Written evidence submitted by Proelium Law (WGN0016)


This submission reflects the views of the contributor, who is responsible for the accuracy of all claims made in the submission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Foreign Affairs Committee. As a written submission accepted by a parliamentary committee, it is protected in the usual way by parliamentary privilege. No legal or other action may be taken against any person on ay grounds arising from the fact that they have provided such material.



This paper is in response to the Foreign Affairs Committee's inquiry into the use of proxy Private Military Companies, including the Wagner Group. This submission will discuss the current legal definitions of Private Military Companies and Mercenaries, and what this means to the security industry. This paper also provides factual information regarding Wagner Groups' behaviour from trusted sources within the security industry. This paper aims to bring to attention the outdated legislation and the legal requirements needed to encourage the growth of legitimate security activities whilst hindering illegal actors such as the Wagner Group.


  1. Jasmin Bonello is a solicitor at Proelium Law LLP. Jasmin provides legal advice to companies and individuals in the private security, defence and cyber sector. Jasmin’s undergraduate dissertation focused on the regulation of private military companies and ‘mercenaries’, whilst her master’s dissertation focused on the Private Security Act 2001. Proelium Law LLP combines experience as legal advisors both in the UK and in multiple overseas jurisdictions, including high-risk or complex environments. Its widespread involvement includes working both in and with commercial organisations, governments, security and investigations industries, overseas development entities, specialist defence sector and digital, cyber and data-focused companies.




  1. Before delving into the activities of the Wagner group, it is prudent to first establish that there is a need for a clear distinction between Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) utilised for proxy wars and PMSCs (better known just as PSCs) that provide legitimate services. It is a common argument that all PMSCs are vessels for ‘mercenaries’. However, it is important to note that PSCs are corporations subject to the same rules as any other corporate entity, they hire employees and contractors, they are required to have the relevant (state level) weapons permits for the country they operate in, and training and are expected or at times regulated by the adoption of ISO standards within their sector, as all other commercial entities are and do. The definition for ‘mercenaries’ is also unfit for purpose and does no favours to PMSCs when considering the legal regulation of security companies.


  1. Several international provisions aim to regulate ‘mercenaries’ – however they are at variance with practical issues. Broad definitions and narrow restrictions that were (rightly) directed at post-colonial issues resulted in stiff regulations, which fail to address the legitimate companies and benefits that PSCs can provide.


  1. The legislation is wholly outdated and does no favours to the legitimate activities of security companies assisting others in complex and high-risk jurisdictions. A common misconception is that all private security companies are private military companies and that all private security contractors are mercenaries. Whilst legitimate activities conducted by security companies and contractors may fall under outdated legislation defining military companies and mercenaries, most security companies are legitimate businesses.


5.1    There is currently no official definition for a PMSC within legislation, but the Montreux[1] document attempts to define PMSCs as:


Private business entities that provide military and/or security services, irrespective of how they describe themselves. Military and security services include, in particular, armed guarding and protection of persons and objects, such as convoys, buildings and other places; maintenance and operation of weapons systems: prisoner detection and advice to or training of local forces and security personnel.’


Essentially, the private military industry encompasses a vast spectrum of commercial activity whose sole commonality is the sale of services within the military domain.


5.2    There are also few workable definitions for mercenaries in international legislation. The original Geneva Conventions make no mention of mercenaries; however, Article 47 of Protocol 1[2] contains a definition for mercenaries. To be classified as a mercenary, six cumulative requirements must be satisfied, which Protocol 1 specifies as any person who:


(a)     is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict.

(b)     does, in fact, take a direct part in hostilities, essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party;

(c)     is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of the territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;

(d)     is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and

(e)     has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.


The problem with this classification is that it seeks to define the actor as opposed to the activity, and the majority of the criteria are near impossible to prove.


6         A significant problem with the above definitions is that perfectly legitimate companies and contractors may be considered to fall within the broad definitions. A number of large security companies operate on a completely legal and legitimate basis, protecting companies, individuals and assets within high risk and complex environments. Several of these companies are required for training, assistance and protection where security would otherwise be unavailable or inadequate. An example of such a scenario is the current conflict in Ukraine, whereby legitimate companies are training media teams and volunteers to ensure they are prepared to enter the conflict zone. Another example is the private security provided to the UN bases and camps in high-risk jurisdictions.


7         Therefore, one of the main issues surrounding the regulation of PMSCs and ‘mercenaries’ is a distinctive lack of a workable international definition that adequately differentiates PMSCs used to build capability for corrupt governments and those which are legitimate businesses.


8         Without a definitive label, the complexities in the definition, both in law and practice have allowed corrupt PMSCs to operate in a ‘grey area’ that lacks accountability, allowing them to conduct themselves as they wish with impunity.


9         There are further aspects of the security industry as a whole such as the distinction between PMSCs and risk management companies, the latter who often carry out armed activities overseas entirely legitimately, but are not quite so formed as to be a PMSC. This paper will not go any further on that topic.


10     This needs to be considered throughout this paper, and the following information relates purely to the Wagner Group and proxy private military companies which are created implicitly for the conduct of illegal activities.



Wagner Group Activities


11     Wagner Group is set up as a legitimate company, with a network of subsidiaries and connected companies to blur the lines. Some companies have been identified as Wagner subsidiaries, such as the Russian Economic Mission (REM). REM is a private structure and financial branch of the Wagner Company as identified by the World Bank and IMF.


12     Wagner’s size is almost impossible to determine due to the complex network of affiliated companies and individuals. There is a common misconception supported by media coverage that Wagner mercenaries are a small group of highly trained individuals. This is incorrect – whilst this may be the case for a small offshoot of the Wagner Group, the company is widespread in its capability and reach.


13     Wagner group is funded through two channels:


13.1   ‘Legitimate’ contracts. It has been seen that governments have looked to Wagner Group to assist in areas of civil unrest where other Western and developed countries have been unable to. By entering into ‘legitimate’ contracts for training and assistance for ‘Russian Instructors’ through Wagner Subsidiaries, Host Countries are directly providing income and revenue to the Wagner Group.  By taking advantage of these countries with civil unrest, they obtain a legitimate stream of income from the host states.


13.2   Whilst providing ‘services’ under these contracts, the Wagner Group obtains further income streams through illegal activities while providing these services.


13.2.1       For example, in Central African Republic (CAR) Russian mercenaries were recently (2021) in control of customs and controls, imposing additional taxes and confiscating belongings for no particular reason. They were placed in this position through a formal agreement between Russia and CAR, however, the inflation of these taxes was not seen to be fed back into the CAR State but rather into the Wagner Group itself.


13.2.2       Wagner Group mercenaries often take advantage of the natural resources in their host state. They are known to confiscate and exploit resources such as gold and diamonds in places they are stationed.


14     The Wagner group is advanced in its methods to garner support. Branches of the Wagner group operate as highly skilled PR companies, utilising military-style counter-narrative operations to spread disinformation and promote Wagner Mercenaries (referred to as ‘Russian Instructors’) as heroes. This method has been found to be successful, with many locals in hostile countries believing that the Russian instructors are reliable and effective. 


14.1   The Wagner Group have been seen to promote their services in a way, bizarrely, that a popular branded company would. Wagner employees have been seen distributing T-shirts to promote Russian activity. The films ‘Tourist’ and ‘Granit’ were also published in CAR showing Russian Instructors as liberating CAR from rebels and insurrection. 


14.2   This methodology is also used to the detriment of other Western factions that may have interests in the countries Wagner operates, and sometimes the host state itself. By presenting these groups as ineffective, dangerous and unreliable they further boost their own image. Some attacks are even staged to support the fake news published to provoke the conviction of those they wish to obtain leverage over.


15     Wagner's Russian mercenaries are known to terrorise and intimidate the local population of the host nations they operate in. By using intimidation and force, the mercenaries incite terror and leverage their position to ensure a financial gain. Serious human rights violations of lynching, killings, extrajudicial executions as well as various forms of intimidation of the population are reported in areas of Wagner activity.


16     The Russian investment in unstable and underdeveloped countries allows the Wagner Group to obtain leverage over mineral-rich land and permits them to do as they please, as there is often no judicial or regulatory structure to hold them accountable. Wanger Group also sometimes work closely with police, and participate in the arrest and detention of individuals, meaning that victims do not have access to justice. By infiltrating the police and judicial enforcement in the host nation, they ensure that there is no judicial structure that is capable or willing to hold them accountable for crimes and abuses committed. Higher up government officials in countries where Wagner operates are either oblivious to their actions or too scared to speak out.


17     Despite clear Wagner intervention, many government officials in countries of operation continue to deny that Wagner is present in the host state – only ‘Russian instructors’ to train the defence and security forces. State forces within such countries are usually understaffed, underpaid, and placed into precarious positions. Therefore, it is not surprising that locals may see the instructors as more efficient and better protection.


18     Some reports suggest that Wagner Group hires locals on a casual basis without contracts. Some report low pay and harsh conditions, whilst others report higher than average and timely pay. It is difficult to obtain further information than this, as workers are not willing to discuss their situations and are too afraid of losing their stable source of income in such areas of extreme poverty. 


Action Points


19.  Regulation surrounding PMSCs and ‘mercenaries’ is severely outdated. Continuing to ignore the complications around the regulations means that there is a failure to achieve a legal separation between legitimate PMSCs and those engaging in mercenary behaviour. This both hinders the progression of the private security industry, which is largely made up of legitimate companies and hinders the ability to identify and hold accountable PMSCs engaging in illicit and illegal activities.


20. PMSCs are increasingly used in multilateral operations which raises questions about the complex mechanisms that hold them accountable for their activities. Adopting tougher domestic legislation will be counter-productive, real change needs to be made on an international level. Without legal parameters – there can be no accountability or penalty for groups such as Wagner who are utilising the legal grey area to further grow their network and reach.


21. Therefore, the author of this paper believes that the most significant element to enforcing international laws and encouraging accountability in the PMSCs sector is the creation and implementation of a new definition for PMSCs and Mercenaries that provides a clear distinction. A new definition created out of the context of post-colonial war times and relevant to the current day and age where private security is common will remove this blurred line of the old perception of modern-day PMSCs, and illegal PMSCs such as Wagner Group.









June 2022




[1] The ‘Montreux Document on Pertinent International Legal Obligations and Good Practices for States Related to Operations of Private Military and Security Companies During Armed Conflict’ was a joint initiative by the Swiss Government and the International Committee of the Red Cross to discuss PMSCs with 17 governments from various regions of the world.

[2] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977 (adopted 8 June 1977, entered into force 7 December 1978) 1125 UNTS 3 (PAGC 1977).