So, 33 Russians walk into a spa outside of Minsk, the capital of Belarus. They arrive as a group and look and act like soldiers of fortune – mercenaries. Which is what they are, Russian mercenaries. It’s a week before the president is up for reelection in Belarus for a sixth term, which seems – no matter what the official vote count will say – to be a wildly unpopular idea.
So, President Alexander Lukashenko needs a threat even worse than four more years of him in charge – a threat of outside intervention from Russia. Which is what Lukashenko’s state media are saying, that the Russian mercs had come to town to mess with the upcoming election, which is why they were all detained by state security.
The charge and the arrests were clearly unwarranted. If Russian mercenaries planned an overthrow mission in Minsk, they would probably be a bit more discreet about their presence, not displaying 33 foreign-accented bad-asses in a bunch.
The likely explanation is, the Russian contractors were getting in a few days of familiar cooking and surroundings before flying off to their real missions – messing with elections, governments or just people in Sudan, Syria or Libya.
Meanwhile – hear this, irony fans – massive demonstrations in Minsk and elsewhere in Belarus reject the government’s count that gave Lukashenko an overwhelming win, and reports are he’s asking for help in staving off a potential rebellion. Now the president wants Russian mercenary intervention in Belarus, on his side.
And, the way things work in Russia, if Vladimir Putin says it’s OK, Lukashenko can become another customer of the Kremlin-backed global private military contractor, the Wagner Group, like his fellow-dictators, Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Libyan warlord “Field Marshall” Khalifa Haftar. Of course, if Putin took Lukashenko’s pre-election anti-Russian dog-whistle seriously, he might direct the Wagner warriors to dethrone the Belarusan leader and divide his country.
Either way, whoever hires Wagner, most observers will say, gets pretty good value. As fighters of other people’s battles, Wagner’s Russian mercenaries show the characteristics of a top-tier private military force: high-quality personnel, training and supervision.
I’m not saying Wagner’s “little green men,” as they were known when they helped separate the Donbass region from Ukraine, are virtuous or charming people, but almost all are literate and most are reasonably well-educated. Most are veterans, if not of actual combat, of years of Russian military training and they understand discipline and order.
They are also usually well prepared for their missions abroad.
And they are well-monitored with an established internal command structure on the ground and support from headquarters back in Russia.
But, almost always, they are surrounded by other hired killers with much less education and training, little or no particular preparation for their war and a less reliable sense of chain of command. What the rebar – the professionals from the Wagner Group – share with the plaster and facade, mostly third-world fighters of today’s proxy wars is that any damage done fulfilling their mission is happening to some other place and some other people than their own. Too bad for them.
That’s what a proxy war is: a war financed by outside counties and fought largely by outsider, mercenary fighters, for reasons that have nothing to do with the interests of the people who live in the country consumed by the proxy war.
Libya may be the world’s best present example of proxy war, although the one in Yemen, of less regional significance, may be even worse.
David Isenberg is an independent researcher and writer on U.S. military, foreign policy, and national and international security issues. He a senior analyst with the online geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and is a U.S. Navy veteran. He is the author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq. His blog, The PMSC Observer, focuses on private military and security contracting, a subject on which he has testified to Congress.