The sudden rise and fall of the Russian mercenary outfit the Wagner Group has brought the spotlight back on mercenaries. Before nation states emerged, and standing armies became the order of the day, intrepid adventurers and mercenaries sprouted in different parts of the world offering their services to rulers in exchange for material benefits.

Among the famous mercenaries in India of that era were: Hyder Ali (1720-1782), a Punjabi Muslim of Arab ancestry, who seized the kingdom of Mysore after serving the Maharaja as a military commander; Benoit de Boigne (1751-1830), a French adventurer who served the Maratha chief Mahadaji Scindia in Gwalior training as many as 100,000 men; Walter Reinhardt (1720-1778), a German, who became a sought after military commander in Bengal, Bihar and UP.

Adding to the list were George Thomas (1756-1802) an Irishman, who helped the Maratha chieftain Apa Khande Rao tame the Rajputs in Haryana and was rewarded with a Jagir in Jhajjar (Haryana) for his services; and James Skinner (1778-1841), an Anglo Indian whose unit “Skinner’s Horse” was available for hire even by the East India Company. Eventually, Skinner’s Horse became part of the Indian Army.

However, over time, the system of employing mercenaries waned the world over, and wars were fought by standing armies.

But mercenaries came back in full force when Africa was decolonised in the 1960s. Several newly independent African States that were troubled by armed secessionist and fissiparous tribal movements could not face the challenge.

They lacked the expertise, manpower and material wherewithal to counter these forces. This opened the floodgates to White mercenaries. For example, Congo in the 1960s, was bristling with well-armed White mercenaries doing the bidding of one African politician or the other for handsome rewards. As this was overdone, Geneva Protocols I and II banning mercenaries followed in 1977.

But when the Russo-Ukrainian war broke out, life was infused into the moribund mercenary business. The Russian private sector military outfit, the Wagner Group, became the cutting edge of the Russian military offensive in Ukraine with the full backing of President Vladimir Putin.

This heavily armed group led by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin (62), was earlier deployed by Putin in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad. In Libya, it had fought alongside the rebel commander Khalifa Haftar.

Prigozhin, a Putin-spawned business tycoon, used the Wagner group’s deployment in Syria and African countries to secure lucrative mining contracts. The United States’ Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland had said in January this year that the Wagner Group was using its access to gold and other resources in Africa to fund operations in Ukraine. The United Nations and the European Union accused the Wagner Group of human rights abuses throughout Africa.

Sean McFate of the US National Defense University, says in his paper: “Mercenaries and War: Understanding Private Armies Today” published in 2019, that the US too has used mercenaries.

The Blackwater Security Consulting company’s personnel were used in Iraq in 2007. Blackwater was founded in 1996 by a former Navy SEAL officer Erik Prince.

McFate says that private military forces have become a big business. “No one truly knows how many billions of dollars slosh around this illicit market. All we know is that business is booming. Many of these ‘for-profit’ warriors outclass local militaries, and a few can even stand up to America’s most elite forces, as the battle in Syria shows,” he points out.

“The Middle East is awash in mercenaries. Kurdistan is a haven for soldiers of fortune looking for work with the Kurdish militia, oil companies defending their oil fields, or those who want terrorists dead. Some are just adventure seekers, while others are American veterans who found civilian life meaningless.”

The United Arab Emirates dispatched hundreds of mercenaries to fight the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. The mercenaries were from South America, veterans of anti-drug operations there. They got hefty salaries. African mercenaries were fighting in Yemen for Saudi Arabia.

Syria has rewarded mercenaries who seized territory from terrorists with oil and mining rights. “At least two Russian companies have received contracts under this policy, namely, Evro Polis and Stroytransgaz. Evro Polis employed the Wagner Group to capture oil fields from the Islamic State (IS) in central Syria,” McFate notes.

When Nigeria’s Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls to be their “wives,” the Nigerian government turned to mercenaries to fight the Boko Haram. The mercenaries arrived with Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships (flying tanks) and drove out Boko Haram in a few weeks. The Nigerian military could not achieve this even in six years, McFate points out.

The Uzbekistan-based Malhama Tactical mercenary force is unique – it fights only for jihadi extremists. It trains and also procures arms.

McFate points out that Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) such as CARE, Save the Children, CARITAS, and World Vision are increasingly turning to private security firms when they operate in lawless areas. Large military companies like Aegis Defense Services and Triple Canopy, advertise their services for NGOs and NGO trade associations like the European Interagency Security Forum.

Multinational companies working in dangerous areas have ceased to rely on corrupt or inept security forces provided by host governments and are turning to private security firms, McFate says. The mining giant Freeport-McMoRan employed “Triple Canopy” to protect its vast mine in the Papua province of Indonesia, where there is an insurgency. The China National Petroleum Corporation contracts DeWe Security to safeguard its assets in the middle of South Sudan’s civil war.

There are mercenaries offering maritime security as well. International shipping lines hire them to protect their ships traveling through pirate-infested waters in the Gulf of Aden, Strait of Malacca, and Gulf of Guinea.

Many States find it convenient to allow the “marketisation” of security. Many countries see merit in outsourcing part of their security tasks because it is less expensive as compared to having a standing force which has to be trained, paid, and retained for only occasional use.

But McFate considers the return to the mercenary system as a retrograde development. He warns that the “marketization of war,” where military force is bought and sold like a commodity, might result in the “super-rich” becoming “superpowers” who fight each other.

Wars, then, would be between one super-rich person or entity and another, and not between States. Wars would be fought for personal or pecuniary interests rather than for national and societal interests.