From Faust to Vikings and Vlad to Wagner, always follow the money


From Faust to Vikings and Vlad to Wagner, always follow the money

PIET CROUCAMP spoke to Eeben Barlow, founder of the private military company Executive Outcomes, about the role and inner workings of military contractors in conflicts in countries such as Mozambique and Ukraine.


PRIVATE military and security companies like the Wagner Group have become an important, yet damnable source of stability in many of Africa's conflict-ridden jurisdictions.

The Wagner Group, officially known as PMC (private military company) Wagner, is a Russian state-funded paramilitary organisation of mercenaries and is widely known as the de facto private army of Russian President Vladimir Putin's former ally, Yevgeni Prigozhin.

Wagner's operatives are primarily involved in military activities in the Middle East and Africa, including countries such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, the Central African Republic and Mali.

Here in South Africa, Eeben Barlow, founder of the private military company Executive Outcomes (1989 to 1997), who worked mainly in Africa but was also involved in South America and the Far East, is an excellent direct source of information on the role of military contractors in Africa. I found it meaningful to interview him about the Wagner Group, the phenomenon of private military contractors in Africa and the Russian military strategy in Ukraine.

Before we talk about Wagner, what are your thoughts on Putin's reasons for the Russian invasion of Ukraine? 

The American political scientist John Mearsheimer refers to an operational strategy of “bait and bleed" regarding America's part in the war. His logic is that Ukraine was the Western bait that involved Russia in a battle with terminal blood loss.

The permeating presence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) planted the seed for a frontline battle in Putin's psyche.

The US military industry and the White House knew about Ukraine's yearning to become part of Nato and that this would exert unsustainable pressure on the paranoid Russian autocrat's political larynx.

Russia is not being destroyed by the West as Putin suspects and claims; he is cannibalising himself and the Kremlin politically because he can't resist the bait thrown out by the West. This is Mearsheimer's theory and I find it interesting. 

Nobody really expected that Ukraine would be able to resist the mighty Russian army. Yet a year later Volodymyr Zelensky seems to be on the front foot? 

The people of Ukraine are epigenetically related to the Vikings and the Russians simply underestimated their morale.

In the 9th century CE, the Norse Vikings visited Kyiv on their way to Constantinople to serve as foreign mercenaries. Norwegian nobles such as Olav Haraldsson and Harald Hardrada found political allies there. Kyivan Rus' became home to many Scandinavian settlers, who eventually became part of the Slavic culture.

The fervency for war in the face of political injustice is part of their collective consciousness. No military struggle can be successful in the absence of an established morale. And morale stems from good command and control, effective logistics, appropriate training, an esprit de corps, a well-thought-out military strategy and an executable doctrine. It's formidable, isn't it?

I'm actually here to talk about Africa. Why is this continent such an attractive hunting ground for military contractors such as Executive Outcomes and the Wagner group?

The most important thing to remember is that Wagner simply copied a model that was already a feature of Western countries operating in Africa. The French, Americans and British had the same modus operandi long before the Russians repeated it as a proven blueprint.

They move in, “secure" the country and train the army just well enough not to be able to succeed in the goals of the local political elites.

In the process, the jurisdiction becomes and remains dependent on the military capabilities these contractors can and will provide. It therefore suits the military contractors that the armies of Africa fail or never really develop a proven military capacity.

How does the military relationship between the contractors and the local political elites become a financially feasible project?

The reference to security contractors is actually military forces seeking access to minerals and other resources. Where there is conflict, the Wagner Group will try to enter the fray. They provide military advice, intelligence, protection and of course training. In the process, the countries that Wagner targets also become a market for Russian military hardware.

In the initial negotiations with the African jurisdictions, they offer to sort out the security problem with the promise that the Russian government will bear the costs of the contractors. In return, they want access to the country's minerals and energy resources. They take over the mines and related industries, provide the management and often also the labour and walk away with the surpluses.

In 2018, about a thousand Wagner troops protected the government of Pres Faustin-Archange Touadéra against the rebel attacks on Bangui. In return, Wagner subsidiaries negotiated and obtained mining rights at the Ndassima gold mine. This is the normal practice.

Who are the other famous military operators in Africa?

Probably the most notorious of these contractors was Black Water, whose name changed several times. Bancroft, GardaWorld and Triple Canopy are some of the private military and security companies that work in conflict areas or countries with unstable domestic politics.

Some of these contractors are financed with secret funds from the US government. Some of the operators working for these companies were former policemen and others served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

But most of these companies also develop a thriving balance sheet without the support of governments?

Yes, very often they reach the point where the contracts can be financed by their own balance sheet. Putin confirmed that the Russian taxpayers financed Wagner with up to $1 billion a year, but Prigozhin certainly also financed many of Wagner's operations himself through the provision of various services and value addition.

But there are also cases where these military companies encounter big problems?

Yes, the Wagner Group was soundly thrashed in Mozambique. Wagner forces were deployed in 2019 to help fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the northern Cabo Delgado province. They were never able to stop the uprising and after a few months in the face of the Ansar al-Sunna extremists, they withdrew from the area.

They lost the short battle in Mozambique, because the insurgency-type war in African countries differs greatly from anything Wagner was used to.

We do not have large conventional battles in Africa and the terrain in Mozambique is a forest, not a desert. Guerrilla tactics provide smaller forces with the ability to take on a larger conventional force and inflict enormous damage with few losses and also at low cost. Wagner will always struggle under such circumstances.

In Africa, as has been proven in Sudan and Mali, the use and availability of conventional technology does not provide a proven advantage to paramilitary forces.

But a conventional force does not lose the war with a single battle. Rather, its military capacity erodes with time?

Yes, but it's a kind of war of attrition. Guerrilla operations adversely affect the morale of conventional soldiers and challenge both the strategy and doctrine of the conventional force.

In Mozambique, the Wagner Group simply underestimated their opponents and very soon realised that their training and military strategy did not really give them a chance. The Russian command structure is highly centralised, which means that the command structures in combat situations do not necessarily have the institutional memory of responsibility and initiative.

One of the characteristics of South African military training has always been the adherence to a doctrine of decentralised command. The Wagner Group arrived in Mozambique with all the necessary military hardware for the battle, but without the diversified leadership skills for the peculiar demands of an insurgency war.

If I understand it correctly, the Wagner Group's violence against the civilians was also partly responsible for its failures in Mozambique?

A pattern of civilian loyalty towards the state does not really exist in Mozambique. The government and the state are largely absent in Cabo Delgado. The ordinary citizens are also the insurgents, which makes intelligence gathering almost impossible for a conventional paramilitary force like Wagner that does not understand the terrain and the inner workings of the local loyalties.

Islam's roots in Tanzania have a centuries-old history and the border between Mozambique and Tanzania was mapped by colonial interests. Families, tribes and communities move unregulated and freely back and forth across the border between the two countries. Prigozhin's army would always find it impossible to establish an intelligence footprint in such a nomadic ecology.

The reality is that intelligence determines your strategy, which in turn determines the structure of your attack. Wagner arrived in Mozambique with an inappropriate strategy for soldiers with an institutional memory fermented in the energy of a conventional war. The doctrine of implementation had operational flaws.

And yet Wagner provided Putin with the most successful strategy in Ukraine, especially with the defence of Bakhmut?

In terms of strategy as well as doctrine, the Russians have committed themselves to an operational strategy in Ukraine that has resulted in tremendous inefficiency and losses. Putin and his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, chose the wrong season to launch the invasion. They should have learned from Napoleon and the Germans that a military invasion must keep track of the effect of wet weather conditions on the battlefield. Many of their vehicles and tanks could not really move effectively on a soaked surface and were restricted to the roads.

This is one of the primary reasons why the Russians lost something like 3,500 tanks in just over a year. For Putin, political interests outweighed the requirements of military logic. In terms of political interests, Bakhmut was important to Putin as well as Zelensky, but in terms of military strategy, the loss of thousands of soldiers from both countries was pointless.

A politician only needs cannon fodder to survive, because the problem will disappear if enough souls and money are committed to the project. Wagner's march to Moscow is probably rooted in frustration with this strategy.

According to US intelligence sources, the Russian army has already lost up to 200,000 combat troops. Wagner had a loss of 20,000 in the battle of Bakhmut alone?

The Russians' enormous losses in Ukraine are directly due to a misplaced Soviet doctrine in terms of implementation.

Wagner's violence against civilians severely damaged their ability to develop an intelligence footprint. The intelligence of personal relationships is the most important form of intelligence, so much more valuable than electronic intelligence or even cyber intelligence. The latter can tell you a lot about what the enemy is doing, but not really what the enemy is thinking.

 Is this the end of the Wagner Group in Africa?

Putin will not let Wagner go to waste. He will find someone to take over Prigozhin's functions. Alternatively, the Wagner Group will only be absorbed into the Russian army. They have too many mines and contracts in Africa to simply be dissolved. The contracts may become Russian government contracts rather than private contracts, but that's it.

Maybe just one last question about an apparently unrelated matter. Why has none of the world's greatest military powers succeeded in the mountains of Afghanistan?

No one has ever conquered Afghanistan. The Afghans acquired their resilience in the face of war long before they converted to Islam. The ancient history of Afghanistan, also referred to as the pre-Islamic period, dates back to the prehistoric era and the Indus Valley Civilisation around 3300-1300 BC. Do yourself a favour and read Rudyard Kipling's poem about Afghanistan:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

♦ VWB ♦

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