WorldWhy the use of Wagner mercenaries in the Ukraine...

Why the use of Wagner mercenaries in the Ukraine war could be disastrous for Putin

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Two historical patterns may be instructive for the development of relations between the Wagner mercenaries and the Russian political system or their fate after the war in Ukraine.

History reveals two patterns for the use of mercenaries in wars that may shed light on the role of Wagner mercenaries in the Russian political system, according to Alexander Clarkson of King’s College in an analysis published in World Politics Review.

In the Bavarian town of Rain am Lech stands a statue of Johann Tserclaes, Count von Tilly, whose mercenary troops supported the army of German Emperor Ferdinand II against the Protestants in the first decade of the Thirty Years War (1618 -1648).

Hailed as a hero by those loyal to the emperor, Tilly was despised by the other warring party for the horrific war crimes committed during the Siege of Magdeburg (1631).

But the monument commemorating his death fighting the Swedish Protestants in 1632 ignores these unpleasant details.

Why the use of Wagner mercenaries in the Ukraine war could be disastrous for Putin
Why the use of Wagner mercenaries in the Ukraine war could be disastrous for Putin

Tilly’s troops consisted of mercenaries called “Landsknechte” and played a central role in supporting the outnumbered imperial armies.

Their history today is reminiscent of the Russian military, which drew on mercenary troops from the private entrepreneur Wagner, and may offer a clue to the future.

“Historical comparisons with current events are undoubtedly risky business. Each conflict has its own unique social context that cannot be easily transferred to the dynamics that characterize wars in other eras,” the analyst cautions, noting that the specifics of the battlefield must still be taken into account.

Historical examples of the use of mercenaries by official armies

Two historical patterns may be instructive for the development of relations between Wagner mercenaries and the Russian political system or their fate after the war in Ukraine.

The first pattern states that mercenaries tend to be closely associated with ruling elites. Indeed, analysts such as Candace Rondeaux , Jack Margolin , and Sergey Sukhankin have pointed out that the roots of the Wagner Group run much deeper than many observers suspected just a few years ago. They were surprised by the increasing role played by military contractors first in the Russian invasion of the Donbas (2014) and then in the Syrian civil war (2015).

In the years following the collapse of USSR, many members of the special forces left poorly paid civil service positions for lucrative contracts with companies or corporations run by oligarchs such as Rosneft and Gazprom.

Rotation between special military and armed forces units and various private security services has intensified during Putin’s rise to the point that it has become a permanent feature of the institutional landscape.

Russia’s dependence on mercenaries

The Russian state’s increasing reliance on mercenaries after 2013-in operations in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and the Central African Republic-for the purpose of exerting influence with the possibility of denial was no accident: it was a development based on the increasingly close ties between the military and intelligence services.

The central role of oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin-who benefited from contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry-or of Dimitri Utkin-a former military intelligence officer whose sympathies for neo-Nazi groups enabled the recruitment of supporters of the extreme right in private military companies-illustrates how blurred the lines between state institutions and military contractors have become under Putin.

The case of oligarchs in Putin’s Russia is not unique: during the Thirty Years’ War, successful military contractors like Count de Tilly were originally lesser nobles who seized the opportunity to rise to the top.

Like Prigozhin and Utkin today, the great mercenary princes of the 17th century held allegiance to the social order into which they were born while depending on it for large profits. Despite their reputation as brigands acting with impunity, mercenaries are in fact deeply involved in the struggle for survival of the social status quo, which is their constant source of income.

Whatever resentment against a ruler may have arisen among the lansquenets 400 years ago or accumulated among Russian private entrepreneurs today would, at best, be aimed at replacing those at the top of the system rather than trying to change it.

Risks associated with mercenaries

A second historical pattern, however, shows that overreliance on mercenaries risks seriously disrupting the hierarchy of power, even if these entrepreneurs are sincerely committed to maintaining social order.

The more a state struggles to find adequate recruits and equipment for its official security institutions, the more it relies on mercenaries to defend its interests, which increases the influence of military contractors within the ruling elite at the expense of officers and ordained officials.

Such shifts in the balance of power within an army’s ruling elite often led to instability and even violence between rival factions.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow has increasingly relied on the thousands of Wagner Group mercenaries for its offensive due to mounting military losses.

A mercenary leader can occupy an unfavorable position of power on the battlefield, resulting in a loss of control over events on the ground.

Ferdinand II felt this after he promoted Albrecht von Wallenstein – one of Tilly’s bitter rivals – in 1623. At the height of his power, it was Wallenstein who exercised more direct control over the military structures defending the empire than did his king.

Three centuries later, French government officials made the same mistake when they hired mercenaries like Bob Denard for military interventions in Africa in the 1970s. Denard pursued his own ambitions in the Comoros, and not only did he do so so tirelessly that he ended up causing more trouble than his help was worth.

Consequences for the hierarchy of power in Russia

An extensive network linking officers of the GRU and VDV – Russia’s military intelligence and elite airborne units, respectively – with Wagner mercenaries could end up concentrating enough power within the power system to influence rival factions in other security services and military establishments.

Wallenstein’s quest ended with his assassination by agents of Ferdinand II in 1634, while Denard was thrown into a Paris prison in 1995 by the same French intelligence agencies that had sponsored him.

Such efforts to tame recalcitrant mercenaries, however, always come at a significant cost to a regime, whether in the form of force required to crush a powerful threat or in the form of enormous sums of money required to make them give up.

Failure in Ukraine could seriously discredit the Russian military and weaken the ability of Putin or his successors to rein in the mercenaries they pay and equip. In such a scenario, the current partial outsourcing of military operations could be among the factors corroding the cohesion of the Russian state itself.

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