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Private Military Companies: Lessons from Wagner

12 Oct 2023
By Dr Elizabeth Radziszewski
 Members of the Wagner group training Belarusian troops. Source: Информационное агентство БелТА /

While some Private Military Companies (PMCs) serve authoritarian governments, these actors are not representative of the global industry. PMCs whose structure, leadership, and culture increase accountability can provide benefits to states consistent with international law.

With Wagner’s expanding activities in Africa, and a failed mutiny attempt in Russia, PMCs have been back in the news with a familiar focus on the industry’s disastrous effects on global stability and human rights. This frame was first widely adapted with reports of American contractors from Blackwater firing at an intersection in Baghdad in 2007 and killing over a dozen of civilians. Subsequent investigations from the US government exposed the industry’s fraudulent activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. These frames, however, lead to oversimplifications of the industry and risks undermining scholarly and data-driven efforts of the past 10 years to move away from an almost exclusive focus on threats posed by such non-state actors.

PMCs or private military and security companies (PMSCs) as they are also referred to, are here to stay. Many are highly capable and can provide a wide array of services including logistical and combat support, security to personnel and convoys, demining, cyber defensive and even offensive activities that include support against adversarial platforms, piloting of unmanned aerial vehicles, and intelligence analysis. Given these capabilities, understanding the type of PMSCs that are most likely to pose risks to state security, and conditions under which risks can be mitigated, is a fruitful path forward.

PMSCs share the goal of providing services for profit, an aim that has been central to companies’ operations throughout history. Yet the extent of their fusion with the state, variation in leadership background, company structure, culture, conflicts in which they operate, and client base create different incentives for such actors to embrace accountability and operate in accordance with international humanitarian law. Scholarly efforts to collect data on PMSCs’ involvement in conflicts around the globe and across time has improved our understanding of conditions under which these actors behave more in line with Western norms, and when they either pose a threat to global security or are simply not effective in contributing to ending conflicts.

As much of the literature has shown, most PMSCs that have operated globally since the end of the Cold War, have done so as independent actors. In this sense, Wagner’s close alliance with the Russian state is less typical of the industry. Elena Pokalova from the National Defense University in the US goes as far as to label Wagner a quasi-state agent. While Chinese PMSCs are also directly connected to the state, their global focus has been mostly defensive in nature, with emphasis on protecting Chinese commercial interests and nationals abroad as well as providing armed guards to the shipping industry.

PMSCs that operate as independent actors are more likely to originate from democracies. To serve democratic governments—a lucrative market—and to offset competition, these actors cannot adopt a business orientation where civilian killings or threats to state sovereignty are an acceptable component of their global operations. Among Western democracies there have been strong efforts to communicate expectations regarding behaviour and improvements around accountability considering abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, many governments require that contractors provide ANSI/ASIS International Management System for Quality of Private Security Company Operations or ISO certifications on risk-assessment to show commitment to reducing abuses. Many PMSCs have also joined trade associations and signed the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC). ICoC built upon the Montreux Document, an international undertaking on the part of the industry, governments, academics, and NGOs, that outlined practices for governments to embrace, when working with PMSCs, compliance with international humanitarian laws.

Research also shows that PMSCs, especially those hired by Western governments and allied states, behave differently depending on company structure, culture and leadership, and conflict dynamics. Variations in these factors can make a difference between companies becoming a threat and companies enhancing the governments’ missions. Publicly traded PMSCs, for example, have been linked to lower frequency of human rights abuses and fraud in Iraq in comparison to PMSCs with closed business structures. This is because such companies exhibit greater transparency, generate more media publicity, and are likely to suffer from higher reputational costs if connected to scandals. PMSCs whose CEOs are civilians, and companies that cultivate the norms of restraint in the use of force, are also less likely to commit human rights abuses. Finally, research shows that governments’ decisions to hire multiple PMSCs in conflicts involving major combat can help bring more competition among security providers and improve their performance as the possibility of being monitored by competitors can deter opportunistic behaviour.

While private military companies that serve authoritarian governments and/or operate merely as an extension of the state, create great risks to civilians and state sovereignty, these actors are not representative of the global industry. Wagner’s dirty work on behalf of Russia should not obscure the fact that PMSCs, under specific conditions, can provide benefits to states in a way that is more consistent with international law. It is up to the governments to minimise the risks by working with PMSCs whose structure, leadership, and culture increase accountability and to manage the hiring process in a way that puts greater competitive pressure on these actors to meet the governments’ expectations while also relying on contracting managers with the right technical knowledge.

Dr Elizabeth Radziszewski is an associate research scientist at START, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, University of Maryland, where she leads the Irregular Warfare and Conflict Assessment Group. She is the author of Private Militaries and the Security Industry in Civil Wars: Competition and Market Accountability (Oxford University Press, 2020) and Social Networks and Public Support for the European Union (Routledge, 2013).

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.