Before we proceed to analyse the activities of the Wagner Group in active service to the Russian state, we need to arrive at a working definition for Private Military Companies (PMCs) that provide armed combat services to states for financial gain. Here at the outset, it must be granted the United Nation, as an international regulatory body, has been opposed to allow PMC to actively take part in armed conflicts as combatants. Only the armed forces of the combating sides in an active military confrontation are recognised as legitimate combatants. However, the UN has not been able to persuade big powers such as the USA and Russia to endorse this position. The Geneva Convention does not regard PMC combatants as legitimate combatants either, which means that when captured, they are not afforded the protections enshrined in the Geneva Convention.

We can assert that Wagner Group is engaged in active service for the Russian state. They are paid by the Russian state and provided with necessary equipment and ammunition. Wagner soldiers enjoy a privileged position within the Russian military, as their wages and benefits are far more than that of Russian soldiers of commensurate ranks. In addition, the Wagner Group have their own businesses and assets, which they utilise and benefit from without interference from the Russian government.

We are here interested in how mercenaries have increasingly been used in combats in recent times. The direct participation of the US in the Korean and Vietnamese wars resulted in significant America casualties in these two wars, leading to widespread anti-war protests, particularly during the Vietnam War. Many young people avoided or refused to be drafted and sent to Vietnam to participate in the war. As a result, as the most prominent superpower, America was forced to compensate this shortfall by recruiting mercenaries in different capacities to assist them in their war efforts.

One relevant and telling example of this was the engagement of private security companies like Blackwater in battles in Iraq. In the staging of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US government made the decision to outsource certain aspects of the war to private security companies with specialised expertise, thereby reducing the need for American troops on the ground. Thus in 2007, there were more than 160,000 private security personnel engaged in the war efforts in Iraq, outnumbering the American troops deployed there.  There were more than 181 private security companies providing these services. This naturally created a dependency on private security companies in conducting and potentially winning the war. This indeed created a dangerous vulnerability. This indeed creates a dangerous vulnerability. Given this policy, it is evident that America cannot simply go to war without relying on these mercenaries, and it could prove challenging to win the war with or without them.

To get a more complete picture of the role of mercenaries in modern warfare, let us take a look at the war efforts in Afghanistan and the mercenaries’ role there. Here, the PMCs were exclusively used in a defensive role, i.e., to defend the American NATO bases from Taliban onslaught and never in offensive operations. For example, President Karzai’s bodyguards came from such PMCs.

Looking at the above presentations of the engagement of mercenaries in modern war efforts, it is evident that they share common characteristics yet have clear differences. It is also clear that the first modern extensive use of mercenaries was undertaken by the USA in the first Iraq war. Furthermore, it is evident that the Russian Federation soon followed suit and created the Wagner Group, taking advantage of opportunities available on their home turf. Therefore, given these factors and noting the differences, the Wagner Group must be classified as a mercenary force in the service of the Russian state.

The Wagner Group was founded in 2014 by a former GRU officer, Dmitry Utkin, in collaboration with the prominent businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was a close associate of Putin. Putin, in fact, had him released from prison and groomed him as a prominent businessman and ‘oligarch’ by granting his companies state catering services, among other benefits. Therefore, it would not be wrong to describe the Wagner Group as de facto Putin’s private army embedded within the Russian armed forces, receiving higher pay and far greater benefits. Naturally, this led to open conflict between the Russian military leadership. It is fair to assume that Putin was active in denying the Wagner Group the much-needed equipment and ammunition during the battle of Bakhmut. As a result, the Wagner Group suffered significant losses in terms of soldiers. This open conflict between Prigozhin and the top Russian military leadership arose because Prigozhin rightly felt cornered and believed he was losing reputation with his soldiers on the battlefield. He also judged that Putin and the Russian military top brass had decided to reduce the Wagner Group’s influence and bring them under the control of the state military leadership.

The Wagner Group provided crucial and indispensable services to the Russian state during the invasion of Ukraine, spanning various stages from 2014 to 2023. For example, they were the main force in invading Crimea and bringing it entirely under Russian control. The Wagner Group experienced significant growth, expanding from 1,000 troops in 2014 to over 50,000 formidable troops in Ukraine by 2022. Additionally, the Wagner Group operates as a Russian ‘foreign legion’ in countries such as Syria, Mali, Libya, and others, in order to further Russian interests abroad. The exact number of PMCs abroad is difficult to determine, but one must assume it is a sizeable force.

The Mutiny or March to Moscow on 24 June can most appropriately be described as an attempt by the Wagner Group to defend itself and maintain relevance. Perhaps Putin was the main architect of the plan, but it was poorly managed. Putin’s own authority is now being questioned, and as a consequence, the Wagner Group, along with Prigozhin and a few loyal troops, has been exiled to Belarus. Putin is unwilling to pardon or forgive them, yet he also does not want to eliminate the Wagner Group entirely. Putin’s strategy now appears to be bringing the Wagner Group firmly under his control over time.