Privatizing the state armed forces was also published by the Manila Times on 5 July 2023.
The one-day Wagner mutiny that embarrassed Russia President Vladimir Putin and attracted kibitzers from around the world has brought to the open what used to be closed-door discussions on the potential risks and returns of privatizing state armed forces. Private-public partnership (PPP) models in the security sector abound, and variations of them can be found in the Philippines, but this one brings yet novel elements that innovators may find useful.
The Wagner Group has become the new face of a high-risk, high-reward business proposition. (Its name supposedly originated from the callsign of Dmitry Utkin, a retired Russian military intelligence officer who later assumed a key leadership role for the Wagner Group—some say he was the co-founder or founder himself—and apparently a fan of a Nazi-era composer with the same name.) It receives substantial funding support from the Russian government. Just days after the 23-24 June 2023 Wagner rebellion, Putin told Russian defense officials that his government “had paid the Wagner Group around $1 billion over the past year.”
Aside from “professional fees” private military groups (PMGs) or private military companies (PMCs)—aka mercenaries (called contractors in the United States) like Wagner also claim their share of war spoils and booties. Before the Ukraine war, Wagner has been involved in Crimea—”where mercenaries in unmarked uniforms helped Russian-backed separatist forces take over the area,” according to a report–Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, and Iraq, among other military conflict areas. In Africa, the mercenaries reportedly locked in “energy concessions and valuable raw materials in exchange for military support in Syria and Central Africa.” British newspaper Financial Times estimated that “between 2018 and 2021, revenues from Wagner’s holdings in natural resources reached approximately $250 million.” And then there are reports of Wagner fighters, not unlike any typical invader, raping women in conflict zones.
With rewards come the risks. Aljazeera early in the year, quoting White House sources, reported that around 30,000 Wagner fighters in Ukraine have either been killed or dead from injuries. On the part of the government, the risks include operational strains that could lead to angst among fighters on the ground, and a pervading discontent turning to belligerence and rebellion, just like what happened to the short-lived Wagner mutiny.
Like all mortals, mercenaries are motivated by money. In the case of Wagner, hefty insurance funds are being set aside from families of fighters who perished in the battlefield. Most recruits from penal facilities are also motivated by prospects to eventually walk free (Aljazeera further reported that 90 percent of Wagner fighters killed in Ukraine were convicts). This reminds us of civil wars in the US before it declared its independence in 1776 up to the time it launched its imperialistic wars in Cuba and the Philippines. Black people (who were slaves) enlisted themselves (some would constitute what came to be known as Buffalo Soldiers) in exchange of the promise that they would be granted their freedom.
Governments employ private armies to fight their wars overseas because they have found this PPP route more flexible and less costly than maintaining listed troops. Above all, defense officials can dodge accountability when something goes wrong, such as when employees of Blackwater Security Consulting, a PMC contracted by the US government killed 17 Iraqis in Baghdad on 16 September 2007, while providing security to U.S. embassy staff and personnel.
The State can always deny responsibility for misdeeds attributed to private armies. In fact, both the Russian government and Wagner have denied the existence of Wagner until the latter’s role in the Ukraine war became too important to be ignored.
The then-Prime Minister Putin told his country’s legislature—Duma—in 2012 that PMGs/PMCs enable the government to advance the national interests without the direct involvement of the state. Lives lost by PMCs on the battlefield do not count. As individuals—they can be convicts, of different nationalities, or hired by other PMCs on sub-contracts—they do not hold government plantilla positions.
Like the Philippines, Russia does not legally recognize PMCs. Its constitution provides that “all matters of security and defense belong solely to the state.” To get around this, mercenaries like Wagner are employed by state-run enterprises, which are allowed to establish their own security personnel. This model is largely a western copy. In the US, it has come to a point where most of those fighting for its wars abroad are not even Americans. Worse, a US Senate investigation in 2010 showed evidence of recruits that have been linked to criminal organizations involved in murder, kidnapping, bribery, etc. It also found that a British PMC “ArmorGroup sub-contracted two Afghan military companies.”
The Philippines is not engaged in a shooting war against any country. But government considers the left-leaning armed groups and Muslim separatists in Mindanao as internal threats, and against which it has for decades mounted offensive operations. The closest resemblance to engaging the private sector for these operations would be contracting paramilitary groups in the countryside.
Private armies that serve the interests of political dynasties can be considered as de facto state armed groups because they live on salaries and insurance money sourced from corruption of public funds. State forces and assets also come in handy to serve private interests—for example, choppers were used to transport imports by Pharmally in 2021, or military and police officials providing escort services to wealthy and politically-connected individuals.
Unlike the typical security sector PPPs in other countries in which the state engages private armed groups to fight its wars, the Philippine government engages its armed forces to serve private interests.