The death of a Russian mercenary
25th August 2023
It is said that behind every strongman there is a weak state. Nothing illustrated the point better than the extraordinary march on Moscow by the mercenaries of the Wagner Group, with Yevgeny Prigozhin at the head of the armed column, on June 24. The ease with which this militia advanced from Rostov-on-Don to the Russian capital exposed how precarious Russia’s defenses and President Vladimir Putin’s standing were.
That may also have been the day Prigozhin sentenced himself to death. The plane crash in which he is said to have died on August 23 was unsurprising to world leaders and analysts who had predicted some sort of violent death for the former convict who had become the most powerful private military contractor of the land. The Kremlin’s initial silence about the accident and the subsequent statement by Putin expressing condolences and a reflection about what a troubled person Prigozhin was did little to dispel speculation about how accidental the air crash really was.
Yet the issue at heart is the return of mercenary armies to war theatres in Europe and elsewhere. Before the Wagner Group, private military contracts operating on behalf of the United States had gained notoriety in the Iraq invasion of 2003, including the Blackwater, renamed a couple of times since after it was acquired by a group of private investors and merged with another company.
The trend of shrinking states outsourcing the monopoly of violence to private contractors gained speed in the 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the criminality that ensued especially in Russia, the country went from having no private security company at all to a myriad of more than 10,000 firms of different size and capability.
Ironically, mercenary armies in the traditional sense of the word, those that played key roles in the European wars between the 12th and 16th centuries, faded away after the Crimean War of 1853-56. They reappeared on the world stage in a limited form in the decolonization wars of Africa in the 1960s, but nothing on the scale of the Wagner Group.
While the evidence on the impact of private military companies, or PMCs, is mixed, they do pose a challenge to governability, as Prigozhin’s March on Moscow demonstrated. Analysts have pointed out that the business of PMC “runs the risk of developing a logic of its own, particularly in situations where there is a rapid expansion of markets, a high level of conflict, and no overarching state authority to regulate it.”
People will often draw different conclusions from the same body of facts, yet it may not be a stretch to say that the growing use of mercenary armies by empires has been a proxy or symptom of decline, if not the cause or the only one. Examples abound in history, from the Peloponnesian Wars to the mercenary Almogavars’ disastrous conduct in the Byzantine Empire and the Turkish Bashi-Bazouks’ criminal indiscipline, which led to their demise following the Crimean War.
Russia’s reliance on a force like Wagner, which recruited men from among convicts—Prigozhin himself had been one too—may indeed signal state weakness. “Russia can be either an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both,” had said Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor of the United States. Putin has clearly made his choice, or maybe a country with the size and history of Russia cannot be anything but imperial, but if it had to pay to Wagner’s mercenaries to preserve its status it probably meant that it was on its last legs. In any case, after the invasion of Ukraine, perhaps Putin will have no choice and his country may end up being neither a democracy nor an empire.