A village in Ndah, Central African Republic, where rebels provide some protection for the civilian population against mercenaries of the Russian Wagner Group, Jan. 15, 2023. (Veronique de Viguerie/Paris Match via Getty Images)

As new forms of geopolitical competition crop up around the world, a recent trend in the use of state-affiliated private military and security companies (PMSCs) has seen these actors deployed into a growing number of civil conflicts. While by no means the only PMSC active in conflict zones today, the Russian government-affiliated Wagner Group has gained widespread public attention for its brutal tactics in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, among other locales. Less well understood are the implications that Wagner’s presence on the battlefield has for United Nations (UN) peace operations and their protection of civilians (PoC) mandates. As the use of private forces in civil conflict expands to include other state sponsors such as China and the Gulf states, it is ever more important for the international community to understand the consequences of modern mercenaries for peace operations environments and the effectiveness of these missions in protecting civilians from harm.

Regime security as a commercial product

For political leaders struggling to consolidate power in states with weak security institutions and active insurgencies, the definitive military effects dubiously promised by the Wagner Group offer an appealing alternative to traditional international peace and security interventions. In CAR, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra signed a defense cooperation agreement with the government of Russia in late 2017 in an effort to expand his government’s influence beyond the limits of the capital, Bangui. In Mali, Wagner forces began deploying in December 2021 following a strategic turn away from France accelerated by interim President Assimi Goïta, who took power in a coup earlier that year.

Private military and security companies are hardly a new phenomenon in Africa, nor are they a new factor in the strategic considerations for peace operations. In the 1990s, the UN deployed peacekeeping missions in Angola and Sierra Leone in the aftermath of decisive but short-lived battlefield victories against insurgent groups delivered by the South African and British firms Executive Outcomes and Sandline International. In the 2000s, the UN became embroiled in the fallout from a scandal in the Balkans involving allegations of human trafficking by DynCorp contractors. And since the US invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, UN special political missions have struggled to investigate and promote accountability for human rights abuses carried out by Western security contractors such as Blackwater and G4S Global. Read more