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How to deal with Putin’s mercenaries

Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin pool photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Feb. 28, 2022, file photo.

Germany’s intelligence agency intercepted radio traffic recently confirming the notorious Russian mercenary unit, the Wagner Group, played a leading role in the war crimes at Bucha. It should shock no one. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent hundreds of mercenaries into Ukrainian cities to kill or capture political leaders such as President Volodymyr Zelensky and act as a fifth column for Russian invasion forces

Since 2014, the Wagner Group has carried out the Kremlin’s dirtiest work around the world. It has operated in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique and Madagascar, often leaving a trail of human rights violations in its wake. But that’s a reason its mercenaries are hired, and why they have become Putin’s weapon of choice. Unlike soldiers, mercenaries have few ethical qualms, making them ideal for strategies of brutal intimidation, such as the massacre at Bucha.

In my conversations with Wagner mercenaries, the first thing you learn is that not everyone is a Russian. They recruit from across the former Soviet empire, and while many share Putin’s dream of a resurgent Russia, some do not; they are in it for the money or adventure, just like mercenaries everywhere. Dmitry Utkin founded the Wagner Group in 2014, and its first contract was waging a secret war in Eastern Ukraine. Utkin is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Spetsnaz, the Russian special forces, and he recruits heavily from their ranks. No one really knows how many members there are, but one Wagner mercenary told me between 10,000 to 15,000 people have passed through their barracks over the years. The rank-and-file earn about $2,500 a month — good money for an ex-soldier.

Wagner is not a Russian-made GRU militia, as some have speculated. It’s 100 percent private sector and under an umbrella corporation called Concord, owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to Putin. Also under Concord is the Internet Research Agency (a.k.a, the “Troll Factory”), which works in tandem with the Wagner Group. The trolls manufacture thick disinformation to create the fog of war that the mercenaries slither through for victory. It’s a modern, combined-arms doctrine. The U.S. has levied sanctions on Prigozhin, Wagner Group, and the Internet Research Agency, but the sanctions deter nothing.

Nor is Wagner a cheap Hollywood villain. It’s a Tier-1 deadly force. In 2018, about 300 Wagner mercenaries went toe-to-toe against the U.S. military’s most elite, including Delta Force members and Green Berets, in eastern Syria. The battle lasted hours, ending in a stalemate. Finally, American air power came to the rescue, pummeling the mercenaries with AC-130 gunships, Apache helicopters and Predator drones. The U.S. killed more Russians that night than on any night during the Cold War. But the implications are harrowing. If Wagner can stand up to the most elite U.S. troops, imagine what they could do to the rest of the world. People in Bucha know, sadly.

As my Wagner Group contacts remind me, mercenaries are strictly forbidden under Russian law, yet the Kremlin hires them anyway, classifying them as a “private military company.” However, if Wagner personnel are caught talking to outsiders, the Russian government can arrest them as mercenaries, even though they hired them in the first place. It’s a very Russian solution for maintaining discipline.

Putin relies on the Wagner Group for at least two reasons. First, it provides excellent plausible deniability. In the information age, weapons that provide plausible deniability are more potent than raw firepower. Russia will disavow the Wagner Group if the pressure heats up around Bucha. It might even cut those mercenaries loose, proclaiming the individuals went rogue and are not a part of the Russian army, which is true. Wagner is not a part of Russia’s armed forces and does not care about the laws of armed conflict. It’s one of its chief selling points, and it lowers the barriers of entry into war.

Second, mercenaries disguise the true cost of war. Like most people, Russians hate seeing their soldiers come home in body bags. During the Soviet War in Afghanistan, mothers of dead soldiers galvanized into a rare anti-war protest movement across the USSR. Even the Kremlin took stock and formed the “Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia” by war’s end, which is not lost on Putin. Dead Russian soldiers can erode his domestic support unlike any number of sanctions. However, Russians don’t care about dead mercenaries. Using military contractors hides the true cost of blood, allowing Putin greater risk-taking in his war plans.

NATO needs to neutralize the Wagner Group. Think of it as rogue Spetsnaz forces peddling war crimes, false flag operations, and fifth column mayhem. However, you can’t simply smart bomb them to death. Rather, you need to make them unattractive to Moscow, so they go bankrupt and disappear. The best strategy is attacking your enemy’s strategy, advises Sun Tzu in “The Art of War.” If the Kremlin likes mercenaries because they afford plausible deniability, then let’s create “implausible deniability.” Our intelligence community should do a better job of tracking their every move and sharing that data with the world. Shining a light on Wagner’s operations gets them fired because they explicitly sell covert action. The Kremlin has no use for scandal and headlines.

Alternatively, if Russia insists there are no Wagner mercenaries in (fill in the blank), then who will miss them if they disappear? NATO has assets that can assist. Another stratagem is to fight them with market mechanisms. In conversations, some Wagner members are discontented with Moscow; they know they are cannon fodder in Moscow’s eyes, and they would rather work for a super-rich monarchy in the Middle East. 

Let’s help them find better employment, away from Moscow’s reach. Given the choice, many Wagner Group mercenaries would give up cold Ukraine to guard oil infrastructure in the Middle East for the same pay. The danger is lower, and they can bring their families. Cunning is usually a better strategy than brute force.

Sean McFate is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of five books, including “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win — Against Russia, China, and Other Threats.” He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Follow him on Twitter @seanmcfate.

Tags Mercenaries Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky Wagner Group War crimes

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