They have been active in Ukraine since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and in Syria as early as 2013 (in the form of predecessor, the Slavonic Corps). They have significant presence in countries including the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali. But it is their involvement in the invasion of Ukraine since early 2022 that has pushed the Wagner Group into headlines across the globe. Now, especially after the abortive mutiny in late June, everyone knows who they are.
However, Wagner Group, though perhaps especially brutal, and especially shadowy, is far from unique. From Aegis to G4S to Blackwater (now Academi), recent conflicts have seen an increasing number private contractors take on logistics, training and even security and combat roles. (Though in the case of Wagner, it’s somewhat questionable how “private” they really were). It’s the latter, often called mercenaries, which are particularly controversial. But what are mercenaries, and how worried should we be about their proliferation?