Just a few years ago, the prospect of a mercenary chief seriously challenging the leader of a major power in the 21st century would have seemed utterly ridiculous. For about four centuries, professional armies have dominated modern battlefields, with mercenaries increasingly relegated to a supplementary role. When the Wagner Group took on heavy conventional fighting in the Ukraine War, it struck many commentators as something out of the ordinary. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s apparent challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated on Friday evening came as even more of a shock.
Of course, mercenaries never really went away; they fought sporadically across Africa in the 20th century and resurfaced in Iraq and Afghanistan euphemistically as ‘private military contractors’ in the mid-2000s. Nevertheless, their role in contemporary conflict and politics has largely been ignored by scholars. Recent events in Russia, however, suggest that it is time to peer back at history and learn from those who dealt with mercenaries when they were at their most ubiquitous.
The exact nature of Prigozhin’s actions remain unclear as do his ultimate objectives. Was he seeking to unravel the power of President Putin or was his aim to weaken and decapitate the regular Russian military heads, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and armed forces chief Valery Gerasimov, with whom he has had a longstanding feud? The Wagner chief insisted that ‘This is no military coup. This is a justice march.’ However, it is difficult to fathom that Wagner’s abandonment of the Ukrainian battlespace and occupation of Rostov-on-Don, where Russia’s command centre for the war in Ukraine is housed, would be perceived as anything other than an open rebellion by Putin and his Kremlin insiders. Moreover, Wagner reportedly ‘shot down seven Russian aircraft and killed 13 airmen’ from the regular Russian forces as they advanced within 200km of Moscow.
Putin addressed the coup by publicly vowing to punish those behind an ‘armed uprising,’ calling it a ‘stab in the back of our country and our people.’ However, the crisis was averted not by armed force, but by a deal brokered by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. Wagner ceased its march on Moscow and Prigozhin will be exiled to Belarus. Putin has since said that Wagner mutineers can join the Russian military or accompany their boss in Belarus. Although the current crisis appears to be over, with Putin’s unquestionable authority no longer quite so unquestionable, it remains to be seen how long the internal Russian security situation will remain stable.
Prigozhin’s short-lived act of rebellion brings to mind old stereotypes about mercenaries. Isocrates (436–338 BC), the ancient Greek rhetorician, denounced mercenaries as ‘the common enemies of mankind.’ Aristotle (384–322 BC), who acknowledged a place for hired swords nevertheless preferred citizen soldiers and deemed mercenaries to be unreliable.
The most famous scholarly denunciation of mercenaries was expressed by the vaunted Renaissance military and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) who wrote that mercenaries are ‘useless and dangerous.’ Machiavelli had good reason to distrust mercenaries. Between 1498 and 1506, Machiavelli helped shape Florence’s military strategy against Pisa. However, ten mercenary captains in Florence’s service defected to Pisa, causing a major embarrassment and military setback for the Florentines. In his seminal work, The Prince, Machiavelli advised ‘If a prince bases the defence of his state on mercenaries he will never achieve stability or security. For mercenaries are disunited, thirsty for power, undisciplined, and disloyal’.
Indeed, Prigozhin’s apparent disloyalty would appear to vindicate Machiavelli’s assessment. Putin’s use of Wagner mercenaries has sown the seeds of disunity within the Russian war effort. Prigozhin has largely been allowed to operate independently of the Russian high command, with this independence culminating in an ostentatious display of insubordination which has left the Russian president exposed and humiliated. Not only are Russia’s strategic prospects against Ukraine diminished, but Putin’s long-term political survival has been made questionable.
It would be easy to wholeheartedly agree with Machiavelli and conclude that the employment of mercenaries is always ill-advised, but this would be a disingenuous argument, even if the ongoing Wagner situation is a strong case in point. Whilst historical precedent for mercenaries turning against their paymasters does exist in abundance, the successful use of mercenaries as an effective means for strategic ends is also present in the historical record. For example, a large proportion of William the Conqueror’s army which succeeded in subjugating England in 1066 was comprised of mercenaries. Similarly, the English mercenary captain John Hawkwood’s martial services to Florence in the 14th century were so valued, that his fresco portrait can still be seen in the city’s famous Duomo. In the book Goliath, national security expert Sean McFate points to more recent examples where the employment of mercenaries has been successful, such as the operations by private military contractors in Nigeria against Boko Haram. Thus, it cannot be taken as an absolute that mercenaries will prove ruinous to their clients, despite their contemporary reputation.
If we conclude that Machiavelli’s warning about mercenaries should be heeded but not taken as an absolute, this raises another question: is Putin an inept customer? The Kremlin’s past usage of mercenaries has been quite astute. The employment of contractors from Wagner and other Russian groups in the Middle East and Africa has enabled Russia to strengthen security ties with various state and non-state actors without the messiness associated with sending contingents of the Russian military. Although the presence of Wagner mercenaries is quite clearly directed by the Russian government in these instances, the use of mercenaries does at least afford the Kremlin a degree of plausible deniability.
Moreover, there is far less potential domestic blowback if mercenaries come back home in body bags than if Russian soldiers do. These same advantages applied to the use of mercenaries by Russia in Ukraine after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Plausible deniability and limited domestic attention were benefits for as long as the conflict remained in a hybrid state. However, since the Russian invasion in February last year, the use of mercenaries in conventional battle has been more questionable.
By turning to another figure from the past we may assess Putin’s usage of mercenaries. Unlike Machiavelli, Maurice, Prince of Orange (1567-1625) was an accomplished military commander and successfully used mercenaries to defeat his adversaries. Due to economic and social constraints, Maurice was forced to rely on mercenaries more than his European counterparts. To overcome the questionable loyalty of his mercenaries, Maurice ensured that they were ‘well-chosen, well-fed, and well-paid.’
So how does Putin’s employment of Wagner compare to Maurice’s criteria for ensuring the loyalty of mercenaries? With the majority of Wagner fighters now believed to be Russian prison convicts, they are certainly not ‘well-chosen.’ Many are men of demonstrably poor character with little or no military experience. Of the estimated 50,000 Wagner mercenaries active in Ukraine, about 40,000 of them are thought to be ex-prisoners. Moreover, to bolster numbers, last year, Prigozhin resorted to recruiting personnel suffering from serious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C, according to the British Ministry of Defence. Wagner is no longer the relatively elite fighting force it was prior to the Ukraine War.
If we take ‘well-fed’ to refer broadly to logistics, here there are also problems. For months, Prigozhin has publicly bemoaned a lack of ammunition and supplies, particularly around Bakhmut. Prigozhin clearly had his own political motives for these complaints, but they do hint at logistical issues. Investigative journalism confirms that Wagner has been struggling to obtain adequate supplies. ‘They are in a serious logistics chain crisis,’ one anonymous source told Middle East Eye. ‘The logistics problems in Wagner kill more Russian fighters than the Ukrainians themselves,’ another source said. Evidently, these logistical issues have degraded Wagner’s warfighting capabilities and worsened the morale of the men, who may have been all too eager to abandon the Ukrainian frontlines in favour of a march on Moscow.
Finally, there is the issue of pay, where Wagner does appear to have met Maurice’s criteria, with Wagner fighters generally receiving better pay than regular Russian soldiers, at least until the group broadened recruitment. However, who do the contractors view as their paymaster, Putin or Prigozhin? Loyalty can be bought, but ‘by whom’ is the question.
Ultimately, Putin’s most severe mistake was to employ such a large mercenary army from a single source. Wagner is estimated to have 50,000 mercenaries active in Ukraine. Although this number is dwarfed by the regular Russian army, it is far too great a number to entrust to an induvial like Prigozhin who may harbour his own political ambitions. It would have been preferable from Putin’s point of view to hire mercenaries from a more diverse range of providers, so that if one of the commanders proved disloyal, the resulting fallout would be far less threatening. As most authoritarian leaders realize, it is not wise to allow a subordinate to acquire too much power, lest they challenge you for the top spot.