The death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner mercenary chief, has set off intense speculation over the future of the world’s most dangerous private army.
In reality, the departure of the boss may not change much.
Another Wagner lieutenant can easily fill the leadership vacuum left by the plane crash that killed Mr. Prigozhin and Dmitri Utkin, his deputy and a retired Russian special forces officer who was a key member of the Wagner group.
After Mr. Prighozin’s failed mutiny in June, President Vladimir Putin forced many Wagner mercenaries to surrender their weapons to the Russian military, granting his generals their wish. But Wagner’s best fighters are in Africa. Reports emerged on Thursday that the Russian government is now moving to take control of operations of the enterprise there that Mr. Prigozhin built as a conflict entrepreneur. It is simply too profitable for Mr. Putin to fully disband.
In fact, the business model Mr. Prigozhin created with his Wagner force has been so successful that it has become a blueprint for wannabe mercenary overlords to follow, potentially emboldening up-and-coming paramilitary forces to step into unstable places, impose their might in similarly ruthless and violent ways and grab resources.
In the last 10 years, mercenary groups across the globe have proliferated and grown bolder as military contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan ended, the hired-gun labor pool expanded and norms against using private forces eroded. Mercenaries are believed to have played key roles in the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti, openly battled with American troops in Syria and created a hired-gun bonanza in Libya.
When I worked in north and sub-Saharan Africa as a military contractor between 2003 and 2013, I was part of that illicit and robust market for might. The ecosystem had all the necessary components — private spies, fixers, hired guns, troll farms. I saw how that loose network could surge collectively to meet demand.
That happened in 2015 when Nigeria reportedly hired mercenaries from southern Africa and ex-Soviet republics to combat Boko Haram. It also happened during the failed mercenary coup d’état of Equatorial Guinea in 2004. I had a firsthand look at how a model like Mr. Prighozin’s could destabilize some of the most vulnerable places on earth.
That model has been ticking along profitably since 2014. Mr. Prigozhin apparently kept an opportunistic eye on conflict markets: Any place rich in natural resources, political rivalries, post-colonial grievances and short on rule of law was ripe for exploitation.
The blueprint for what followed probably went something like this: Once he spotted an opening, he would pitch it to Mr. Putin, and, if amenable, Mr. Putin would unofficially sanction Wagner’s operations, sometimes providing them with military equipment and intelligence. Sending some 50,000 Wagner mercenaries to Ukraine was just one part of a larger enterprise. (Mr. Putin originally denied links to Prigozhin activities but he recently said that the Wagner group was funded by the Russian state.)
With Mr. Putin’s blessing in place, Mr. Prigozhin would approach the potential client, typically a head of state or group of putschists, and propose a deal. He would coup-proof them using Wagner muscle and create an elite military unit to serve them. He would use another arm of his business empire, a troll factory called the Internet Research Agency, to smear domestic opposition, popularize the client and further exploit grievances against the West. In exchange, he very likely demanded two things. First, the regime had to abandon the West and support Russia’s interests. Second, it had to grant Russia access to natural resources such as oil, natural gas and gold.
That system apparently helped make Mr. Prigozhin a very rich man, generating some $250 million from natural resource extraction since 2018 and providing Mr. Putin with plausible deniability as Russia sought to establish influence in resource-rich countries and fund the war in Ukraine.
The roaring success of Mr. Prigozhin’s model and the atrocities left in Wagner’s wake have troubling implications in an era when rare earth minerals and metals have become critical in manufacturing consumer electronics, renewable energy products and hardware for national defense technologies, like quantum computing. Some of the world’s largest untouched reserves lie beneath dangerous conflict landscapes in Central Africa and South Asia. Traditional mining companies can’t easily operate there, but the obstacles are fewer for mercenaries, who can take an area by force, defend it against militants, the state and competitors, and provide security for smuggling out the ore.
If new conflict entrepreneurs managed to carve out a fief of rare earth minerals and deposits in the Congo region or Afghanistan, which potentially has the world’s largest deposits of lithium, they could come to control a strategic choke point in the global supply chain. They would have the power to move markets, blackmail nations and shape geopolitics, as the quasi-mercenary British East India Company once did.
Other private security companies could get into the resource business if they are able to scale. Already at least half a dozen such companies — including Russian, French and Nigerian outfits — are working across Africa or have the capacity to do so. In Afghanistan, the Blackwater founder Erik Prince once proposed turning over the entire nation’s security to mercenaries — and paying for it by extracting mineral deposits and rare earths from the region.
Those companies may not be strictly mercenary groups, but as the need for these minerals continues to boom and the prospect of mining them gets riskier, expect a keener interest by private armed actors led by a conflict entrepreneur to step into the breach, like a general contractor coming in to fix your home.
This was apparently the Prigozhin model. Mr. Putin might replace his general contractor, but not the Wagner forces. The fact that the Russian leader seems to be continuing to tolerate and use and is possibly assuming more direct control over mercenaries — despite their humiliating and destabilizing march on Moscow — is testament to Mr. Prigozhin’s real legacy.
More worrying are the copycats who may also latch onto it. A world awash in mercenaries breeds more war and more human suffering.
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Sean McFate is a professor in the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University, and author of “The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order.”
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