In the Bavarian town of Rain am Lech, a statue in the market square is a reminder of more tumultuous times. It depicts Johann Tserclaes, the Count of Tilly, who helped lead the armies of German Emperor Ferdinand II against Protestant challengers during the first decade of the Thirty Years’ War. Considered a hero by Imperial loyalists, Tilly was despised by adversaries for the horrific war crimes his mercenary troops inflicted during the sack of Magdeburg in 1631. Avoiding such awkward details, Rain’s monument commemorates his death nearby in battle in 1632, after defeat at the hands of the Swedish Protestants.
The armies that Tilly helped lead were largely made up of mercenary troops called the Landsknechts Where condottières. Their pivotal role in imperial armies struggling to survive finds echoes today in private military contractors such as Russia’s Wagner Group, as their fate is intertwined with that of the regimes they serve but disrupt. also established command hierarchies.
Without a doubt, historical comparisons with contemporary events are risky business. Each conflict has its own unique social context that cannot easily be transferred to the dynamics shaping wars in other eras. Awareness of the specifics of each battlespace is crucial to ensure that attempts to examine common patterns do not lead to nonsensical analogies that ignore the big differences between, for example, spade and fire warfare. of the 17th century and the drone-guided artillery battles taking place in Ukraine today. Yet with all of these caveats in mind, there are two historical models that can provide insight into how the role that private military contractors, or PMCs, play within the Russian political system might evolve over time. time.
The first is the extent to which mercenaries are generally tied to the ruling elites of a political system. As Candace Rondeaux, Jack Margolin and Sergey Sukhankin have pointed out, the origins of the Wagner Group run much deeper than many observers thought a few years ago, who were surprised by the growing role of PMCs in the Russian invasion of Donbass in 2014. region in Ukraine or in the civil war in Syria after 2015.
Despite their popular reputation as lawless buccaneers, more often than not mercenaries are deeply invested in the survival of a societal status quo that provides them with a reliable source of income.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the near collapse of Russia’s post-Soviet military and security services in the 1990s, many special operations personnel left poorly paid positions serving the state for more lucrative work in companies or corporations run by oligarchs such as Rosneft and Gazprom. Over time, a revolving door between army special forces units, intelligence services and various private security entities became an integral part of the institutional landscape, when Vladimir Putin came to power.
The growing reliance of the Russian state on mercenaries after 2013 during operations in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic – through which Putin sought to project his influence without using official military units , in order to preserve a facade of denial – was not a sudden act of improvisation. It was built on a gradually evolving relationship that the Russian military and intelligence services had developed with various key figures involved in the security sector. The central role of Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch whose income depends on contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry, or Dmitry Utkin, a former military intelligence officer whose sympathies for neo-Nazi groups have enabled the recruitment of extremists from far-right in Russia’s PMCs illustrates how the lines between state institutions and military contractors have become blurred under Putin.
The close ties between a given state’s ruling elite and the mercenary networks it relies on due to its weak official military are not unique to Putin-era Russia. Successful military contractors during the Thirty Years’ War, such as Tilly, were originally low-ranking members of the nobility who seized the opportunity to rise to the top. As with Prigozhin or Utkin nearly 400 years later, the great mercenary captains of the 17th century remained loyal to the established social order into which they were born, even as they used their military might to great profit. .
Despite their popular reputation as lawless buccaneers, more often than not mercenaries are deeply invested in the survival of a societal status quo that provides them with a reliable source of income. Whatever resentment against a failing ruler might have accumulated among the first Landsknechteor is currently being built among the late Putinist Russian PMCs, they aim at most to replace those at the top of an established state system, rather than seek to transform it.
Yet a second set of recurring historical patterns indicates that an overreliance on mercenaries can still seriously disrupt the hierarchy of power within a state, even when military contractors are deeply committed to the defense of the state. social order that underlies it. The more a state struggles to find adequate recruits and equipment for its formal security institutions, the more it depends on mercenaries to secure its interests, which then inflates the influence of military contractors within a ruling elite at the expense of established officers and officials. Often such dynamics can also mark a shift of influence from one part of the regular military to another, as networks of officers with close ties to private military contractors find their rise to the top of the system linked to the willingness of mercenaries to provide support. on the battlefield.
Such shifts in the balance of power within an army’s ruling elite have often led to instability and even violence between rival factions. This should give Russia’s current leaders food for thought. In Syria and Libya, the number of mercenaries linked to Wagner and other PMCs deployed on behalf of the Russian state remained limited. But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, mounting casualties have made Moscow increasingly dependent on thousands of mercenaries supplied by the Wagner Group in efforts to support combat operations.
Additionally, becoming too dependent on a mercenary leader with their own semi-autonomous revenue stream can lead to a loss of control over events on the ground. Ferdinand II found this out the hard way after promoting Albrecht von Wallenstein – one of Tilly’s bitter rivals – in 1623. At the height of his power, Wallenstein exercised more direct control over the military structures defending the Empire than his emperor. Three centuries later, French government officials made the same mistake in the 1970s, hiring mercenaries like Bob Denard to organize their interventions in Africa. Denard pursued his own ambitions in the Comoros and elsewhere so relentlessly that he ultimately caused more trouble than was worth to his backers in Paris.
Again, differences in historical context should be kept in mind. But these past examples, in which lower-ranking members of a ruling elite seized opportunities on the battlefield to displace more established actors in state leaderships, indicate how disruptive PMCs like Wagner could become if their power continued to expand in today’s Russia. A wider network that connects serving officers of the GRU and VDV – Russia’s military intelligence and elite airborne units, respectively – with mercenaries employed by Wagner could end up concentrating enough power within the state system. Russian to be able to weigh against his rival. factions in other security services and military institutions.
For all the disruption mercenaries can cause, however, instances such as Francesco Sforza’s rise of condottier to the ruler of Milan in 15th century Italy are relatively rare. More often than not, state leaders have bought off or eliminated military contractors whose ambitions threaten to destabilize a ruling elite. Wallenstein’s quest for greatness ended with his assassination by agents of Ferdinand II in 1634, while Denard was expelled from the Comoros and thrown into a Paris prison in 1995 by the same French intelligence services that had funded him. for so long. Nevertheless, such efforts to bring unruly mercenaries to heel always entail substantial costs for a state system, either in terms of the violence needed to crush a powerful threat, or in terms of the huge sums of money used to pay off armed actors. for them to go away.
In the most likely scenario in which the Russian state eventually overpowers Wagner, the effort to bring powerful military contractors to heel will be a daunting challenge for Russian state institutions that already face enormous economic and political problems. . A failure in Ukraine could even seriously discredit the Russian military and weaken the ability of Putin or his successors to contain the mercenaries they have paid and equipped – and if that happens, the current partial privatization of military operations could become the one of the many factors that unravels the cohesion of the Russian state itself.
Whatever scenario they face, chances are Wagnerian mercenaries dreaming of statues raised in honor of their own exploits will actually face assassins sent by their own ruler, as Wallenstein did, or end up like Tilly, isolated on a battlefield, far from home, as their enemies close in.
Alexander Clarkson is Professor of European Studies at King’s College London. His research explores the impact that transnational diaspora communities had on the politics of Germany and Europe after 1945 as well as how the militarization of the European Union’s border system affected its relations with neighboring states. His WPR weekly column appears every Wednesday.