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Private military competition: Why the US is so worried about Russia’s Wagner

Interference in other countries' affairs via private contractors has long been a staple of US influence operations. Now, Washington is trying to accuse Russia of doing the same, and it's suddenly a bad thing.

First off the mark doesn’t always win the race. Does anyone remember when BlackBerry mobile devices were everywhere and barely anyone had heard of an iPhone, for example? Well, the US created the BlackBerry of private military/security contractors – Blackwater – after decades of outsourcing military and intelligence operations through various front companies. And now they’re so preoccupied with the new iPhone equivalent – Russia’s Wagner Group – that Washington is tracking its activities (including unconfirmed ops) in Ukraine, Syria, across Africa, and Serbia, according to cables obtained by POLITICO

“The US government is concerned about the extent to which Wagner is interfering in sovereign countries’ internal politics, violating human rights, and robbing them of their mineral wealth,” according to a “senior administration official” cited in the report. Leaving aside Washington’s newfound concern for developing countries’ sovereignty over their mineral wealth when that’s often the main underlying reason why they’re typically targeted by the US for some freedom and democracy through firepower in the first place, it’s hard to ignore that the presence of the Wagner Group seems to be concentrated in locations already known for being targeted by clandestine US and allied activities. 

Last year, for example, Mali chose the Wagner Group for a new partnership after kicking out French forces whose efforts to secure the country were so spectacular that there were two coups d’etat in as many years. Wagner Group’s possible presence in Serbia is now being widely discussed. The PMC has allegedly established itself in a “cultural centerin Belgrade, but these claims, initially sourced from a Telegram post, have been denied both by Wagner head Evgeny Prigozhin and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who also recently criticized Serbian-language Wagner recruitment ads that appeared on social media.

If these claims do turn out to be true down the line, it sounds like Serbia was looking for some hired help to prevent the country from becoming a flophouse for Western-backed regime-change chancers targeting Moscow and its top ally, Belgrade. And the presence of Western private military contractors in Ukraine has been well-established, with job offers reportedly popping up right from the outset of the conflict. “Wanted: multilingual former soldiers willing to covertly head into Ukraine for the handsome sum of up to $2,000 per day – plus bonus – to help rescue families from an increasingly grim conflict,” read one. Beyond this covert security role, one would have to be pretty naive to think that, under the cover of the fog of war, a little mission creep towards kinetic operations isn’t tempting. 

It was the US government that created the blueprint for modern day defense contracting when a certain Erik Prince – a son of the car vanity mirror inventor, Edgar Prince, one of the Republican Party’s top donors at the time and a pal of former US defense secretary (and later vice president) Dick Cheney – created Blackwater, which went on to obtain lucrative no-bid security contracts for the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan during Washington’s global war on terrorism. The company started to resemble a retirement home for officials and executives from the CIA and the Pentagon, who conveniently slid over to Blackwater to enjoy a lucrative payday. And despite the company developing a cowboy reputation from incidents like when Blackwater personnel opened fire and killed 14 civilians in Iraq’s Nisour Square in 2007, the US private security model has thrived under subsequent US administrations. 

Blackwater brought to light the kind of covert operations that had long been outsourced by Washington for reasons of plausible deniability. The firm itself “created a web of more than 30 shell companies or subsidiaries in part to obtain millions of dollars in American government contracts after the security company came under intense criticism for reckless conduct in Iraq,” according to the New York Times. The company worked for foreign governments like Jordan to trainhelicopter pilots with US government funding, trained Canadian special forces for two years, and worked directly with the CIA in what the New York Times has described as a “secret program to track and assassinate senior Al-Qaeda figures.”  So despite its rather benign-seeming official US government contracts for the protection of American personnel in conflict zones, it nonetheless served as a direct extension of Washington’s defense, intelligence, and foreign policy interests in the same way as others also funded by the CIA through aid programs.  

In one such program, dating back to 2010, private contractors were hired with USAID money to execute influence operations in Cuba through the creation of a Twitter-like social media network called ZunZuneo. The idea was to reel in unsuspecting Cubans through “non-controversial content,” only to ultimately usher the mob towards civil unrest.  

At the height of the Cold War, the CIA fundedjournalist and feminist activist Gloria Steinem’s work under the “Independent Research Service,” a front group that organizedinternational youth festivals with the objective of influencing youth from around the world presenting a more attractive alternative to Soviet revolutionism.  

Air America infamously provided a covert front for the CIA and Pentagon to provide critical support for US military and intelligence operations in theaters across the world, ranging from the war in Vietnam to the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, before being disbanded in 1974

These examples that have made it out into the public domain are just the tip of the iceberg.

The real problem with the Wagner Group for the US and its allies is that it competes with Western counterparts and could serve to protect the interests of clients that depart from the Western agenda. If the US government has a problem with that now, they might do well to remember that they were the ones who set that particular ball rolling in the first place.


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