companies who are members and certified members of the association. And so, we hope to bring more into the fold as well. And it sounds like maybe we should be doing the same with Russia as well. But for today, Candace, I want to say thank you so much.




The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).