Privatizing War and Peace: The Private Military Contractors Beyond Prigozhin

Marios Pachidis, October 2023

Private Military Groups, also known as Private Military Contractors, play an integral part in modern warfare. PMCs gained recent prominence due to the Russian state funded Wagner Group, which mutinied against the Russian state. However, the substantial presence of PMCs in the international arena has been prominent since the end of the Cold War and is more complex and critical for the future of politics.

What are PMCs?

PMCs could be considered mercenaries since they act for private gain (the company’s profit) and are recruited locally or abroad to participate in conflicts (UN General Assembly, 1989, Faite, 2008; McFate, 2019). However, they are not precisely classified as mercenaries but are regarded as civilians, who lose their legal protection if they directly participate in international or non-international conflicts. Many of them were veterans of past wars continuing activities in the military industry, ex-convicts, and foreign fighters (McFate, 2019; Al Jazeera, 2021). In addition to PMC, terms like SMC (Security Military Company) and PMSC (Private military and security companies) are used to describe private firms and contractors that provide various services to the armies, functioning as back up forces, as risk management specialists, as advisors with multifaceted expertise, as protection for specific sites or cargo (McFate, 2019; El Mquirmi, 2022;, TRT World Research Centre, 2023 ). PMCs can provide “commonality, coherency, competency, and a unified command structure” and they are not the typical security firms as they are armed and participate in conflict zones (Fitzimons, 2015; El Mquirmi, 2022).

How Do PMCs function under International Law?

Private Military Contractors depend on the states to hire and utilize them. International Humanitarian Law in many cases does not directly reference PMCs in the UN International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, while the Montreux document on “Good practices for States related to operations of private military and security companies during armed conflict” provides the international legal obligations of the military companies as well as the states that contract them, but the text is non- binding. Consequently, the national regulatory framework and national interests is more important to determine the practices of PMCs (International Committee of the Red Cross, 2020; Rodio, 2021; UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries, 2023).

The Strategic Use of PMCs in Military Operations and the International Impact of this Strategy

Blackwater / Academi was a prominent USA backed contractor force in the “War of Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the British Association of Private Security Companies ensures that there can be cooperation between the UK government and PMCs such as Aegis Defense Services (Duggan, 2023). So, in these cases PMCs serve as mercenaries promoting state interests and thus serving as “proxy military companies” (El Mquirmi, 2022).  Russia implements this strategy, as the state doesn’t legally recognize PMCs but indirectly uses them to intervene in foreign conflicts (Marten, 2019). There are many reasons that lead states to hire PMCs, besides additional support to their armed forces. The training of the latter implies an important government spending as well as time to integrate the recruits, while the enlistment of the PMCs has their payment as the only prerequisite. When referring to UK or US PMCs, they are considered high quality and high expertise companies, while the Russian ones are considered cheaper in comparison to the Western ones (Sukhankin, 2019).

Some Private Contractors have been involved in serious controversies and scandals and have even committed war crimes. Members of the Blackwater private military company proceeded in scandals, with the most prominent being the one in Nisour Square, where 17 Iraqi civilians died and 20 were injured. Blackwater claimed in an unclear way that it was some form of defense against gunmen, while it also kept some cooperative activities with the CIA secret from the Congress (Ten Dam, 2009; Roberts, 2014; Al Marashi, 2023). CACI (California Analysis Center) has been put on trial in the past for their unethical conduct in the Abu Graib prisons in Iraq, a federal case yet to be settled, while the UK based G4S provided illegal security for Israeli settlements and prisons in the Westbank while also being involved in immigrant detention in the UK (The Center for Justice and Accountability, n.d.; Center for Constitutional Rights, 2023; TRT World Research Centre, 2023).

PMCs and UN Peacekeeping

The Russian Wagner Group serve as a PMC closely connected and controlled by the state, funded by it primarily promoting its interests through “shadow” warfare (Marten, 2019; McFate, 2019; Council of the European Union Analysis and Research Team, 2023). has participated in wars in Syria, Libya, Africa, and Ukraine violating international law and killing innocent civilians (Ramani, 2023; Pieper, 2023; Saurer, 2023; Tondo et al, 2022; Wintour, 2022; Townsend, 2022; Marten, 2019).  The case of Wagner showcases the pressure of a non-state actor against the state, attacking foreign minister Shoigu of incompetence, due to the PMCs lack of men and ammunition after the battle in Bakhmut as well as the alleged attack on Wagner members by the military (Murphy, 2023). When Prighozin began his rebellion and advanced to the Kremlin, he gained the support of a percentage of the Russian People (Carll and Park, 2023).  The mutiny, however, ended with the Wagner leader fleeing to Belarus after a brokered deal with the state, was characterized by the US foreign minister A. Blinken as a part of the “cracks of the Russian state”. Wagner, however, after their leader’s death, continue to be proxies of Russia in foreign conflicts, such as Mali, in the unconventional warfare and the war in Ukraine (Pepier, 2023; Lowry, 2023).

PMCs and Military in the Post-Covid Era

In the post Covid Era, the traditional military recruitment of many forms was reduced. Some experts blamed the political aspirations of the to-be recruits, the disbelief in the effectiveness of the army, as well as the belief of inner structural problems in the militaries (Barno and Bensahel, 2023; Spochr, 2023).  It is also important to note that it is believed that other forms of warfare are soon going to become the norm, especially unconventional warfare and even cyberwarfare, in which many PMCs have expertise in. The notion that a low percentage of people are enlisted and that a small amount of the annual GDP is provided for the military also highlights this problem, as the US is considered the strongest nation in military force and the biggest contributor in worldwide military spending (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, n.d.; Global Firepower Index, 2023; Statista, 2022). Some argue that the low interest in the military could lead to the increased enlistment of PMCs, while others already approach foreign fighters (Ruz, 2023). The possible dependence of the state by PMCs could have significant effects if used by the private contractors to their advantage (Al Jazeera, 2021). The further use of the contractors and the lesser use of state militaries could mean the diminishment of state sovereignty as well as the sense of patriotism in the military. (McFate, 2019; Council of the European Union Analysis and Research Team, 2023).

In conclusion, the presence of PMCs in international security issues is multifaceted and complex. For the international organizations, here are many advantages to using private contractors as a peacekeeping force, but the private companies hired by private clients or states could possibly put their private interests as a priority and use their expertise as leverage. It is ambiguous whether the PMCs will play a more important role than the traditionally structured military in the future of geopolitics. Could they provide for the solutions of international or non-international conflicts, be a tool for developed states to continue practicing their political influence across world conflicts or they could function as a non- state actor that has active interests in their continuation?


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