Mercenaries and Soldiers of Fortune in the Russian-Ukraine War

With the Ukraine-Russian War, it is apparent that Russia lacks the military capabilities to effectively wage war. Russia has proven themselves to be inept at developing solid sustainment lines, maintaining aerial superiority in addition to having immense corruption which has damaged troop advancement and overall morale.

Partly due to this and given how effective this practice has been in the past, Russia and Putin have been turning towards the use of mercenaries and private military companies (PMCs) to assist in their foreign geopolitical goals and in Ukraine.

 Mercenaries and Ukraine

The use of private military companies, mercenaries and soldiers of fortune as they are known, has been a key aspect of Russian foreign and military policy in recent years. Largely, this has come through with The Wagner Group supplying these forces.

On 10 March, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense reported that Russia had “plans to transfer up to a thousand militants from the private military company “League”, formerly Wagner, to Kyiv”. Previously, on 28 February, “more than 400 mercenaries belonging to Russia’s Wagner Group have been sent to Kyiv to assassinate Volodymyr Zelensky”; for years prior to the major conflict, “Ukraine has accused the private military organisation, which appears to have close ties to the Kremlin, of fighting in Luhansk and Donetsk, the disputed parts of eastern Ukraine”.

The Wagner Group itself has a long history of cooperation with the Russian state and with Putin. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Wagner Group most likely officially developed sometime after early 2012 (most likely 2014) “when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin [when asked about the creation of a network of Russian PMCs to assist in geopolitical goals]…replied positively and emphasized that PMCs could be tools of influence abroad, allowing the realization of national interests without the direct involvement of the state”.

It appears that the group was created by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch “known as Putin’s chef because of a lucrative catering business that satiated Putin’s tastes” who has been indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for “his role in running a so-called troll factory on behalf of the Russian Federation’s Internet Research Agency (IRA)… [which] were designed to influence the 2018 U.S. mid-term elections and, for that, he was also sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury”. The organization is also commanded by a man named Dimitry Utkin, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Glavnoje upravlenije General’nyy shtab (GRU), the Russian military’s main foreign intelligence service, a soldier who served in the Chechen Wars. Most notable about Utkin is that he is a staunch Neo-Nazi, having been given the nickname “Vagner” during his time in the GRU for his “affection for “the attributes and ideology” of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime”. The fact that many Wagner Group operators have been seen working with and supporting white supremacist and other Neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine is now not completely surprising.

While some have claimed the Wagner Group is not allied to the Russian government, the fact that call logs between Utkin and senior GRU officers detailing operations in foreign locations, the issue of shared bases between Wagner and the GRU, the fact that some deceased mercenaries have been found with GRU-issued passports, and the use of transport sea, land, and aircraft registered to Russia’s Ministry of Defense is some of the strongest evidence pointing to an official relationship. Take into account the personal associations of senior leadership to Putin and other circumstantial evidence, it is apparent that the Wagner Group serves as a pseudo official arm of Russian military and foreign policy.

Simultaneously, on the opposite side, private military companies have been recruiting for positions in Ukraine, positions that involve “[removing] people from Ukraine” with various firms working “with private clients, corporations and PIPs – politically exposed people – to help evacuate them from Ukraine”. However, most of these large corporations working alongside the Ukrainians in the nation (e.g., Mosaic, Silent Professionals) are careful to become involved directly in the conflict in Ukraine; according to Chris Mayer, a retired Colonel with the United States Army who serves as the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Director of Armed Contingency Contractor Policies and Programs, “Western contractors are governed by the laws and regulations of their own countries…They are supposed to protect people, places or assets, rather than engage in direct combat”.

Many of these organizations, regardless of their geopolitical alliance to internationally known “good” or “bad” nation-states are already under intense criticism from the media, the broad public, and international legal and human rights organizations and have a strong desire to not attract negative publicity. As such, with organizations like Mosaic and Silent Professionals, they will strive not to become involved in any activity that may result in a negative international reaction. The same cannot be said of the Wagner Group however.

Not only this, but there have been many reports that Wagner Group mercenaries have been active in other parts of the globe, from Africa to Eurasia to Europe. Some journalists and military experts are even warning that these mercenaries currently in place at Africa or Eurasia will be moved from these locations to Ukraine to assist in Russia’s invasion.

Foreign Volunteers

Foreign volunteers have become an interesting development in the context of the Ukraine crisis. Throughout military history, foreign volunteers have been active in many conflicts; young, mostly male, persons have always wanted to prove themselves on the battlefield and, when their nation has failed in their eyes to take a more active, direct stance, they have joined with a foreign nation-state’s military that aligns with their goals.

Many foreign volunteers from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other nations from around the globe have joined alongside the Ukrainians in defending their freedom and government, working tirelessly against Russian troops and protecting Ukrainian civilians. Yet, with this, Russia has also begun recruiting foreign volunteers to fight in Ukraine.

On 07 March, the DoD announced “We find that noteworthy that [Russian President Vladimir Putin] believes that he needs to rely on foreign fighters to supplement what is a very significant commitment of combat power inside Ukraine as it is” with the DoD’s spokesman “noting that Putin has now committed nearly 100% of his combat power into Ukraine, which had been amassed along the border at the start of the war”.

On 11 March, President Putin “threw his support behind a plan to recruit what he characterised as eager foreign volunteer fighters to join his forces in Ukraine”. While he did not identify where these foreign volunteers would come from, some Syrian news outlets have identified Russia as trying to recruit Syrians “seeking volunteers to act as guards on six-month contracts, for between $200 and $300 a month” with the Wagner Group even “equipping its Syrian operatives, who had served in the Libyan war on the side of the general, Khalifa Haftar, to transfer to Ukraine”. The Wall Street Journal, quoting multiple senior U.S. officials, seemingly confirmed this information.

The BBC, speaking to a currently serving mercenary, also reported that Russia, in their desire to gain additional combat and combat support units were “recruiting anyone and everyone” and “being placed in units under the command of officers from the GRU”.


The Russian government is clearly in dire straits. They are relying upon foreign volunteers and mercenaries to fight their wars, indicating an inability with their standard military forces to wage war. The usage of mercenaries in these conflict will surely cause more human rights violations and war crimes, something that the Wagner Group is exceedingly efficient in. The Russian government, however, will care little about war crimes, given their ultimate goal is total domination of Ukraine, even if it must stand upon a pile of ashes.

Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham is a graduate of Norwich University's Master of Arts in International Relations program. He is currently working as an AP U.S. History Teacher in San Antonio, but intends to join the U.S. Navy as an Officer in the Summer of 2022. He has been accepted to a PhD in History program with the University of Birmingham in the UK. He has been published in the Jurist, the U.S. Army War College's War Room, Security Magazine, and the Asia-Pacific Security Magazine, in addition to many others.