Why are private military companies playing such a major role in Ukraine?

‘Shadowy groups’ of Western veterans are operating in Ukraine, while Putin leans heavily on the Wagner paramilitaries

Volunteers train with the Mozart Group in the Donetsk region of Ukraine
Volunteers train with the Mozart Group in the Donetsk region of Ukraine
(Image credit: Juan Barretto/Getty Images)

The battle for Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine is raging not only between the traditional militaries of both sides but also private military companies (PMCs) who are increasingly blurring the lines between soldiers and private armies.

On the Russian side, the Kremlin has “outsourced the fight here to the Wagner paramilitary group”, said Sky News’s Alex Rossi from inside Bakhmut. Led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group fighters “have become the disposable infantry of the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine”, said CNN.

But Prigozhin and his Wagner fighters “seemingly have another target in their sights”, said Newsweek, referencing the Mozart Group. This is a Western NGO that “is helping train Ukrainian troops and evacuating civilians from the front lines, including around Bakhmut”, but was described last month by The New York Times as “one of the biggest PMCs in Ukraine”.

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Prigozhin wrote on Telegram in November that the Mozart Group were “American mercenaries” – a claim the group denies. But a report by The Daily Telegraph said that “shadowy groups of Western military veterans are operating on the ground in Ukraine, largely unregulated”.

What did the papers say?

The Mozart Group is “adding serious value” to Ukraine’s ability to defeat Russia, a western security source told The National, while Ukraine’s military “has been significantly enhanced by western volunteers”, the paper added.

In an interview with The Telegraph, the CEO of the Mozart Group, Andy Milburn, formerly of the US Special Forces, said he would like to see his “skilled and specialist” group of veterans “helping with command and control in the operational headquarters, or assisting in the ‘fires cell’, where artillery and other indirect fire platforms, such as drones are brought to bear”. This move “would draw Mozart closer to ‘direct participation in hostilities’, the line which international bodies use to define combatants from civilians,” said The Telegraph, and into “the legal and ethical quagmire that brings with it”.

The name of the group is an “obvious wink” to the Wagner Group, added the paper, but it is just one “of a number of Western, veteran-led volunteer groups that have formed offering military training and support in Ukraine”. Many of these groups take “payment through PayPal, Bitcoin or directly”, and “have a slightly ragtag or rebellious edge to them”.

The “presence of Western fighters in Ukraine cuts against the concerted effort by the Biden administration and its NATO allies to avoid direct involvement in Russia’s war”, said The Washington Post. One foreign fighter told the Post that they were necessary as “there are really big issues because a lot of these guys are not trained soldiers”, referring to the Ukrainian military. “It’s really hard for me to watch. There’s a lot of panic. There’s a terrible lack of training.”

On the other side, Prigozhin has not been slow to point out the effectiveness of a PMC. Following a successful incursion in Bakhmut he made “a subtle comparison between Wagner and the top-down rigidity of the Russian military”, said CNN.

“Everyone who is on the ground is listened to. Commanders consult with the fighters, and the PMC leadership consults with the commanders. That is why the Wagner PMC has moved forward and will continue to move forward,” said Prigozhin.

The attritional war in Bakhmut seems to be having little effect on Wagner’s appeal. British officials “estimate that the number of soldiers under Wagner’s control has ballooned from about 2,000 to more than ten times that figure”, said the i news site, after Prigozhin “launched a recruitment drive in Russia’s prisons, offering amnesty to convicts willing to bear arms”.

What next?

This month a former Mozart Group member “accused Milburn of financial fraud, sexual misconduct, burglary, attempted bribery, avoidance of US weapons-transfer regulations, and even threatening a retired American general,” reported The Intercept. Milburn told the website the allegations were “completely ridiculous” but “whatever its outcome, the lawsuit calls into question the stability and credibility” of the group, said the website.

This internal fight “may have rendered Mozart over before it’s even really begun,” said The Telegraph, and in the long term “without oversight or input, how comfortable are Western governments going to be with their veterans tutoring foreign militaries?” the paper asks.

That’s not such a big issue for the Kremlin, as Putin still needs Wagner’s mercenaries “to fill in the gaps where his ill-equipped military lacks capabilities and, increasingly, morale”, said The Spectator.

But Putin also “needs Prigozhin for another, more political reason – the same reason he has always leaned on non-state actors”, the magazine added. “He can bask in their lustre so long as they are showing gains, but deflect the blame onto them if all else fails; away from his government, his defence ministry and, ultimately, himself.”

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Jamie Timson is the UK news editor, curating The Week UK's daily morning newsletter and setting the agenda for the day's news output. He was first a member of the team from 2015 to 2019, progressing from intern to senior staff writer, and then rejoined in September 2022. As a founding panellist on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast, he has discussed politics, foreign affairs and conspiracy theories, sometimes separately, sometimes all at once. In between working at The Week, Jamie was a senior press officer at the Department for Transport, with a penchant for crisis communications, working on Brexit, the response to Covid-19 and HS2, among others.