How to Defeat Russia's Mercenaries | Opinion

A year into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the most striking yet least understood feature of the conflict is the return of mercenary armies to modern warfare. The last time Europe used them in combat, George Washington fought them in New Jersey. Now they are back. The Wagner Group numbers about 50,000 and takes whole towns like Soledar, as if it were antiquity. Chechen charismatic leader Ramzan Kadyrov says he is thinking of forming his own Muslim version of Wagner. I was a mercenary, or rather a "private military contractor" (euphemism of choice), and occasionally speak with members of the Wagner Group. While their atrocities are well known, the dangerous trend they represent is less understood. Privatizing war distorts warfare in ways four-star generals do not comprehend. But a clever strategist can exploit these distortions for victory. Below are three ancient stratagems to win against mercenaries drawn from history that could turn the tide of the war for Ukraine.

First Stratagem: When conflict is commoditized, then the logic of the marketplace and strategies of the souk apply to war. Nicolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince that mercenaries are "faithless," and he ought to know. His Florence lost to smaller Pisa in 1506, when the latter bribed 10 of Florence's mercenary captains to defect in battle. Mercenary loyalty is for rent. In my conversations with Wagner mercenaries, no one is happy there. They are cannon fodder and know it, and we can exploit this. As the war has evolved, so has Wagner, splitting into two camps. The "old guard" was recruited before the invasion from professional military units across the former Soviet Union. They are not all Russian. The "new guard" were recently dumped out of prisons. Wagner Group is an uncomfortable mix of both.

The Wagner Group at Home
A man wearing military camouflage stands at the entrance of the PMC Wagner Center in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Nov. 4. OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images

Let's bribe Wagner mercenaries to exit Ukraine. The old guard will leave Russia behind for safer, more lucrative contracts in the Middle East or Africa, and the international community can facilitate it by finding non-lethal contracts defending infrastructure. It is not ideal, but mercenary survivors will seek new contracts anyway, and this method allows us to remove them from Ukraine sooner and closely monitor them, like parolees. Inversely, no one will hire the new guard because they are dangerous no-skill convicts. However, they will happily defect to Ukraine if promised not to be returned to Wagner in a prisoner swap. Wagner kills defectors by gruesome sledgehammer. The West can fund Wagner Group prison camps in Ukraine or elsewhere, where they can safely wait out the war. It would thin the ranks more quickly, cheaply, and humanely than M1 tanks.

Second Stratagem: We think of soldiers as wives and mercenaries as prostitutes, who turn love into a transaction, and this creates friction in the force. During the Middle Ages, knights and mercenaries despised one another as an affront to each's warrior ethos. When they fought, they rarely took prisoners, unless they could get ransoms for highborns (aristocratic mercenary captains were common). In 1209, Christian knights and papal mercenaries took the French city of Béziers, and then a dispute broke out over booty. The knights claimed it was righteously theirs, and chased the soldiers of fortune away. Outraged, the mercenaries burned down the city, loot and all.

Public and private sector soldiers dislike each other by nature, and it can be used against them in Ukraine. When the Wagner Group seized the town of Soledar in January and publicly gloated, Russian military leadership went berserk. It was the first Russian victory in months, and it upstaged the army. The defense ministry reported "Russian troops complete liberation of Soledar," without mentioning mercenaries. Later that day, they issued a "clarifying" statement giving "thanks to the courageous and selfless actions of the volunteers from Wagner." A wily strategist can exacerbate this natural feud by using disinformation to drive a wedge between the two forces, as happened in 1209. Let Wagner and the Russian military work against each other.

Third Stratagem: Private armies can become Praetorian Guards and the businessmen who own them kings. Medieval mercenary captains captured regions and spawned ruling dynasties, such as the Houses of Sforza ("Force") in Milan and Malatesta ("Bad Head") in Rimini. During the Thirty Years War, Count Albrecht von Wallenstein sourced rental regiments to Ferdinand II, the Holy Roman Emperor. As Wallenstein's private army grew, so did his political power. One night in 1634, Wallenstein woke up with a halberd run through his chest, courtesy of the Emperor.

The same situation is brewing in Moscow today, and perhaps can be hastened. Yevgeny Prigozhin is the billionaire oligarch who owns Wagner Group. Prior to the war, Russia's security elite known as the siloviki considered him a useful idiot. Now Wagner's success makes them look inept, while Prigozhin publicly derides them as "a bunch of clowns." Everyone knows what will happen if he threatens Putin: Halberd through the chest. Let's covertly engineer the perception that Prigozhin might use the Wagner Group to seize power and save Mother Russia, inducing Putin to take him out for us. Other oligarchs and siloviki suspect it anyway, and would probably welcome it. Prigozhin's death followed by the proscription of Wagner mercenaries would slash Russian troop strength by 50,000.

These measures would reduce the Wagner Group, and are cheaper than the hardware we send to kill them. Those who think international law can curb mercenarism are unrealistic. Even if we had solid laws (which we do not), who will go into Ukraine and arrest all those mercenaries? Not the UN or NATO. Also, mercenaries can shoot law enforcement dead. The market for force resists arrest, which is why mercenaries are the second oldest profession. Now they are back, and we must re-learn strategies to fight this unique form of warfare.

Sean McFate is a professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School and Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, and author of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.