Will mercenaries and foreign fighters change the course of the war in Ukraine?

For the past four years, the United States has tried to nab Yevgeny Prigozhin, a stark, balding Russian oligarch often pictured somewhere near Vladimir Putin. He was nicknamed Putin’s leader. His companies organize Kremlin events and allegedly fund the Russian leader’s political and military escapades. In 2018, a US federal court issued an arrest warrant for Prigozhin for, among other things, “conspiracy to defraud the United States”. He accused the restaurateur-turned-billionaire, thanks to his funding from the Internet Research Agency, of “supervising and condoning” widespread interference in the US political system, including in the 2016 presidential election. last year the FBI put Prigozhin on his most wanted list and offered a quarter of a million dollars for tips leading to his arrest. The US Treasury has also sanctioned Prigozhin for running disinformation campaigns through a network of shell companies during other elections in Africa, Asia and Europe. Last month, the United States imposed punishments on Prigozhin (with his wife and two children). “We continue to impose very tough economic sanctions on Putin and everyone around him,” President Biden said. noted at the announcement.

Prigozhin is in the spotlight again this month as Putin, facing humiliating military setbacks in Ukraine, seeks ways to regroup on the battlefield. US and UK officials say Russia is now scrambling to mobilize mercenaries from the notoriously opaque Wagner Group, which is believed to be funded by Prigozhin. NATO recently valued that up to fifteen thousand Russians were killed in the first four weeks of the war – about as many as the Soviet Union lost in its decade-long invasion of Afghanistan. Russia is set to redirect more than a thousand Wagner Group mercenaries, including top leaders, from wars on other continents to Ukraine, UK MoD noted, Last week. Due to the “largely stalled invasion,” he added, “Russia was most likely forced to reprioritize Wagner personnel for Ukraine at the expense of operations in Africa and Syria.”

Since Putin launched his attack, Ukraine and Russia have boasted a staggering number of foreign volunteers and mercenaries ready to join Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II. On March 6, Ukraine announced that approximately twenty thousand people from fifty-two countries had applied to fight in the new International Legion territorial defense of Ukraine. They would have include Americans, Canadians and several European nationalities. “The whole world is on Ukraine’s side today, not only in words but in deeds,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. Recount Ukrainian television.

A few days later, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that some sixteen thousand men from the Middle East had applied to fight for Russia. “As for the mercenaries from all over the world sent to Ukraine, we see that they do not hide it, the Western sponsors of Ukraine, the Ukrainian regime, do not hide it,” Putin said, during a meeting with his senior security official. advisers. “That’s why if you see that there are people who are ready to come as volunteers, especially not for money, and help the people of Donbass, well, we have to meet them halfway through. path and help them move towards the combat zone.”

The infusion of foreigners and “irregular forces” could further complicate an already messy conflict, according to a report released Monday by the Soufan Center, a non-profit global security research group. “The battlefield in Ukraine is incredibly complex, with a range of violent non-state actors – private military contractors, foreign fighters, volunteers, mercenaries, extremists and terrorist groups – all in the mix,” he said. he concluded. In the lexicon of warfare, volunteers who join a rebel force or militia are generally referred to as “foreign fighters”, while mercenaries are generally employed by a state and fight for profit or personal gain. The United States and the UN estimated that the tens of thousands of people who had joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, foreign terrorist fighters, not mercenaries. But such definitions are tricky and easily challenged. The Russian Defense Ministry has labeled all foreigners captured in the Ukrainian International Legion as mercenaries, who will not be eligible for protections as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. “At best, they can expect to be prosecuted as criminals,” the Ministry of Defense said. To drive the point home, on March 13, Russia launched missiles at a base near the Ukraine-Poland border which it described as a “training center for Western mercenaries”.

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The question at this strategic moment in the war is how – or if – foreign fighters and mercenaries will alter the course of the conflict. Experts believe that the estimates for Ukraine and Russia are high, more a wish list than reality. In mid-March, hundreds of foreigners showed up to fight for Ukraine, not thousands. Over time, foreign fighters have the potential to be “force multipliers”, Colin P.Clarke, tells me a senior researcher at the Soufan Center who co-authored the report. “But that’s in the rare case where you have someone who is highly trained and motivated,” like a former member of the US or UK special forces. “These are people who actually know irregular warfare, who can really impact strategy,” he said.

Others who come often serve as ‘cannon fodder’ and cause ‘more harm than they are worth due to lack of experience, as they are basically war tourists who go there for a selfie and a story,” Clarke told me. . Some have complained of arms shortages and the language gap has hampered integration with Ukrainian frontline forces. The Ukrainians, Clarke added, tried to discourage volunteers without military experience, in part because they risked being captured and exploited by Russian propaganda. The State Department has warned Americans should not travel to Ukraine – for any reason – because they run “the very real risk” of capture, criminal prosecution or death. (Some foreign fighters — “shaken by the horrors and brutalities of war” — have already chosen to leave Ukraine, the Soufan Center reported.)

Under the Russian constitution, the use of private military companies is technically illegal. The Kremlin deny that the Wagner group even exists. Prigozhin also denied any connection to the organization, although in 2021 the European Union officially claimed he had funded it. Putin reportedly made mercenaries part of Moscow’s military strategy since its first intervention in Ukraine, in 2014, to seize Crimea, and to support pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass. the wagner The group was created to assist, replace and provide plausible denial to Russian forces. Moscow eventually recruited more than thirteen thousand fighters from several countries to fight in the Donbass, according to the Soufan Center.

Putin’s reliance on Prigozhin, the Wagner Group and other private military contractors has since ‘exploded’, with ‘suspected or proven’ military operations in thirty countries on four continentsfrom Venezuela to Libya and Afghanistan, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Wagner Group recruited, trained, and deployed operatives around the world to project power, undermine the United States, and increase Moscow’s influence using lesser-known contractors. In 2021, the Council of the European Union alleged that the Wagner Group had also been used “to fuel violence, loot natural resources and intimidate civilians in violation of international law”.

During the first ten days of the Russian invasion, it deployed about a thousand Wagner Group mercenaries, a US official told me. But they soon suffered losses too. By early March, around two hundred mercenaries, some of whom belonged to the group, had already died on the battlefield, the official said. Russia is also recruit in syria, where its forces have supported President Bashar al-Assad since 2015. Syria’s eleven-year civil war has produced informal local militias as well as hardened soldiers who earn as little as fifteen to thirty-five dollars a month; Russia would have promised a thousand dollars or more than a month to fight in Ukraine. Syrians alone, however, cannot make a strategic difference, experts say. They don’t speak the language and don’t know the terrain in Ukraine. Assad’s Regime necessary its own foreign fighters, drawn from militias in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as Iranian and Russian strategists.

The Russian army seems to rely on outside help. By mid-March, “nearly 90 percent of the Wagner Group’s manpower and resources were transferred from other theaters to Ukraine,” the Soufan Center reported. Yet Moscow’s recruitment of foreigners reflects desperation, Clarke told me. “They actually need these bodies to replace the conscripts who are dying in large numbers.” On Monday, the Pentagon said Wagner Group contract soldiers were focusing on Donbass as Russia shifted its focus from capturing the capital kyiv to expanding its grip in the resource-rich east and along the south coast. A different phase of the war has begun, with an increasing number of players.

Denise W. Whigham