In summary

Opinion piece for The Australian, by Dr Jason Thomas, Lecturer in postgraduate Risk Management, Swinburne University of Technology

Business is booming for the world’s second-oldest profession and the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, is fast becoming the market leader. Deployed across Africa, the Middle East, Latin American and Eastern Europe, these Russian mercenaries give President Vladimir Putin a strategic foothold in resource-rich nations.

They also offer a competitive advantage for Russian state-owned companies. In a two-for-one deal for government clients, Wagner can neutralise anti-government forces, while Russian resource firms provide much-needed foreign investment.

Our ASX-listed resource companies would not countenance this model. Meanwhile, under the cover of COVID-19, there is little appetite in Australia or other Western nations to send troops to murky parts of the world, despite the geopolitical risks they so often present.

Mercenaries have been hired by states and kings for centuries, notably the Greek mercenaries the Ten Thousand, who fought in the Persian wars of 401BC.

Then there were rock-band-sounding Italian mercenaries known as the Sons of Mars in the Punic Wars (264BC- 146BC). In The Prince, Machiavelli counselled against using mercenaries: those who were killed were useless but those who survived were a risk to their employer. The British empire expanded its geographical fortunes through mercenaries supporting the East India Company. In The Anarchy, British historian William Dalrymple explains: “We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality.” By 1803 with 200,000 men the East India Company controlled the entire subcontinent.

Founded by Russian special forces Spetsnaz commander Dimitriy Utkin in 2013, Wagner’s ranks are filled with army veterans from Russia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. Coincidentally, Wagner is owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s Chef” because he also runs a catering company. Often Wagner receives rights to resource concessions from government clients. It also establishes military bases in strategic locations such as Sudan and around the Red Sea. According to Jamestown Foundation fellow Sergey Sukhankin, Wagner’s capabilities include infantry, artillery, air defence, tanks as well as intelligence.

In Venezuela, Wagner is protecting the basket-case regime of President Nicolas Maduro. Venezuela is a Latin American pivot for Russia. It also owes Russian state-owned gas giant Rosneft more than $US3bn. Protectors could easily become debt collectors.

It’s not all Vodka shots for Wagner. As if straight from Call of Duty, in February 2018 Wagner fighters were seriously thumped when they attacked US Special Forces protecting an oil facility in the Syrian town of Deir al-Zour. Hundreds of Wagner mercenaries were killed or wounded. In Libya, Wagner’s presence exacerbates an already dreadful and confused situation. The internationally recognised Government of National Accord based in the capital, Tripoli, is supported by Turkey and Qatar. Fighting against the GNA is the Libyan National Army, commanded by General Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is supported by Russia, Egypt and the UAE. Sudanese fighters are also fighting for Haftar. Remember, Turkey and Russia co-operate in northern Syria. What a mess.

A 2019 UN independent report stated up to 1000 Wagner operatives were in Libya “advising” Haftar. The Kremlin says Wagner has nothing to do with them. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no fool. He knows Wagner is attempting to shape the outcome in Russia’s favour. Now Wagner is sending in Syrian mercenaries. In May, US Africa Command reported Russian MiG-29s and Su-24 fighter jets were flown by Wagner pilots into the Libyan theatre. Straight from the playbook of notorious Russian gun-runner Viktor Bout – the Bill Gates of arms trafficking – planes were painted to disguise their origin.

In Mozambique, Wagner’s was the lowest bidder in President Filipe Nyusi’s request for tender to remove a growing ISIS problem. Rich in natural gas, Mozambique is a former Russian client state. Wagner’s deployment saw Putin negotiate concessions for gas fields after meeting with Nyusi in Moscow. It was going well until a Wagner team was ambushed last October by the jihadists. Several Wagner employees were beheaded. Mozambique is one of the toughest places in Africa, made even tougher when the locals don’t like you. And Wagner doesn’t do hearts and minds.

Consider how Wagner might deal with Afghanistan as the US forces exit after the signing of the peace deal with the Taliban. Forgetting we have the History Channel, last year Putin invited Taliban and Afghan officials to Moscow to celebrate “100 years of Russo-Afghan friendship”. In the 1980s, Soviet mining experts found huge deposits of iron, copper, gold, cobalt, rare earth minerals and lithium in Afghanistan; 50km southeast of Kabul, in Logar Province, sits a massive copper deposit. Whereas Australian soldiers were chastised for doing a deal with Urzugan warlord Matiullah Khan, to enable safe passage of logistic supplies to our soldiers, Wagner never concerns itself with such nuanced ethical judgments.

In May, Australian mining company Mako Gold sold its Burkina Faso Niou project to Russian Norgold. Burkina Faso is fast becoming a jihadist hotspot. In 2018 Burkina Faso and Russia signed a counterterrorism agreement. Wagner is sure to follow. Our geopolitical competitors adopt flexible governance models. Russia’s value proposition (or perhaps Wagner’s) fits with its clients. And Australian resource companies do not use mercenaries to take and hold tenements.

The question is whether this becomes an issue as resource competition intensifies, especially for strategically important rare earth minerals so in demand for telecommunications and renewable energy. In a debt-destroyed post-pandemic world, Western governments will be disinclined to take any interest in stability operations in these murky corners of the world. But such far-flung pockets have a history of becoming the flash-bang for some of the biggest geopolitical events of our time.

This article is republished from The Australian. Read the original article.

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