Signing on with the Wagner Group was supposed to be a ‘get out of jail’ card, but for tens of thousands of young Russian men it became a ticket to Hell. According to US estimates, about 9,000 members of the mercenary group have been KIA in Ukraine and another 20,000-plus wounded.

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Like the once-vaunted Russian Army, which was expected to blitz through its neighbour within a matter of days (the same mistake Donald Rumsfeld made in Iraq), the Wagner reputation has similarly suffered in the crucible of conflict against a more highly motivated and better-trained foe.

The UK Ministry of Defence estimates up to 60,000 deaths for regular Russian troops and mercs, and up to 200,000 combined casualties. That’s a lot of cannon fodder without much territory gained to show for it.

Let the finger-pointing begin. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former hot dog vendor who has become a wealthy oligarch via proximity to Vladimir Putin, has complained that the Russian defence establishment is both trying to steal credit for his Wagner Group’s modest successes and that they are failing to supply his forces with needed supplies to punch through Ukrainian lines. Some Kremlin leaders are also concerned that Prigozhin, who ran the Internet Research Agency troll farm that meddled in American elections, will try to elevate his ‘businessman / war hero’ status into political office. It’s been suggested he has adopted the tactic of assassinating rivals, allegedly ordering the murder of Yenot mercenary group founder and neo-Nazi Igor Mangushev.

It is ironic that the Wagner Group, which claims to be trying to ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine, is identified with 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner, said to be Hitler’s favourite.

On the other side of the trenches in Donbas, there was, for a few months, a pro-Ukrainian group with the in-your-face name of The Mozart Group. Founded after the Russian invasion a year ago by two retired US Marine colonels, Mozart at its height had a few dozen volunteers from mostly anglophone countries (and a rescue dog mascot named Richie), attempting to provide military training, civilian evacuation, and humanitarian aid distribution. Mozart did not engage in combat, but were targeted on Wagner’s hit list. They were always operating on a shoestring of donations, and after a falling out between the ‘two Andys,’ Milburn and Bain, they packed up their instruments earlier this year.

There is no lack of soldiers of fortune facing off in Ukraine.

On the Russian side, there are reportedly ‘little green men’ from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Latvia, the pro-Russia regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria, perhaps a couple hundred Germans, Serbs and Hungarians, Syrians and Turks, Kurdish communists, a small number of Spanish socialists (grateful for USSR support during the Spanish Civil War, nearly a century ago), plus European and North American white supremacists, fascists and Christian extremists who revere Putin’s ‘religious values.’

The Ukrainians have an official ‘foreign legion,’ which has numbered as many as 20,000 rent-a-soldiers from 60 countries.

The Kalinoŭski Regiment from Belarus wants to keep Ukraine independent so they, in turn, can liberate their homeland from the Lukashenko regime. The Georgian Legion, which conducts sabotage, ambush and reconnaissance activities behind enemy lines, is made up of about 1500 fighters from more than a dozen countries, including Australia, Chile, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, UK, US, and of course Georgia. The Freedom of Russia Legion is comprised of defectors from the Russian Armed Forces, and is said to have 4000 candidates. There’s also the Russian Volunteers Corps, formed from right-wing emigrants living in Ukraine.

So-called ‘private military contractors’ are nothing new. Mercenary (from the Latin merces – pay, wages, reward) is called “the second oldest profession in the world.” In 401 BC, Pythagoras the Spartan was retained to command the first naval fleet for Cyrus the Younger in his attempt to gain the throne of Persia. Julius Caesar was saved at the Battle of Alesia by German horsemen. The philosopher Rene Descartes fought for both the Protestants and Catholics in the Thirty Years War of the 17th century.

More recently, US and Coalition Forces deployed massive numbers of non-military support personnel to Iraq and Afghanistan, such as the notorious Eric Prince Blackwater group (now rebranded Academi), which had four employees convicted of killing Iraqi civilians, including children, in the Nisour Square massacre. At the peaks of the 20-year wars, contractors represented 50% of the force structure in Iraq and 70% in Afghanistan, respectively. Of the 50,000 contractors assigned to US Central Command in 2018, only 20,000 were American. ‘Corporate casualties’ are said to have outnumbered military.

“Trendlines indicate the United States may outsource 80 to 90 percent of its future wars,” according to Dr. Sean McFate, Professor of Strategy in the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University, in his NDU monograph, “Mercenaries and War: Understanding Private Armies Today.”

And why not? Russia has outsourced to Wagner. NATO has effectively ‘in-sourced’ its battle in Eastern Europe to the valiant Ukrainians and mercenaries with just-in-time arms to hold the line (but maybe not to outright win). NGOs, oil and mining operators, shipping lines worried about privateers, separatist groups, warlords, drug cartels, terrorist groups, and even ‘patriotic’ paramilitaries in various countries hire ‘private security’ to carry out missions for which there is little or no accountability and human life is expendable.

Prigozhin has seemed fixated recently on the capture of Bakhmut, which the Russians call Artyomovsk. In a rare interview the Wagner commander stated, “Bakhmut is needed so our troops can operate comfortably.” The small city on the Bakhmutovka river also happens to be home to a salt mining industry. Wagner weaponry is funded by billions it derives from mines in central Africa. So could Prigozhin’s real objective be the profits to be made? To fuel a run for office? Or just to line his pockets further?

That’s the whole point about mercenaries, isn’t it? To follow the money. For some, ideology. For some, machismo. For all, what’s in it for me. Blood money.