Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin (Photo by Sergei ILNITSKY / POOL / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI ILNITSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Return of the mercenaries

Putin’s hired killers have money on their minds

Artillery Row

Exactly four hundred years ago, a dark shadow was slithering across mainland Europe. It stretched its bleak, cold presence into each hearth and home. Everything it touched turned to ruin. Musket and rapier, smoke and fire, ruled supreme. Nothing was immune. Animals and children starved to death, mothers and adolescent girls were abused and tortured. The lucky ones died, alongside their brothers and fathers, slain in battle. Possessions were looted, crops destroyed, barns and houses burned. There seemed no end to the evil and pestilence. Sixteen generations ago, many believed the end of the world had arrived. 

This was not a tale of Middle Earth. The place was central Europe in the early 17th century. In 1618 the future Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand II, a zealous follower of the Jesuits, had attempted to restore the Catholic Church as the only religion in the Empire and exterminate any form of religious dissent. Protestant nobles in Bohemia and Austria rose up in rebellion. The conflict soon widened, fuelled by the political ambitions of adjacent powers. In Europe’s heartland, three denominations fought it out: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism. 

The result was an interwoven tangle of diplomatic plot twists, temporary alliances and coalitions, as princes, bishops and potentates beseeched outside powers to help. The struggle, which lasted for thirty years, boiled down to the Roman Catholic and Habsburg-led Holy Roman Empire, fighting an incongruous array of Protestant towns and statelets, aided by the anti-Catholic powers of Sweden under Gustavus Adolphus, and the United Netherlands. France and Spain also took advantage of the distractions of war to indulge in their own sub-campaigns. Britain took no formal part but was about to become embroiled in her own civil war. 

The war devastated many regions on a scale unseen again until 1944–45

The principal battleground for this collective contest of arms centred on the towns and principalities of what would become Germany, northern Italy, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. The war devastated many regions on a scale unseen again until 1944–45. For example, at Magdeburg on the River Elbe, 20,000 of 25,000 inhabitants died, with 1,700 of its 1,900 buildings ruined. In Czech Bohemia, 40 per cent of the population perished, with 100 towns and more than a thousand villages laid waste. At Nordlingen in 1634, around 16,000 soldiers were killed in a single day’s battle. The town took three centuries for its population to return to pre-war levels. Refugees from smaller settlements swelled the many walled cities, increasing hunger and spreading disease. 

Too diminutive to defend themselves, all states hired mercenaries, of whom a huge number flourished in the era, enticed by the prospect of quick wealth in exchange for proficiency with sword and musket. Employed by every antagonist, but beholden to no one, these armed brigands — regiments would be too grand a term for the uniformed thugs they were — roamed at will. With their pikes and their muskets, they plundered the countryside in search of booty, food and transport. In their wake, they left burning towns, ruined villages, pillaged farms. Lead was stripped from houses and church roofs for ammunition. 

When in the winter of 1634 Swedish mercenaries were refused food and wine by the inhabitants of Linden, a tiny Bavarian settlement, they raped and looted their way through the village, leaving it uninhabitable. Across Europe, travellers noted the human and animal carcasses that decorated the meadows, streams polluted by the dead and rotting crops, presided over only by ravens and wolves. No respect was shown for the lifeless. Survivors stripped corpses of clothing and valuables; if lucky, the deceased were tossed into unmarked mass graves, since lost to history.

Having triggered the war, Ferdinand predeceased its end. We can never know how many died in Europe’s last major conflagration triggered by religion. Archives perished in the flames, and survivors were not interested in computations. Historians now put the death toll at between 8 and 12 million. Probably 500,000 perished in battle, with the rest, mostly civilians, expiring through starvation and disease. We think these casualties may equate to as much as 20 per cent of mainland Europe’s population and perhaps one-third of those in modern Germany, bringing the Thirty Years’ War a potency similar to the Black Death or either world war. The region did not recover for at least three generations.

Economic activity, land use and ownership altered terminally. When the exhausted powers finally met in October 1648 at Osnabrück and Münster in the German province of Westphalia to end the directionless slaughter, of whom self-serving militias were the only beneficiaries, Europe’s balance of power had shifted tectonically. Fresh rules of conflict and the legitimacy of a new network of 300 sovereign states, independent from a Holy Roman Emperor or a Pope, marked the struggle as a watershed moment, leading to the Enlightenment and an era that disappeared only with Napoleon.

Whilst Britons remained largely immune to this collection of regional internecine struggles, they facilitated the escape of others. In 1620 many saw the danger of conflicts between organised religions; starting with the Pilgrim Fathers in the Mayflower, they began the great migration westwards to the New World. Yet amongst the peoples of central Europe, the terror of those years of theft, abduction, mutilation and murder remained to haunt the generations. Collective memory, reflecting uncertainty and the staggering losses of war, pushed the era recognisably into the dark stories of the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. 

Sincerely held ideas persist of skullduggery under full moons

Their collections of folklore, which first appeared in 1812, dwelt on narratives of harsh injustice, illness, corruption and grinding poverty, against the suffocating wealth of those in power. The Dane, Hans Christian Andersen, publishing a generation later in the 1830s, picked up on the same themes during his travels across Europe. The notion of ordinary citizens, who at night became fiends and lay into foreign soldiers with demonic fury, in order to protect their land and their women, triggered earlier legends of werewolves. A later novel of 1910, Der Wehrwolf (the war-wolf) exploited exactly this concept in a crude example of anti-foreigner German nationalism.

The 17th century populations tried to keep such dark forces at bay with crucifixes nailed to doors and garlic. Many herbs, but specifically garlic flowers, had long been associated with blood-cleansing qualities and as a natural insect repellent to ward off mosquitoes. As they were the embodiment of disease, werewolves also became associated. An older trope of blood-sucking vampires, who attacked the innocent only at night, was also given new life in 1618–48. Collectively, the ill-luck of this generation of Europe’s peasants, who rapidly became refugees, was usually attributed to the “Evil Eye” of jealous outsiders.

When many of central Europe’s Catholic migrants, pulling a few miserable possessions in a wooden cart, dragged themselves eastwards or southwards into what would become the German-speaking Austrian empire, they brought their superstitions with them. Although the Balkans were saturated with centuries of bloodthirsty encounters with Ottoman Turks, who reached as far as Vienna in 1683 before receding, the Thirty Years’ War simply added another layer of belief that outsiders invariably brought harm, something the later world wars would do nothing to dispel. 

I am struck that in Croatia, from where I write, and in Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Poland and Lviv (Lemberg) in western Ukraine, places I have often visitedall once Austro-Hungarian provinces — these convictions continue. In smaller settlements, away from the well-lit towns, sincerely held ideas persist of skullduggery under full moons. If you look for them, the crucifixes are still there — perhaps more discreet. When the sun goes down, in smoky village taverns, mentions of “medicinal garlic and the “Evil Eye” crop up, the former an insurance policy against the latter. 

Hence the ease with which Mr Abraham Stoker was able to conjure up his 1897 Gothic horror novel, set in precisely these fringes of Europe. To the outside world, Stoker’s Dracula is a sort of childish pick-and-mix of the region’s tales of darkness. Locally, however, the historic figure of Vlad the Impaler, on whom the evil count was based, remains revered as a slayer of industrial quantities of Turks. This is why Romania’s elite 28th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Regiment is named the “Vlad Țepeș in his honour. To previous generations, evil outsiders were Muslims, Turks, Germans and Serbs. Today they have added rampaging Russians to the mix.

Before we laugh off such primitivism, one can understand how and why. A mass movement of peoples began in 2011, shifting in reaction to the outbreak of civil war in Syria. Yesterday’s threatening Ottomans were replaced by today’s outsider Muslims, from the same part of the world. Hence the chain link fences which Hungary erected along its frontiers in 2015 to stem the flow of refugees. These were not just to control the arrival of outsiders, but to restrict the entry of the same Syrians, Kurds, Iraqis and Muslims from further afield, whom local folklore suggested had troubled Hungary for centuries. Then came the invasion of Ukraine, from whence over 9 million have fled to neighbouring countries.

Across the region, the ghostly fear of foreigners is once more on the march. The reaction is predictable. Isolationist and nationalist political parties are on the rise, but churches of all denominations also report a spike in their nervous congregations. Pilgrimages to sacred sites in Croatia, Slovenia and Medjugorje in neighbouring Bosnia have increased several-fold. Visiting the soothing solitude of monasteries has become big business. Communities across eastern and south eastern Europe, without necessarily knowing it, are once again tapping into the haunting demons unleashed in the Thirty Years’ War. In the region known as the Balkans — a local word meaning mountains — faith in evil as well as good has lingered, frozen in time by the landscape itself. 

This is because bands of gangsters, operating as soldiers of fortune across eastern Europe, are back in vogue. Whilst the Thirty Years’ War marked the historic peak of mercenary troops, they are making an impressive comeback. The best known of these, the Wagner Group, is run by Vladimir Putin’s close associate, Yevgeny Prigozhin. He employs an estimated 40,000 worldwide, of whom around 25,000 are in Ukraine, the balance serving in theatres like Syria, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya and Mali. Known as Putin’s chef, Prigozhin served time in prison as a young man, became a street vendor of hot dogs, won catering contracts for the army, and eventually founded Europe’s largest private military company. He is one of the most powerful men in Russia today.

Video has emerged of one Wagner refusenik being despatched by sledgehammer

It was Prigozhin who came up with the idea of bulking out his personal army with convicts. Regarded as expendable in combat, Russian jailbirds are offered a deal of six months at the front in Ukraine, in return for remission of the rest of their prison sentence. Desertion is deterred by execution. Video has emerged of one Wagner refusenik being despatched by sledgehammer. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) report that at least 2,000 of their mercenaries have been killed in human wave attacks, with three times that wounded, but a few are starting to return home at the end of their contracts. The release of rapists and murderers back into society, likely with PTSD from months of suicidal fighting, will plague Russian society for decades to come.

Prigozhin is a canny operator, who receives oil revenues for his services in Syria and profits from mining rare metals in the Central African Republic. He is not the only one in the guns-for-hire business, of which glimpses were also seen during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Whilst most mercenary groups are established around former professional elite soldiers, selling their skills to the highest bidder, in drawn-out conflicts local mobs of gangsters also form private armies, enticed by a bloodlust and the prospect of operating in a lawless landscape.

Enter the 12,000-strong private army of the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, son of a former president who switched his loyalty to Putin in 2003. Through the violent deaths of his rivals, Kadyrov emerged as mob boss of the Chechen Republic. Shrugging off accusations of kidnapping, assassination and torture of critics, he encourages a macho image, where he and his supporters are festooned with guns and military garb. For them, service in Ukraine has become a right of passage. Fear is their principal weapon. Analysts regard Kadyrov’s Chechen “blowtorch battalions” as Putin’s equivalent of the Waffen-SS, who treat captured civilians and soldiers as playthings, to be abused, tortured and whatever is left, discarded.

In November 2022, Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, was reportedly raising his own battalions of military believers. Kirill — an old St Petersburg crony of Putin’s, with a murky background in the importation of duty-free cigarettes, in effect an oligarch in priest’s vestments — recently declared that “whoever dies for Russia in Ukraine will have all his sins forgiven”. In fact, a Russian Orthodox unit has been serving in the Donbas since 2014, but the new volunteer regiments, called St. Andrew’s Cross, will be trained and financed by Orthodox Church funds, and led by experienced soldiers.

Back in April 2012 Putin stated, “I think these groups can be the tool to implement national interests without the direct involvement of the state, making private militias formal instruments of Russian foreign policy. Since then, legitimising personal security arrangements by sending employees into battle has become the next logical step for Russia’s oligarchs. Naturally, they pay their friends in government for the right to create and train private military companies (PMCs) and are paid handsomely in return for sending their people to wage war for the Motherland. Many have Telegram channels, websites and openly sell merchandise (headgear, T shirts, badges, car stickers, flags, mugs) bearing their insignia.

If their abuses are exposed, Moscow denies any legal responsibility

Some mob bosses have gone further, with both Prigozhin and Kadyrov criticising Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu for the poor performance of army units in Ukraine. This happens because in Shoigu they see a rival. Shoigu is no soldier, but another mate-turned-oligarch of Putin’s, who incredibly has his own military outfit called “Patriot”, spotted near Vuhledar in the Donetsk region. He is a classic example of the Siloviki, ex-armed forces figures, active in business and politics. Patriot is a specialised covert unit built around former Spetsnaz special forces personnel, which is how Wagner also began. Thus, Russia’s defence minister, an honorary general in his own army, directly employs his personal PMC to make money out of the catastrophe that is Ukraine. 

The oldest private militia is the Cossack Fighters unit, who number up to 5,000 and since 1992 have been inciting trouble in the breakaway regions of Transnistria (Moldova), South Ossetia (Georgia), the Crimea and Donbas. They may be creatures of the Kremlin, but the Russian armed forces, GRU (its military intelligence arm), MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) and FSB (the rebranded KGB) detest these semi-official militia encroachments into their respective fiefdoms. Public spats have arisen, and we will likely see more. 

There are twenty-seven known oligarch-controlled PMCs within the Russian Federation, but some of these are thought to be on internal standby in case of attempted regime change by the army or other elites. So far, Western analysts have counted eleven active in Ukraine, including the Slavonic Corps, Task Force Rusich, Imperial Russian Legion, the Sparta Battalion and another recruited in Somalia. Men are trawled from across the Orthodox and African diasporas, with Serbian ex-convicts amongst those most recently captured. Recent (unauthenticated) footage on social media appears to be aimed at ex-US forces, inviting “true patriots” to join Russia in the fight against “un-Christian degenerate values”. Collectively these PMCs number around 50,000 of the up to 300,000 armed miscreants opposing Kyiv.

Until recently, such companies were simply non-governmental contractors offering security, logistics and bodyguard services, as do their Western counterparts. Now they are a hallmark of Moscow’s “hybrid warfare” — a grey zone using a blend of ways, means and personnel to prosecute offensives in the six domains of land, sea, air, space, cyber and information. At present, there are few legal options available to the world community against this new threat to established order. Putin has ensured his PMCs can be dissolved whenever necessary, removing opportunities for their owners and operatives to be brought before international courts. This is an important consideration, as they are also behind much documented transnational crime in the form of arms trafficking, prostitution, money laundering, and the plunder and sale of cultural artefacts. Archaeological sites in Syria and museums in Ukraine have been stripped bare for resaleable booty.

These latter-day soldiers of fortune are paid in cash, and they do not appear in any government documentation. Their deaths do not have to be reported. If their presence or abuses are exposed, Moscow denies any legal responsibility for them. In effect, these PMCs have become state-authorised mafias, free from prosecution and intimately interwoven with Russia’s formal military commands. They wear regular army clothing, use heavy equipment including tracked vehicles, are transported by the state air force, receive military medals, and operate helicopters and even fast jets. 

The massacre of civilians and destruction of their homes in Mariupol, Bakhmut and Bucha amongst a legion of other settlements, and the blatant looting of their possessions, takes us straight back to the terror and lawlessness of the Thirty Years’ War. The goal of today’s private military companies is not for the advancement of Russia, but the personal enrichment of its oligarchs and their lieutenants. As in 17th century Europe, war is in danger of becoming an end in itself, as a source of revenue with immunity from prosecution. This is why it is important not to be taken in by fears of Putin unleashing nuclear weapons. In the manner of every James Bond baddie, his goal is not territory, but wealth. Four hundred years on, the dark shadow of non-state murder and mayhem threatens once again to engulf us. We must find a way to banish it.

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