The Next Wagner Group

The Next Wagner Group?

Convoy, a private military company in Crimea with connections to the Cossacks, serves the interests of its Russian-appointed governor, Sergey Aksyonov. 

A former Convoy fighter said that while he was with the group, he earned almost 200,000 rubles (around $2,588) a month, and commanders earned 300,000 rubles ($3,882). In March 2023, the Russian state-owned television network Crimea 24 aired reporting about a professional military unit formed by the governor of annexed Crimea, Aksyonov. That report said Aksyonov regularly visits “the unit’s positions at the front.” Not long before it aired, Convoy’s Telegram channel ran a video clip showing Aksyonov inspecting Convoy positions.

In February 2023, Olga Kurlayeva, an employee of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), visited Convoy positions. Her report called the paramilitary group an “assault-intelligence unit.” The propagandist enthused about Convoy’s dugout, saying, “I’ve never seen such a fortification: a whole apartment building underground. Their equipment is brand new, they’re armed to the teeth.”

The Cossacks and the Crimea

For thousands of years, the Cossacks, a semi-nomadic people who lived mostly in the Caspian Sea basin of southern Russia, were noteworthy for their strong Christian ideas, commitment to democracy, and cavalry skills. The first two qualities did not endear them to many Eastern European rules, but the third quality was quite appealing. The Russians tolerated the first two qualities so they could exploit the third one.

The Russian Revolution in 1917 turned a lot of things upside-down, including Cossack society. 

Soviet leaders almost immediately declared that the Cossacks were enemies of the state. The Bolsheviks embarked on a genocidal policy of “de-Cossackization,” intended to end the Cossack threat to the Soviet regime.

These efforts largely failed, as the independent-minded Cossacks were not willing to go gently into that good night. So, in the mid-1930s, the Soviets reversed course, stopped the de-Cossackization campaign, and even allowed Cossacks to serve in the Red Army.

As a result, most Cossacks fought for the Soviets during World War II. The Cossacks who eschewed communism and left Russia and found a home with other armies in the world, including the Germans and Japanese.

At the end of the war, a large group of Russian Cossacks went to Austria and surrendered to the British. Supposedly, the Brits promised not to repatriate these Cossacks, but they did so anyway, probably under the terms of the Yalta Conference agreement. No one is sure what happened to these individuals.

Many Cossacks lived in the Crimean Peninsula. Like the Cossacks, Crimea is divided. Historically, it is the gray areas between civilized Europe and the nomadic steppes.

Like many other borderlands, Crimea has changed hands many times over the years. After the Soviet Union broke up, Crimea became part of Ukraine. 

In 2014, Crimea saw intense demonstrations against the removal of the Russia-leaning Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in Kyiv. Protests culminated in Russian forces occupying strategic points in Crimea. The Russian-organized Republic of Crimea declared independence from Ukraine following an illegal and internationally unrecognized referendum supporting reunification. Russia then claimed to have annexed Crimea, although most countries still recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine.

Contractors vs. Mercenaries

Cossacks change sides, and Crimea changes hands. Mercenaries are also free to switch sides. That’s probably the biggest difference between a mercenary and a contractor. Mercenaries care nothing about political causes and fight only for money. 

The German Hessians who fought for the British during the Revolutionary War probably could not speak English or find America on a map. But they could fight hard and cash their checks.

Private military contractors fight primarily for money but not exclusively for it. Contractors when served in Afghanistan would not have switched sides and fought for the Taliban if the Taliban had offered them more money.

Furthermore, mercenary employers have total control over mercenary activities. These fighters serve wherever their bosses want them to serve. This relationship often causes problems. If mercenaries commit war crimes, they can easily make the “I was just following orders” argument that so many Nazis made after World War II.

In contrast, U.S. law limits contractors to defensive operations, like stationing checkpoints, escorting supply convoys, and verifying identification badges.

In fact, for much of American history, contractors couldn’t even do these things. They could only be mechanics, trainers, and flight crew members and serve in other such support capacities. These individuals could pick up a rifle to defend themselves, but that was about it. For about a century, the Anti-Pinkerton Act forbade any government agency from employing any professional private military force for any purpose. 

Furthermore, contractors are subject to U.S. law. They are individually responsible for their conduct or misconduct. They cannot pass the buck to their commanders in the Defense Department, State Department, or other government agencies.

Because of all these differences between mercenaries and contractors, the United States has not signed international mercenary limitation accords. There is no reason to accept international oversight in this area. Russia and a few other countries haven’t signed them either, but that is because they do not want anyone asking questions.

Injury Compensation Available

The differences between these two groups continue. If mercenaries get hurt overseas, they are generally on their own. Military supervisors gladly tell them what to do, but they are not interested in their medical and financial welfare.

The Defense Base Act applies to American private military contractors who are injured overseas. That injury could be:

  • Trauma Injury: Combat injuries get most of the headlines back home. Routine injuries, like training accidents and falls, are much more common. DBA benefits apply to all kinds of trauma injuries as long as a Defense Base Act lawyer establishes a nexus (direct or indirect connection) between the injury and the deployment.
  • Occupational Disease: We mentioned Afghanistan above. The open-air waste disposal pits, or burn pits, in Afghanistan caused many long-term health problems since burn pit smoke is incredibly toxic. The Veterans Administration only recently agreed to give these injured veterans disability benefits. But the Department of Labor, which administers the Defense Base Act, extended benefits to private military contractors several years ago.

Both trauma injuries and occupational diseases often cause alarmingly high medical bills. The DBA pays all reasonably necessary medical expenses. It also replaces lost wages, so these families feel less financial stress.

For more specific information about DBA benefits, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.