Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Zelensky called for foreign volunteers to join the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine. Last Spring, Ukrainian officials claimed that there were 20,000 volunteers from 50 countries. A more recent report puts the number at 1,000 to 3,000 foreign fighters.
Some countries have laws against their citizens joining a foreign military but seem to be looking the other way. Some of the volunteers just wanted Instagram photos and bragging rights. They were not particularly useful to Ukraine and have since left. Others were hardened combat veterans of their own country’s army, who found combat more appealing than returning home to a job.
Many of those have remained and been integrated into Ukrainian military units. An estimated 100 have been killed, and 1,000 wounded.
Whether the foreign fighters are violating the laws of their home country or not, they were invited and have been welcomed in Ukraine. And their presence does not represent a war crime or a crime against humanity. The same cannot be said of Russia’s paid mercenaries, the Wagner Group, who operate with impunity, raping, and killing as they please.
Russia’s ghost army
The Wagner Group is a Kremlin-backed, private military and security company (PMSC) which has already been designated a Transnational Criminal Organization by the United States and is poised to be recognized as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by both the EU and the US.
The Wagner Group is actively fighting in Ukraine but is also fighting or has fought in Syria, Libya, Sudan, Crimea, Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique, and Mali. The group has repeatedly been accused of human rights abuses. Consequently, the European Parliament has urged the European Council to place Wagner on the terrorist list. The US has officially designated Wagner as an international crime organization, sanctioning the group and its owner Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Meanwhile, the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act, bipartisan legislation has already been submitted to congress, urging the Secretary of State to designate the Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
There are a number of reasons why countries use private military and security companies.
The first is anonymity. Having a PMSC engage in violence gives a government plausible deniability. This would allow it to strike militarily at another country without sending in its military. Next, the PMSC can carry out operations which would be unpopular at home. Third, it is cheaper to hire PMSC than to expand a government’s military. And finally, a PMSC could be a local proxy army, which would be better received by local people and which would better understand the local context.
In the case of Ukraine, however, Russia has overtly invaded Ukraine, so the Wagner Group is not being used as a cover for Russian military aggression. Next, the Kremlin really has no plausible deniability, since the entire world is aware of the fact that Wagner is working directly for the Russian government. On December 22, Vladimir Putin announced plans to increase the size of the army by 30 percent. Therefore, utilizing Wagner is not keeping his defence budget down.
The US and other Western nations have also relied on PMSCs from time to time, notably Blackwater, but their role is generally one of intelligence gathering and of training. Wagner, however, is engaging in active combat. Wagner was used to support General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) failed attempt to capture Tripoli in 2019. Its employees fought in Sub-Saharan Africa and supported President Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. In the Central African Republic and Mozambique, they also engaged in active combat.
Of the 50,000 Wagner fighters currently active in Ukraine, 40,000 are convicts released from prison. An investigation into Wagner has discovered that it is not a single corporate entity, so much as a network of PMSC. The group recruits former members of terrorist groups, such as former Islamic State’s affiliates, as well as members of right-wing extremist groups.
Human rights groups have observed that violence against civilians, including indiscriminate killings, experiences a severe uptick in areas where Wagner operates. The group has been accused of crimes ranging from murder, threatening journalists, kidnapping children, utilizing nerve agents against civilians, torture, rape, and sex trafficking of women and children. Since the group always acts in the interest of the Kremlin, it should be considered a state-sponsored terrorist organization.
Wagner as a terrorist organization
Terrorist organisations have names and personalities, just like people. And the members share a group identity which is expressed in both language and violence, with the members accepting and adopting certain commonalities in self-perception as well as perception of the group. Terrorist groups can be defined across a number of dimensions: self-perception, ideology, funding, goals, strategy, tactics, targets, and recruitment.
The Wagner members see themselves within a mythic context. They are “ghost warriors” on far-flung battlefields fighting for Russia; they see traitors and opponents as less than human and deserving of death. This was made evident when a video was released, titled “The Hammer Of Revenge”, which depicted a Russian defector being executed with a sledge hammer.
The overarching ideology of the Wagner group is the Primakov Doctrine. Formulated in the 1990s, it says that the Russian Federation cannot survive in a unipolar international order led by the United States and thus must rely on its superpower status to oppose US hegemony. Even more, Russia must strive for primacy in the post-Soviet world order. To this end, Wagner carries out directives of the Kremlin, supported by a global network of Russian firms which have close ties to the government.
In the end, the group’s ideology and purpose are to expand, protect and ensure the success of the foreign policy objectives of the Russian Federation.
Wagner is funded primarily by state-owned entities and entities close to the government of the Russian Federation. Among the group’s most important goals are opposition to US hegemony, preservation of the Russian Federation, projection of state power, extension of the Kremlin’s influence, and establishing the primacy of the Russian Federation — while avoiding nuclear war or a direct military conflict between the Russian armed forces and those of another nation.
Part of the Kremlin’s strategy of hybrid warfare, Wagner utilizes violence in a military context to project Russian state power. And while nuclear weapons are seen by Putin and his adherents as primary tools of self-preservation and power projection, the Wagner group is dedicated to supporting Russia’s foreign policy objectives, projecting state power, without Russia risking being forced into a war or into a nuclear exchange.
The Gerasimov doctrine of the Russian Federation endorses “whole-of-government warfare, fusion of elements of hard and soft power across various domains, permanent conflict transcending the boundaries between peace and war.”
To this end, the group engages in everything from frontline combat to information wars, disinformation propaganda, intimidation, and proxies. Wagner also links with proxy armies in foreign wars, including pro-Kremlin forces in Ukraine and armies sympathetic to Russian forces in Sudan and Syria. This greatly multiplies the group’s effectiveness.
Members are actively recruited from prison and from the military reserve. Experienced special operations veterans who lost their jobs as a result of post-Soviet military downsizing also work for Wagner. This includes members and former members of state security apparatus such as the FSB (Federal Security Service), the equivalent of the CIA and FBI; the GRU, which controls the military intelligence service and maintains its own special forces units; and the VDV (Soviet Airborne Forces). This sets the group very close to Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer.
Apart from military targets, Wagner also kills people who stand in the way of Moscow’s policy objectives. The group has been known to target civilians, as well as journalists, activists and political figures who challenge the Kremlin. At the very least, Wagner is guilty of human rights violations and war crimes, but its actions could also be classified as terrorism.
If US and EU lawmakers follow through with their intention to designate Wagner as a terrorist organization, then the Russian Federation will be guilty of state-sponsored terrorism. This should result in even more stringent sanctions against Russia and should serve as a legal deterrent to nations that are benefiting from bypassing existing sanctions and trading with Russia.
Currently, India, China, and Turkey purchase Russian oil at a discount, as Europe and other countries have either banned Russian oil or have set a below-market price cap. If American and European officials designate Russia as an official sponsor of terror, countries trading with Russia will be risking secondary sanctions. This could squeeze Russia’s income, making it impossible for Moscow to keep funding its war. At the same time, it would force India and other countries to choose whether to be in the Western or in the Russian camp.