Yevgeny Prigozhin, a top Russian official who is also known as Putin’s chef, publicly admitted that he started the shadowy mercenary organization. He called the fighters “heroes.”
Prigozhin made these statements during a recruiting video targeted at Russian convicts to boost Russia’s force in Ukraine. He promised them freedom in exchange for six months of service. In 2014 he founded Wagner, the first and largest state-linked business of private military contractors operating in Ukraine, where they bolstered the ranks of Russia’s unmarked soldiers who annexed Crimea and stayed to support pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region.
According to several sources, Prigozhin’s operations are tightly integrated with Russia’s Defense Ministry and its intelligence arm, the GRU, the successor to the KGB. Prigozhin, his companies, and associates face various economic sanctions and criminal charges in the United States.
Wagner Group Purpose and Locations
This mercenary organization, which has a very disturbing logo, first took the field during the brief 2014 Ukrainian War. These mercenaries fought for Russian-affiliated “separatists” until the ruse quickly fell apart. Since then, Wagner Group fighters have popped up in various countries all over the globe, such as:
- Ukraine: The Wagner Group was part of another ill-fated separatist Ukrainian war in 2018. More recently, these mercenaries supported the full-scale 2022 Russian invasion. As soon as the fighting began, Wagner Group fighters reportedly tried to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Later, these men bore the brunt of the fighting. Six months later, according to some, as many as 4,000 of the 8,000 mercenaries in Ukraine were dead.
- Syria: Things were even worse for these mercenaries when, between 2016 and 2017, they arrived in the war-torn country to prop up Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. One Wagner Group fighter said the mercenaries were “cannon fodder” during several large offensives around 2018. The February 2018 Battle of Khasham may have been the biggest smackdown. As many as 200 Wagner Group fighters died, mostly in U.S. airstrikes that devastated pro-government forces.
- Central African Republic: A policy reversal at the United Nations, at about the same time France’s withdrawal created a power vacuum, and opened the door for the Wagner Group. Soon, around 1,400 mercenaries were boots-on-the-ground. An August 2018 Russo-CAR military cooperation agreement legitimized their presence. At the end of March 2021, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) claimed the Wagner Group was at least partially responsible for mass executions, arbitrary detentions, torture, forced displacement of civilians, and attacks on humanitarian workers. A year later, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) group asked the Special Criminal Court (SCC) and International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute Wagner Group for these alleged atrocities.
Wagner Group mercenaries are also in Sudan, Madagascar, Venezuela, Libya, Mali, and several other countries throughout the world, mostly in Africa.
Russia has not signed most international agreements which regulate the use of mercenaries. Therefore, the Wagner Group is basically above the law. Furthermore, since it is under the direct control of Vladimir Putin, the Wagner Group is essentially a private army.
Private Military Contractor Purpose and Locations
The United States has not signed mercenary control agreements either. That is primarily because American private military contractors are subject to U.S. law. For decades, the 1893 Anti-Pinkerton Act explicitly prohibited the employment of private military contractors. The government relaxed this restriction in the 1980s, and today, private military contractors may operate overseas if they agree to submit to U.S. law and they do not participate in any offensive operations. Such accountability or restrictions do not apply to Russian mercenaries.
Mercenaries and PMCs do have some things in common. For example, American PMCs serve, or have recently served, throughout the world, in places like:
- Iraq: Almost as soon as the American invasion began in 2003, private military contractors were an important part of the war effort. Flexibility is often key in places like Southwest Asia. It often takes about six months for a regular army unit to train and arrive in Iraq. Private military contractors, on the other hand, could be in the country and ready to go after just one phone call. Contractors served with distinction throughout this long war. The 2007 Nisour Square incident, while tragic for everyone, also proved that, unlike mercenaries. Contractors aren’t above the law.
- Afghanistan: Contractors made the costly war in Afghanistan a little less costly. When regular servicemembers end their deployments, the government’s financial commitment is just beginning. The DoD must reassign them elsewhere for the duration of their entitlements. When these enlistments end, the government is still responsible for injury compensation, pension, and other items. In contrast, the moment PMCs left Afghanistan, the government’s financial commitment ended.
- Syria: Contractors served basically two purposes in Syria. Politically, they helped various rebel groups work together and fight a common enemy in Nassar and his Kremlin allies. Militarily, contractors played an important combat support role, freeing regular servicemembers for other operations.
The similarities largely end there. Mercenary/PMC makeup is one example. Almost all mercenaries are ex-military or military washouts. Most PMCs are former law enforcement officers. Therefore, contractors are well-suited to assume duties like intelligence collection, security deterrence, and other responsibilities that regular servicemembers often see as a form of punishment.
Injury Compensation Available
This area is another major difference between PMCs and mercenaries. Injured mercenaries are pretty much on their own. Injured contractors can count on insurance benefits guaranteed by the Defense Base Act.
These benefits include medical bill payments. Usually, DBA insurance companies pay all reasonably necessary medical bills, such as:
- Transportation Costs: When contractors are hurt in remote overseas locales, the closest hospital is a lot more than a hop, skip, and jump away. In fact, the closest “hospital” is probably more like a first aid station. Extensive treatment requires long-distance medevac, often to another continent.
- Emergency Treatment: Treating serious injuries, like gunshot wounds, is nothing like treating an accidental fall injury. These victims usually require multiple surgeries, not to mention multiple follow-up medical visits. As most independent contractors know, high-paid PMCs usually do not have medical insurance. So, a DBA lawyer connects victims with doctors who charge nothing upfront for their services.
- Physical Therapy: Contractor injuries often include brain injuries. Brain injury physical therapy is nothing like broken leg physical therapy. Instead of strengthening muscles, brain injury therapists must train uninjured areas of the brain to assume lost functions. That is a long and laborious process.
Other DBA benefits include lost wage replacement. This important benefit gives families money to pay bills while the victim is unable to work.
For more information about the DBA process, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.