No group in history has posed as many dangers as soldiers who feel abandoned by their leaders. Whether they are conscripts, volunteers or mercenaries, officers or rank-and-file, the men who fought for a cause that later became reviled as failed or wrong are neglected at great peril. History is littered with examples of rogue militias, mutinous guard regiments and brigades-turned-brigands, who have escaped their leash and gone on to wreak havoc and commit worse crimes than their creators ever imagined.
A product of Russia’s mafioso imperium, neither fully of the state nor a market mercenary, the Wagner Group threatens to become our latest example. But in the contest between Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, there is are clear winners — aggrieved frontline soldiers who demanded better conditions, and their non-commissioned officers (NCOs) who nurse a cult of militarist ultra-nationalism mixed with toxic masculinity. The two men were competing for the allegiances of these soldiers.
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Indeed, commentaries on the Wagner Group mutiny against the Russian high command have focused on what it tells us about Putin’s political frailty and the balance of forces in Ukraine. Few have fastened onto the point that Prigozhin channelled the anger of neglected soldiers, and Putin neutralised him by appeasing their grievances.
As it turned out, Prigozhin’s appeal didn’t ignite a wider mutiny and Putin’s counter-offer was better on the day, but the bidding isn’t over. Russia’s soldiers — in the regular army and in the half-dozen private military companies — have tasted power and will be asking for more. Whether they will settle for a material payoff, or whether their demands will be overtly political, remains to be seen. Probably it will be both.
Like forgotten soldiers throughout history, Wagner’s grievances are easy to understand. Shared experience of combat generates heightened emotions and deep bonds of solidarity. Low wages paid late, poor rations, worse sanitation and medical care, are the topic of resentful gossip during the interminable hours of boredom, alongside stories of generals who care only for their own comforts. When the war is over, their skills are no longer in demand. All of this breeds feelings of collective victimhood. Bitter veterans often despise civilian political leaders; they are commonly misogynistic and conspiracy-minded. Theirs is an infectious sentiment that can be eagerly adopted by other men who missed out on the war and crave to join the club.
A ruler bidding for the loyalty of disaffected soldiers is a combustible mix. The would-be tsar in the Kremlin might want to reflect on what happened during the “auction of the Roman empire” in AD 193. That year, the Pretorian Guard mounted a coup and declared that whoever paid them most would become Caesar. Didius Julianus, a man whose wealth and vanity exceeded his political acumen, outbid his rival and won the post — and was assassinated a few months later.
America’s more recent imperial experiments have created their own host of monstrous military offspring. Perhaps most infamously, al-Qaeda started life as a welfare and employment scheme for the “Arab Afghans” — the international brigades of volunteers from the Arab world who joined the jihad against the Soviet Union in the Eighties with CIA backing. They had nowhere to go when the conflict ended. But the Arab Afghans are an unusual case in that these forgotten fighters had actually won their war and had every expectation that they would be welcomed home as heroes. But Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab countries didn’t want them — and Osama bin Laden offered them a home. He gave them jobs on construction projects and farming schemes in Sudan, while those with disabling war injuries got pensions. After Saudi Arabia rebuffed bin Laden’s proposal to remobilise the Arab Afghans as an alternative to the US Army to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, he launched his second jihad.
Later American interventions also saw abandoned soldiers remobilised. Hussein’s Iraqi army was recklessly dissolved by the US provisional administration after taking control of Baghdad in 2003. Many of them joined al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State. The overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya let loose his Saharan brigades to destabilise Mali. And an even more contemporary case can be found among the US-trained Afghan special forces, abandoned two years ago, and now being recruited by Russia. Isolated, unemployed and under threat in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, turned away by an impenetrable US immigration system, some of these soldiers have accepted good pay to use their skills in Ukraine.
The frontiers of empire are always cruel. And when those empires retract their reach, the men they employed on their front lines — officers from the metropolis or local irregulars — may opt for freelancing. There’s no doubt that regular Russian officers sympathised with Prigozhin’s tirades against the field marshals, and should that high command crumble, both regular units and mercenaries may go rogue.
The end of Europe’s empires left many colonial officers adrift. Often candidly racist, they had won many battles and refused to accept that they had lost the wars. France’s mutinous colonels in Algeria were placated by Charles de Gaulle’s words, “I have heard you”, spoken with the credibility of a war hero, but the rancour of abandonment was diluted, not purged.
And some veterans of Britain’s counterinsurgencies in Malaya and Kenya gravitated to Rhodesia and South Africa where they contributed to the last stand of racist rule in Africa. In turn, as South Africa’s post-apartheid army shed its dirty war specialists, some of them turned to commercial mercenarism. The flagship was Executive Outcomes, which provided combat services in Sierra Leone where it was paid in diamonds. It is a template for a host of private military companies which now operate across the Middle East and Africa — including Wagner.
Perhaps the most chilling parallel comes from Sudan. The paramilitary “Rapid Support Forces” currently ravaging the nation’s capital and committing genocidal massacres in Darfur are a hybrid of state militia and mercenary enterprise. Their leader, General Mohamed Dagolo “Hemedti” is, like Prigozhin, a plain-speaking populist commander and a wealthy mafioso businessman. And the two men became business partners — not least because Hemedti has been selling smuggled gold to Moscow.
The RSF’s origins lie in the notorious Janjaweed militia used by Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to suppress rebellion in Darfur 20 years ago. The Janjaweed were drawn from nomadic Arab tribes, some of the most deprived communities of the region. They stalled rebel advances by burning, pillaging, raping and killing their way through hundreds of villages suspected of rebel sympathies. The militia was vilified internationally and disowned by al-Bashir. And, cast adrift, the Janjaweed began to mutiny, using the label “the forgotten soldiers”. They were eventually brought back into al-Bashir’s fold with amnesty and financial inducements, and under Hemedti’s capable and merciless leadership they were formalised as a paramilitary, reporting directly to al-Bashir.
They fought as mercenaries in Yemen, gaining battlefield experience while their commander established personal links with Gulf rulers and became a gold trader. It was at this time that al-Bashir brought the RSF to Khartoum as a personal protection force, refusing to heed the advice of his army generals to dissolve the group or at least to relocate it away from the capital. It was a big mistake. Four years ago, Hemedti conspired with senior generals to depose al-Bashir. By this point, the RSF had become as powerful as the army itself; what they lacked in aircraft and tanks, they made up for in tactical acuity and battlefield experience.
This rogue private army tried to seize power in a kleptocratic-gangster state. The putsch failed, but the regular army — corrupt and inept — can’t prevail either. The Sudanese state is being destroyed in the generals’ fight to the death. This is the scenario most feared by Russians.
How, though, do you resolve the problem of abandoned but ambitious soldiers? There’s some experience from the deals that ended civil wars in countries from Myanmar and Colombia to Congo and South Sudan. The military men who negotiate these are attentive to the demands of their armed followers. The text of a peace agreement typically includes material recompense for their foot soldiers — what’s known as a “payroll peace”. This is sold to international mediators as a temporary expedient, though it rarely turns out that way. Officers are licensed to stick their fingers into the national honeypot. Armed groups are supposed to transition to civilian political parties, but their leaders normally keep both the armed and civil options open — while adding crony capitalist businesses to their portfolios.
The political price for pandering to populist militarism is harder to quantify. Myths of honourable causes abandoned, of national entitlements betrayed, endure for generations. Once these beliefs are planted, they don’t get forgotten. Whatever the DNA of the original seed of discontent, the laws of militarist mutation decree that the plant that grows will be toxic.
Putin had hoped for a short, victorious war in Ukraine. He didn’t get it. Putin hoped to be the master of the imperial militarist narrative. The jibes of Prigozhin and other hardliners, and the steps Putin took to placate the mutineers, suggest that imperial militarism is now his master. It’s hard to see him repeating de Gaulle’s performance in Algiers: the howls of betrayal will be too loud.
The logic of power in a mafia state is that the ruler pays the going market rate to specialists in violence. In Russia, that price — financial and political — has just gone up. Russia’s military politics have taken a toxic turn. That’s good news for Russia’s mercenaries and ultra-nationalists. It’s bad news for everyone else.