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This comes by way of follow-up on a previous post of mine about mercenaries in the Ukraine war. At the time I wrote that, I was only partially aware, if at all, of what is now the most famous mercenary force in Russia, the Wagner Group. This group is interesting because, unlike the mercenaries that I speculated about in my post, it was organized by Russians and is composed almost entirely of Russians — no significant foreign elements.

A mercenary force is a dubious thing, even when composed entirely of nationals, and Wagner’s abortive coup last month is well known. Prigozhin died in a plane crash just last week; a government spokesman said it was “a complete lie” that Russia deliberately destroyed the plane. Nevertheless, Putin appears to taking measures to ensure the loyalty of the group, requiring all members to take an oath of loyalty to the Russian state.

This is extremely interesting because it sounds like something that could have happened in the Thirty Years’ War. There were few real mercenary armies, but those that existed tended to be loyal above all to their commander, such as Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar. With the death of their commander, they could more easily be brought into the service of a government. Instead of contracting with the army as a whole, the government would attempt to get the soldiers to swear loyalty individually, breaking down their corporate identity and making a mutiny less of a threat. (Governments do this with citizens, as well, preferring to tear down any intermediate bodies between the citizen and the government — down to and including the family — in order to secure absolute loyalty.)

The question you may be asking is, what good is an oath of loyalty going to do? Is anyone really going to take it seriously? Of course, the oath is not self-enforcing; anyone can break it. Swearing an oath does give the government justification for punishing anyone who violates it, which may not have been unambiguously available when contracting with a military body. But I think the oath’s greater importance is the effect it has on an individual. Sure, some people will swear it and not mean what they say, but I think such people are rare. Words have a strange sway over us, and speaking promises out loud has an effect even on people who don’t want to be loyal. If even a small percentage of soldiers in a mercenary body take their oath seriously — by conviction, superstition, or any other means — it renders that body much less threatening.

Of course, the safest approach to mercenaries is not to have any. I don’t know enough about the origin and history of the Wagner group to know why Putin permitted them to exist. From what I gather, they operated mostly abroad — where they were obviously not much of a domestic threat — until the Ukraine war. It was probably too tempting for Putin not to use them, especially considering how poorly the rest of the army was faring. I’m sure he has a different perspective on that now, much as governments after 1648 did after their experiences in the Thirty Years’ War.

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