Wagner’s mutiny and the destabilizing role of unregulated militias

Wagner’s mutiny and the destabilizing role of unregulated militias

Wagner’s mutiny and the destabilizing role of unregulated militias
A man wearing a camouflage uniform walks out of PMC Wagner Centre, Saint Petersburg, Russia, Nov. 4, 2022. (Reuters)
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The failed rebellion led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, in Russia last week highlighted the inherent risk of private armies or militias acting autonomously from regular armed forces. It appears now that the Russian authorities are determined to end that anomaly. Other countries where such groups proliferate should take note.

Last Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin told members of the security services that they “essentially prevented a civil war” by acting “clearly and coherently” during the Wagner Group’s armed mutiny on June 24.

President Putin gave Wagner militants a choice: “Today, you have the opportunity to continue serving Russia by entering into a contract with the Ministry of Defense or other law enforcement agencies, or to return to your family and friends. Whoever wants to can go to Belarus. The promise I made will be fulfilled,” Putin said. “I repeat: The choice is yours.”

This was only the latest and most dramatic case of private armed groups threatening the security and stability of areas in which they operate. That is true even when they work in coordination and with the knowledge and support of the state.

Wagner fighters are known to be active in several other places around the world, including Syria and parts of Africa, where at times they self-finance, act autonomously and may be involved in illicit trade and human rights violations. After their short-lived revolt in Russia and subsequent measures taken by the Russian government, it is not clear what will happen to them abroad.

Philosophers and learned scholars have long warned about the potential dangers of independent armed groups. Mainstream Sunni Muslim scholars have long argued that only the state can mobilize and use force, although that opinion was not always adhered to. The great 10th-century Arab poet Al-Mutanabbi said in a famous line: “He who dispatches a ferocious lion to do his hunting may one day become the prey of that beast.”

That intuitive wisdom has been expanded in modern scholarship, especially in Europe as it transitioned from the feudal system to nation states — a transformation that marked a clear departure from the diffused multiplicity of private armies belonging to feudal lords.

The state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force or violence has become a core concept of modern political philosophy and public law.

The French legal scholar Jean Bodin stressed this concept in the 16th century, as did the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th. Writing in the early 16th century, Italian Renaissance author Niccolo Machiavelli bluntly warned: “Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these armies, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies.”

Early 20th-century German political philosopher Max Weber wrote that monopoly over the use of force was the “defining” feature of a state, as a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” He also described the state as an “association that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence, and cannot be defined in any other manner.”

However, Weber did not rule out that the state may grant a private actor the right to use force, as long as the state remains the only source of the right to use force and that it maintains the capacity to enforce this monopoly.

This Weberian theory has dominated political discourse during the past century, including his apparently permissive attitude toward delegating the state’s power, or “outsourcing” it, to private actors. However, the recent proliferation of nonstate actors, including state-authorized militias, has led to a reconsideration of that license. Some countries, such as the US, have had well-regulated militias with clear divisions of labor and checks and balances to keep them under control, with them being almost indistinguishable from the regular armed forces, thus preventing them from going rogue and ensuring the government’s monopoly over the use of force.

Other countries have not had the same luck managing state-sanctioned militias. In the Middle East region, for example, there has been an alarming growth in the number of uncontrolled militias. While the rationale behind establishing some of those armed groups may have been justified at some point, their continued existence poses a serious challenge to stability, national unity and the cohesion of the mainstream armed forces of the state. A clear example is Hezbollah of Lebanon, whose representatives serve in the Lebanese Cabinet and sit in the parliament, but it has its own foreign and security policies, with little or no oversight or control by the government. Studies have identified scores of groups similar to Hezbollah in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and elsewhere.

As state-sanctioned entities grow in number and strength, they have frequently undermined state institutions.

Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

As these state-sanctioned entities grow in number and strength, they have frequently undermined state institutions and acted against state interests. They have become destabilizing agents even when established with official knowledge and support. New research has therefore challenged the apparent Weberian permissiveness toward such groups. It argues for a reversion to the earlier traditions of Bodin and Hobbes and the ideal of states’ monopoly of force being not only about its control but also its use. The state must, therefore, be the sole actor to wield force. The mutiny of the Wagner Group is a case in point in support of this view, as it has demonstrated that a state monopoly on the use of force can be undermined by state-sanctioned private military outfits.

While it may be difficult to weed out existing state-authorized militias and private military groups in this region all at once, the Wagner case should make it imperative to exercise greater control to ensure that they work for the public good and not narrower personal, tribal or sectarian interests. Command and control by the armed forces and regular financial oversight are essential to keep them from going astray.

  • Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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