Even with war abundantly in the news, we still often fall prey to viewing conflict in terms of nation-states as primary actors. But private contractors like the Wagner Group have different motives for perpetual global instability. Any path to peace that doesn't involve reckoning with modern mercenaries will fail.
One bad war easily gives way to others. In recent leaks of US espionage, one name figured highly: the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary outfit that has been contracting work in conflict zones for the last few years, and which is a key presence in Russian operations in Ukraine. The concern in US espionage documents was that Wagner was soliciting work in Haiti, which would bring its operatives closer to the US than ever. But its presence in African conflict zones is also of pressing concern, especially in the case of Sudan, where civil war broke out again this month: a humanitarian nightmare for civilians trapped where aid cannot easily reach.
However, the way in which war is usually reported lends significant priority to nation-state actors, and not enough to the mercenary forces that have private, highly profit-driven motives for seeing global instability deepen. We are not living in an age of purely civic armies waging war with other purely civic armies, and that matters deeply when understanding the pressure points impeding our path to any more sustainable peace.
One critical component of global instability is, of course, proxy wars advanced by national governments through arms and coups. Russia, China, the UK, the UAE, and the US (among others) all have their roles to play in “backing” specific groups in conflict zones throughout South America, Africa, the Middle East, and South and East Asia. But when acts of distribution and infiltration are contracted out to private third parties, a very different picture of the actors in need of greater international oversight begins to emerge.
Do we have anywhere near what it takes to grapple internationally with the rampant spread of corporate military enterprise?
Civil war in Sudan
To be clear, the civil war unfolding in Sudan is an active trauma that merits our attention irrespective of the complex international factors it also reveals. Sudan is the sixteenth largest country in the world, and home to 45.7 million human beings. Bordering the Red Sea in Northeast Africa, it used to be the largest country on the continent before South Sudan seceded in 2011: in part in the fallout of the Darfur genocide, and sadly giving way to its own civil war, which saw 400,000 murdered up to 2020, and 4 million displaced internally and into Uganda and Sudan.
Suffice it to say, the region, which also suffers from desertification and will continue to be hit hard by climate change, has not had an easy modern era.
On April 15, violence broke out between two generals in Khartoum, a city of 1.4 million where two rivers merge to form the mouth of the Nile. This past week, reports emerged of at least 400 deaths, with thousands more injured, as fighting spreads to its twin city of Omdurman and surrounding regions. Early reports highlighted significant NGO helplessness to intervene on behalf of citizens trapped between the army of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Daglo.
Also of pressing concern is that this fighting has already reached every border of a country with decades of war trauma. International observers have expressed credible fear of this conflict rapidly gaining cross-border components in Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Ethiopia (the last of which only recently moved into a peace period after a brutal civil war around Tigray). There are two facets of this spillover: first, the anticipated exodus of millions, which will create pressure points throughout nearby communities, and second, the expansion of active violence.
This last is especially difficult because the current warring parties are themselves coalitions. The region was pitched into deeper instability in 2019 with the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir, an authoritarian who had ruled since 1989, until toppled by military coup. Since then, Egypt has backed al-Burhan, while United Arab Emirates supports Hemedti, and locals have been divided (at best) in their lack of confidence in either to lead the country into a better era.
Meanwhile, the Wagner Group was simply in the region, many claimed, to exploit Sudan’s gold. As if there was ever a chance that the exploitation of another region’s assets would not involve other illicit security arrangements.
The Wagner Group
The Wagner Group is helmed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of wanted-for-war-crimes Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin’s network goes further than Wagner, but the two names are frequently interwoven in news about their involvement in international politics and conflict. This is because it remains difficult to ascertain how much the Wagner Group and Prigozhin should be viewed as distinct agents, and how much as shadow extensions of Putin’s state apparatus. (Both narratives are driven by different ideas of how the world functions, so related coverage should be taken with a grain of salt, and strong consideration of the storyteller.)
Wagner activities first came to prominence during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and were followed by sightings in Syria in 2015 and cyber-attacks related to US presidential elections in 2016. Notably, 2014 was also when Russia started to pursue a relationship with Sudan: a potential way of avoiding the impact of Western sanctions during that period in the War in Donbas. The Wagner Group supported Bashir’s Sudanese government after Russian agreements were signed in 2017, with ends tied to securing gold and strategic Red Sea base positioning for Russia. More recently, Wagner activities were noticed in Ukraine in the lead-up to Russia’s 2022 invasion, where international observers highlighted false flag operations of the sort used to confuse culpability in initial actions sparking war.
Putin routinely plays a propagandist line in public missives around the Wagner Group: in the past, claiming no association between them and the Kremlin, but also responding to Wagner challenges about failure to adequately arm the Russian front, and relying on Wagner forces especially in the months-long battle for Bakhmut.
The mercenary outfit appears to have sent around 50,000 fighters to Ukraine thus far, of which 30,000 figure in casualty reports. Most are new recruits, many were pulled from prisons, others were redeployed from the Central African Republic, and many have neo-Nazi affiliations. Those pulled from prison often saw their sentences reduced for service, allowing people convicted for violent crimes, now fresh from tours of combat, to return to Russian towns fearful of them.
This terror comes as no surprise to the international community, though, as the UN has been calling attention for years to Wagner’s human rights violations in the Central African Republic (CAR), where it set up a “Russia house” in the capital, to train local troops and generally uphold the rule of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Among the human rights violations outlined in a 2021 report are “arbitrary detention, torture, disappearances and summary execution, a pattern that continues unabated and unpunished” and of course “rape and sexual violence against women, men, and young girls in the many parts of the country”.
But Wagner has been busy elsewhere, too. In Libya, another country bordering Sudan, Wagner has been backing General Khalifa Haftar, who currently controls wide swaths of Libyan territory now also home to Wagner bases. This past weekend, CNN sources reported movement from those bases, and related signs of Wagner supporting RSF activities by supplying the Sudanese paramilitary with surface-to-air missiles. Prigozhin has expressly denied Wagner involvement in Sudan’s civil war, but it’s already clear that international fears of Sudan’s conflict spilling over into other countries are not entirely accurate:
Rather, many of these borders are already deeply interconnected conflict zones.
One of CNN‘s sources merits attention, though, as we wrestle with the question of international response. All Eyes on Wagner is a volunteer-based not-for-profit out of French-sourced OpenFacto, made up of a few individuals with experience in open-source global investigations. Dedicated to tracking Wagner movements in the world, it aims to serve human rights organizations and global justice movements by providing reliable data about the rise of this paramilitary outfit and related business network.
Another civic effort to combat Wagner comes in the form of a civil lawsuit filed by a UK firm last November, when McCue Jury and Partners sent a letter to Prigozhin and 32 associated defendants. As senior partner Jason McCue recently told Al Jazeera, “We’re going to prove that Wagner is a terrorist organisation, that Wagner committed acts of terrorism against not only specific individuals or buildings in Ukraine, but against the populace as a whole, because Wagner is in an unlawful conspiracy with the Russian Federation.”
The firm once won compensation for victims of the Irish Republican Army after the British government agreed not to pursue it for similar after the 1998 peace deal. This time, McCue is part of the Ukraine Justice Alliance, a global alliance of law firms, civic actors in investigative journalism, and people with past experience in state espionage. This alliance also serves another independent law firm action group, the Ukraine Civil Society Lawfare Programme (UCSLP), that has also stepped up to seek accountability where state officials can or will not.
Which is not to say that sitting governments are doing nothing. Beyond African states often fighting to revoke licenses to exploitative companies related to the Wagner Group, and the US Treasury expressly laying sanctions against M Invest and Meroe Gold (Prigozhin’s companies in Sudan), the UN peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic and diplomats around the world have been strategizing how to rout out local Wagner networks before its reach can spread any further.
But this is no easy feat, and Western complicity in the rise of mercenary networks does not help. The US in particular benefited from how little average citizens understood its unjust war in Iraq was being carried out by mercenary groups like Blackwater (now Constellis), which at one point had as many contractors in Iraq as active US military, but which operated with far less oversight in its hiring, training, deployment, and crisis management practices, leading to incidents like the Nisour Square Massacre of seventeen Iraqi civilians.
We can begin to combat the problem, culturally, by resisting the mainstream narrative of war as primarily a matter of nation-states, and by recognizing the powerful and persistent role of private enterprise in cultivating state violence. Sudan has suffered for decades from a crisis of national authority over an ethnically diverse population of mostly rural peoples. All the while, its country’s resources (along with so many other nations’ holdings) have been seen not only by other governments as ideal prizes in their proxy wars: but also, far more ruinously, as lucrative targets for unchecked third-party power brokers, ready and waiting to serve whoever will give them sanction to profit on human loss.