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  • Writer's pictureRed Line Producer

Episode 55. The Privatisation of Warfare: Russian PMC Operations in Africa

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Warfare is becoming increasingly privatised, and the rules of the battlefield are shifting. With more and more PMCs involved in warfare around the world, many fronts have become companies fighting companies, and the international justice system has no framework to deal with it. This week we take a look at just how out of control the situation has become by analysing the operations of Russian PMC Wagner in Africa and on the sea.



Sean McFate

  • Former Private Military Contractor

  • Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council

  • Professor of Strategy at Georgetown University and the National Defence University

  • Author of several key books about the Private Military Industry

Catrina Doxsee

  • Expert in Counter-Terrorism and Irregular warfare for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

  • Associate Director for the CSIS Transnational Threats Department

  • Sits on the Editorial Board for the Irregular Warfare Initiative

Andreas Kreig

  • Associate Professor of Strategic Studies at King's College in London

  • Professor at the UK Defence Academy

  • CEO of MENA Analytica

  • Author of Surrogate Warfare


Part 1: Soldiers of Fortune (3:23)

  • McFate takes us through some of the basic legalities around Private Military Companies (PMCs), particularly in regard to the legally impactful question of whether they can be classified as mercenaries. By avoiding this definition, they are not bound by the many laws that exist about mercenary work, leading to the explosion in their use over the last several years.

  • To example this and look at a recent use case we dive into the PMC industry at sea, particularly their role as guards against pirates in the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Guinea. To what extent are they legitimate operators, what authority do they have, what are the legal limitations of their action, and how effective have they been?

  • We overview the parties involved, and their respective interests. From small states who can't maintain a constant military and naval power, to large countries who want to avoid responsibility for actions. Who is employing PMCs, where do PMC fighters come from, and where do they operate? And how might their use develop in the near future?

  • Finally we look at the key problems with Private Militaries as their use continues to skyrocket. This includes the jurisdictional mess of trying to prosecute any crimes, how increasingly well-armed these groups are, as well as the inherent danger of unleashing highly armed, highly capable military operators into your country whose only interest is profit.


Part 2: From Russia With Guns (35:57)

  • Doxsee takes us through the development of this industry, from the early days in Iraq and Afghanistan, all the way to today where we see PMCs throughout the world, rapidly expanding their reach and operations.

  • We look at the grim details of some operations in Mozambique and the Central African Republic by groups like Wagner, and the reports of human rights abuses and criminal activity by these groups. With these groups sanctioned by local regimes, and the level of danger in which they operate making humanitarian and journalistic work near impossible, what can be done?

  • We then look to examine the Wagner group. Unlike most PMCs, the group trains right next door to Russia's special forces, and takes its orders from the Kremlin. They don't take outside contracts, and so are becoming only a slightly legally distinguished part of the Russian military apparatus.

  • Given these close ties, Doxsee analyses the Kremlin's strategy with the Wagner Group. By using their state-backed power to undercut the costs of many rivals, they are able to win the contracts that they desire, but to what end is this support offered. What is Moscow seeking in countries like Mozambique and the Central African Republic, and what part do Wagner play in the larger strategy at play?

  • We overview where Russian Private Military companies are working across Africa and where they have been in negotiations to do so. To this end, we look at the fundamental issue of entrusting your security with organisations that thrive and profit from insecurity.


Part 3: Corporate Retreat (57:37)

  • Kreig focuses on PMCs hired by smaller states and the particularly complex legalities of maritime PMCs. An incident on a cargo vessel involves the ship's flag country, the ship's ownership country, the crew employment country, the coastal country, the vessel's departure and arrival countries, as well the countries involved in the PMC itself. This jurisdictional nightmare is part of why PMCs have seen little to no consequences for their actions.

  • We look at Abu Dhabi's hiring of Reflex Limited in response to the Arab Spring. Initially contracted to use lethal force against any domestic uprisings, they were later used in Yemen and Somalia to pursue the interests of Abu Dhabi, and signify the key role that the UAE has had in expanding and legitimising the use of mercenaries and PMCs in active conflicts, not just security.

  • We get Kreig's view on what the future holds for Privatised Warfare. In his view, PMCs are one part of the increasingly blurring lines between state and non-state actors in geopolitics. Additionally, with many states downgrading their military spending and investment, and security problems around the world increasing, the security gap is only widening, and opening up more and more opportunities for PMCs.


The Red Line's Privatised Warfare Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Privatised Warfare.


The New Rules of War

Sean McFate

Surrogate Warfare

Andreas Kreig


Jeremy Scahill



For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Ronbo and Jeff B.


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