Committee says government ignored rise of Wagner, yet UK remains mercenary hub

Wagner mercs
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A Russian mercenary outfit rose to prominence on the UK government’s watch, a new committee report claims. They aren’t wrong. But regardless of the Wagner Group‘s crimes and influence, the UK itself remains a global hub for mercenary activity.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee published the hard-hitting report on Wednesday 26 July. Titled ‘Guns for gold: The Wagner Network exposed’, the report examines the mercenary group’s global operations.

The authors warned that while the Putin-linked group is primarily understood through its role in Ukraine, it operates far outside Europe.

They said:

Wagner’s activities in Ukraine are not representative of the network’s operations globally.

Global guns for hire

Wagner’s operations are varied. And its roles can include military and non-military operations. The report also points out it is a complex entity with a range of affiliates and attributes:

The network’s military operations can be mapped in at least seven countries (Ukraine; Syria; the Central African Republic; Sudan; Libya; Mozambique; and Mali), with medium or high confidence that the network has been involved in a non-military capacity in 10 further countries since 2014.

Read on...

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While not every operation is at the direction of the Russian state, the network’s aims usually align to some degree with Russian interests:

Even when the Wagner Network has not acted as a direct proxy of the Russian Government, the Kremlin is likely to have benefited from its presence.

And while Wagner has a mixed track record, the costs are usually the same:

…atrocities, corruption and the plunder of natural resources.

Late to the party

The report claimed that the UK has tried to counter Wagner by supporting Ukraine. But this is not enough, given the group’s geographical spread:

It is deeply regrettable that it was not until early 2022 that the Government began to invest greater resource in understanding the Wagner Network, despite Wagner fighters having already conducted military operations in at least seven countries for almost a decade.

But there is another side to the mercenary debate. Certainly Wagner is a brutal operation, linked with atrocities around the world. So brutal and powerful, in fact, that it recently attempted to challenge the Russian state itself through a coup.

But the UK’s own vast, multi-billion pound mercenary industry has been thriving unchecked not for ten years, but since the Iraq War.

The UK Wagner?

While opaque and unaccountable, there have been attempts to expose the UK private military industry. Perhaps the most important report was published by the charity War on Want in 2016.

It found:

Private military and security companies (PMSCs) burst onto the scene 15 years ago, following the declaration of a ‘war on terror’ and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

And the firms quickly turned a tidy profit:

This vast private industry, now worth hundreds of billions of dollars, is dominated by UK companies reaping enormous profits from exploiting war, instability and conflict around the world.

War on Want called for a ban on mercenary firms – one which so far has not been enacted.

Whoever can pay

A later 2018 report into the industry showed it was still raking in cash for violence with minimal oversight.

As that Open Democracy investigation had it:

Many of these companies will serve whoever can pay – from wealthy private individuals to faceless corporations. It is easy for them to do so.

They added:

Despite the size of this mercenary industry, the entire sector is marked by secrecy. Men trained in the arts of subterfuge and counter-intelligence dominate this sphere, and the result is an industry that operates from the shadows.

Secretive elite gunmen

The UK mercenary industry involves a great number of shadowy people. But it has long centred on former soldiers from British special forces units. And the home of the SAS, the sleepy town of Hereford, is also a hub for for-profit military activity.

As journalist Matt Kennard reported in 2017:

The business model involves providing “soldiers for hire” to companies and governments around the world, to protect assets and important people from criminals and terrorists (and sometimes dissidents).

He added:

It is a multibillion dollar industry operating in virtually every country in the world

While warfare was, for many years, the sole preserve of states, the neoliberal model of privatisation has been extended to the provision of deadly violence. With obvious results.

Double standards?

Certainly, there is an argument the Wagner Group should be proscribed. But not for the first time, the UK finds itself in a position where it cannot finger-point and moralise. Given the UK is home to its own private military industry, which is also unregulated, it is very hard for the UK government to criticise other states for theirs.

That the same military industry is built on the expertise of its own elite troops, and within shouting distance of its own major special forces base, makes the government’s position even more untenable.

A ban on global mercenary firms would be sensible and prescient. But that must include our own killers-for-hire, as well as those of foreign powers.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/2s3m akatsiya, cropped to 1910 x 1000, licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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