Humanitarians mull over how to deal with Wagner

A member of Russian private military company Wagner Group walks in the captured town of Soledar in the Bakhmut region in western Ukraine. The Russian militia group spearheaded efforts to seize the town in January 2023. (Keystone/Spunik)

The Russian militia Wagner Group is destabilising the humanitarian sector in Geneva. Its combatants, which are neither soldiers, mercenaries nor traditional private military professionals, fall through the cracks of international law.

Wagner Group fighters have a nasty reputation. The private military organisation operating at the behest of the Kremlin continues to commit war crimes, instilling terror through its videos of executions of prisoners and deserters and providing cannon fodder to overwhelm Ukraine’s military defence.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, its founder, has recruited and surrounded himself with criminals to conduct mercenary missions in Africa and fight in Ukraine since 2014. As an ex-convict and reputedly close to Vladimir Putin, he is said to have political ambitions. His recruits, described either as seasoned fighters or kamikazes, have become a deciding factor in Russia’s war against Ukraine. 

For humanitarians and NGOs, Wagner also represents a new type of actor, prompting them to question whether they should work with the group and if so, who they are dealing with.

“Wagner has become so important that we ask ourselves this question, as do other NGOs,” explained Marie Lequin, head of the Eurasia region at Geneva Call. The humanitarian organisation, which works with non-state armed groups to teach them the rules of conflict, is present in Ukraine with about 20 employees, including in the Russian-controlled Donbas. 

“We speak with the Russians, in all transparency,” she said. But if the NGO has successfully established contact with Ukrainian paramilitary battalions, it has been impossible to do the same with the Russian side.

Moreover, Wagner’s legal status is unclear since private military companies are outlawed in Russia. Until last year, Moscow had denied any links to the organisation. Prigozhin only admitted to being its founder last fall. He has since claimed to be a warlord and to running a troll farm, which had been sanctioned by the United States for interfering in its elections.

“Is Wagner a private, parastate or state entity? Who are we talking to? Who makes the final decision? To whom do we attribute the responsibility?” Lequin said.

The Russian Blackwater?

Jamie Williamson, director of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCa), a Geneva-based organisation promoting international humanitarian law for private military and security firms, said: “Wagner is a new phenomenon. Placing it in a given category is extremely difficult as the group does not meet a definition within international law.”

In December, at ICoCa’s last meeting, its seven member states, including Switzerland, and the 125 private firms that are part of the organisation, failed to reach an agreement on Wagner and on whether to make contact with Prigozhin.

“I’m in favour of it,” said Williamson. “My interest is in talking with all parties in a conflict. There shouldn’t be political misgivings, but the security industry is concerned about public misunderstanding, that it will create confusion between Wagner and Blackwater for example.”

Blackwater was the first private military company to attain worldwide notoriety for acting on behalf of the US military in Iraq. Its crimes against civilian populations triggered a discussion over how to supervise the new military actors.

To regulate the sector, Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spearheaded the process for the adoption of the Montreux Document in 2008, which requires its signatories to respect international humanitarian law. The US and Blackwater, which has since changed its name, have signed up for it, while Russia hasn’t. 

But with the rise of the Wagner group, international law experts are debating whether it is equivalent to the US’s Blackwater. “Blackwater is a defence security company,” said Williamson. “Wagner, at least in Ukraine, is an ‘offensive’ military organisation with an unclear chain of command.”

A tight-lipped ICRC

Some observers talk about “quasi-mercenary” operations when referring to Wagner’s activities in Africa. During a visit to Sudan last week, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov defended Wagner's operations on the continent, arguing that the group was deployed “at the request of governments” to “normalise the situation in the region” in the face of a “terrorist” threat. 

There was no mention, however, of mercenaries in Ukraine. Under international law, a mercenary is a combatant recruited by a foreign state to take part in an armed conflict and motivated essentially by the desire for private gain.

According to US estimates, the vast majority of Wagner’s 50,000 recruits deployed in Ukraine, including 40,000 former convicts, are Russians.  

But if they are neither soldiers nor mercenaries, how does the law see them?

“They are civilians taking part in the fighting,” said Andrew Clapham, professor of international law at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. “They don't have the protected status of a combatant and therefore can be prosecuted for murder.”

The ICRC, a leading authority on the subject, has remained silent, refusing to say whether it has had any contact with the group on the ground. It is however the only humanitarian organisation that has remained active on both sides of the frontline.  

It is a sensitive issue for the ICRC, which has been regularly accused by the Ukrainian authorities of not doing enough to obtain access to enemy prisons. According to Kyiv, Ukrainian prisoners of war are in the hands of Prigozhin's men.

The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs is not more forthcoming. Noting that “the legal nature of the Wagner group is unclear”, a spokesperson for the ministry said: “Switzerland is closely monitoring its activities and is concerned about its role and that of other armed actors, particularly regarding the protection of the civilian population.” 

Using its seat on the Security Council, Switzerland has publicly called on Wagner Group to respect international humanitarian law.

Controlling the narrative

The US, meanwhile, has settled the debate. At the end of January, the White House National Security Council designated Wagner Group as a “transnational criminal organisation”, comparable to the Italian Mafia and the Yakuza, a Japanese crime syndicate. Last week, the European Union announced new sanctions against the group for “human rights abuses”, targeting eleven individuals – nine in Africa and two in Ukraine. 

“Are all private military companies the same or will they be the same?” French army general Pierre Schill asked at a press briefing reported by AFP. “Probably not, there is a degree of state support behind it.”

Other Geneva-based NGOs are also wondering what to do about Wagner. Under the principle of impartiality, they aim to access all victims, which requires dealing with all actors in a conflict, including the most unapproachable. 

“We talked to the Islamic State to ensure the security of our operations in Syria. There is no reason not to talk to Wagner if it can facilitate access to the wounded in Ukraine,” commented a humanitarian who preferred to remain anonymous. “The issue is not Wagner or Kadyrov, but Russia and the chain of command. Why does it not respect international rules? Why does it refuse access? Maybe it doesn't want any competition to better control the narrative.”

This article was first published in French in Le Temps. It has been adapted and translated into English by Geneva Solutions. Articles from third-party websites are not licensed under Creative Commons and cannot be republished without the editor’s consent.