Rome (Agenzia Fides) - Private Military Companies (PMC), like the Russian Wagner, are the most modern and professional form of mercenary formations used since ancient times by States to reinforce their military units or to wage proxy wars without deploying their own soldiers.
Modern private military companies often officially offer "military assistance" to states requesting their services, in the form of training and logistical support, but their agents may be engaged in direct combat in support of their client. Historically, the first modern private army was formed in Britain in 1965 by Colonel David Stirling, the Scottish officer who founded the Special Air Service (SAS) in 1942, the British special force that gradually expanded not only in the West but in many similar troops have emerged throughout the world. WatchGuard International Ltd with headquarters in London was registered as an offshore company in the tax haven of Jersey. The modernity of Sterling's creature was given by its structure as a duly registered company that recruited former members of the SAS and other British elite formations. Until then, those who wanted to make use of mercenaries created ad hoc structures, which were then dissolved once the mission was accomplished, to recruit not only from ex-military personnel, but also from circles linked to the underworld and political extremism. Just think of the mercenary group "Affreux", which was active in the former Belgian Congo (today's Democratic Republic of the Congo). "WatchGuard" received orders to reinforce and train the security forces of some Gulf states, often thanks to the "proposal" made by British intelligence to local authorities. The company's involvement in an attempt to overthrow Gaddafi in the early 1970s, which was thwarted with the help of Italian (and possibly American) authorities, is disputed. This company was the model for other similar troops that later arose, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, where these formally private companies nevertheless acted with at least the tacit consent of their government. However, the model that the Russian Wagner Group followed was South Africa's Executive Outcomes (EO), founded in 1989 by Eeben Barlow, a former special forces officer in apartheid South Africa. The EO units, which were mainly recruited from former members of elite South African units, had a special corporate structure as this private army was part of a larger holding company that also included mining companies. In fact, the "company" offered its services to countries like Angola and Sierra Leone in exchange for mining concessions. In addition, EO units also engaged directly in combat, using heavy weapons, including attack helicopters, while competing companies generally adopted a lower profile. Thanks to these resources, the EO was independent of the South African government, which, however, enacted laws banning such private armies, so that EO was dissolved in 1998 (also under pressure from the USA).
In the Iraq war several private security companies were involved, the most famous of which was the American Blackwater (restructured and renamed several times), which, however, joined the regular Anglo-American units (in addition to the PMCs, in Iraq there are many private security companies, PMS, to protect foreign facilities and personnel, including humanitarian organizations ). Wagner was founded after EO founder Barlow was invited to the St. Petersburg forum in 2010 to discuss the possible creation of Russian PMCs with members of the Moscow General Staff, despite local legislation prohibiting their formation. In any case, EO's model fits quite well to describe Wagner. It is part of a broader holding that includes mining companies and others that carry out disinformation campaigns, adopt heavily armed military formations and are directly involved in combat. The fundamental difference with the EO is the relationship with the Russian state and, in particular, with the Military Intelligence Service (GRU) in whose facilities Wagner's recruits are trained. In addition, to swell his ranks, Wagner had the opportunity to recruit inmates in Russian prisons. The future of the company, after the well-known events of the last few days, remains uncertain for the moment. While his men engaged in the war in Ukraine will presumably be incorporated into the Russian army, Wagner still has several thousand people active abroad, especially in African countries, from where he can extract economic resources thanks to the exploitation of some gold mines. In States such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Central Africa, Wagner has served the Kremlin's strategy of undermining French troops by replacing them with their own mercenaries, supporting coup regimes such as those of Bamako and Ouagadougou, or governments such as the Central African one that maintains disputes with Paris. Finally, Sudan accuses Wagner of supporting the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), born as a para-government militia and transformed into an armed body of the State, but endowed with broad operational and financial autonomy, from the gold trade to the hiring of its own militiamen to fight in Yemen and Libya. A model that recalls that of Wagner, also because the RSF started a conflict with the regular army that wanted to put them under their control. In contexts of institutional crisis of the States, their monopoly of force is contested not only by guerrilla or criminal organizations, but also by private military companies. (L.M.) (Agenzia Fides, 28/6/2023)