What Frederick the Great’s Army Can Tell Us About Russia’s Private Military Company


In describing the Wagner Private Military Company forces fighting in Ukraine, some Western commentators have used the term “mercenaries,” while others have preferred “penal battalions.” Neither term is particularly flattering. For Americans, mercenaries evokes the Hessians who served alongside the British during the American Revolution. Penal battalions brings to mind the prisoners used by both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht in World War II. The trouble is that none of these institutions provide a real analogy to Wagner. Each of them slightly obscures the potential danger that Wagner represents. 

Instead, understanding Wagner as a modernized 18th-century Freikorps can help us see the drawbacks and possibilities of this organization. In the time of Frederick the Great, these small, mercenary formations were often recruited from the ranks of prisoners, but also demonstrated a degree of flexibility and adaptability that conventional units lacked. And while they served as a means of political advancement for their leaders, this political role was carefully circumscribed by the interests of the state. In today’s context, this means that observers should not be too quick to write off Wagner’s effectiveness —  but should also resist the temptation to exaggerate the role of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Mercenary Mismatch

The American and French Revolutions firmly tied military service to ideas of citizenship, nationalism, and honor. As a result, soldiers in the West have largely disdained mercenaries. A popular song from the French Revolutionary period ran:

Friends, a true Republican,
Ought to love and cherish his brothers.
The san-culotte, his pike in hand,
Fears not the mercenary hordes.
He fights like a Republican…

During the 19th and 20th centuries, mass armies raised by nation states and supported by their industrial might dominated large-scale conflict. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, scholars argue, is something different. Wayne Hsieh has claimed that we might call this “post modern” war, and Franz-Stefan Gady has posited that it might be a return to 18th-century cabinet wars. 



In this context, history inflects the way contemporary commentators think about troops like Wagner’s. George Washington once reminded his soldiers of “what a few brave men contending in their own land, and in the best of causes can do, against base hirelings and mercenaries.” Penal battalions, in turn, bring to mind Stalin giving orders to keep such units in line by shooting “panic-mongers and cowards at sight.” Descriptions of Wagner’s “human-wave” attacks and suicidal conscripts often reinforce the impression of an outmoded and tactically backward organization that primarily serves to funnel bodies from the Russian prison system to the frontlines in Ukraine.

However, this view of Wagner doesn’t match up to what experts are increasingly saying about the organization. According to Ukrainian military officers, as well as experts like Konrad Muzkya, Franz-Stefan Gady, and Michael Kofman, Wagner has demonstrated surprisingly flexible tactics that fly in the face of the mercenary or penal battalion stereotype. How can a mercenary organization, partially recruited from prisoners, also be flexible and adaptable – sometimes more so than Russia’s regular army? One answer can be found in 18th-century military history: specifically, the Prussian army of Frederick the Great. 

During the course of the Seven Years War, Frederick the Great’s army became famous, perhaps unjustly, for its iron discipline and supposedly rigid linear tactics. Less well known, however, is the role that contemporary private military companies played in Prussia’s success. During the course of the war, grandees or oligarchs used their personal funds to raise military units, or Freikorps, to serve alongside the Prussian army. These grandees would front the money necessary to recruit and equip these units. Despite often having limited military experience, they would then serve as both colonel and proprietor of their newly formed units, a position referred to as inhaber. Wagner’s Yevgeny Prigozhin is the modern version of an 18th-century Freikorps inhaber: a grandee looking for status through proprietorship.

Like Wagner, the Freikorps were bulked up through the use of prisoners: in this case, prisoners of war. French, Hungarians, and Austrians served in these supposedly Prussian units in large numbers. This was true not just in the Prussian military but across Europe at this time. Famously, the “Green Loudon” Freikorps of the Austrian army was recruited from Prussian prisoners of war. At times, these recruiting practices did lead to criticism of the Freikorps and their fighters. Frederick himself called these men “detestable scum” and “triple damned.” Indeed, one of the possible uses that Frederick saw for Freikorps troops was human wave attacks. In his post-war writing he suggested:

Say the enemy is standing on a hill, that you desire to drive him off. You can use these troops in the first wave, and not regularly, but running blindly unto the enemy positions, holding their fire until they are in amongst the enemy … this must be done in haste, without caution, otherwise you will lose to many men.

These troops were, in Frederick’s mind, less valuable than his regular infantry: potential cannon fodder. 

Despite this criticism, though, Freikorps showed, on the whole, greater innovation than other Prussian soldiers. In contrast his more basic instructions for regular infantry, Frederick wrote at length on how to train Freikorps members to take cover, “behind trees” and “in houses” as well as how to “lie flat,” “shoot from behind stones,” and “fire from behind the crest of a ridge.” Indeed, authors over the last 30 years have repeatedly emphasized the tactical adaptability of the Freikorps.

Prussian colonel Friedrich Wilhelm von Kleist formed the most successful of the various Freikorps in 1759. Out of a nucleus of Hungarian prisoners of war, Kleist built an adaptable and dangerous force. These troops prided themselves on learning from previous operations. Contemporary military writer Carl Griesheim described Kleist putting his corps through typical after-action analysis: “Even in the midst of a campaign this was his method: after a successful action he would gather the officers of his corps, and point out mistakes that had been made, their causes and consequences, and give lessons as to how such blunders might be avoided in future.” 



These units also perfected an 18th-century version of combined-arms warfare, where cavalry, artillery, and infantry were all utilized at the micro-tactical level to attack the enemy in unison. An Austrian veteran complained: “when a [Prussian] command of hussars is detached from the enemy army they always have 200 grenadiers marching immediately behind in support: since, therefore, the enemy light cavalry is supported by infantry, and ours is not, our hussars inevitably come off worse in every encounter.” Historian Christopher Duffy has argued that the cumulative effect of this flexibility was to make the supposedly rigid Prussians more effective in small-unit actions, whereas their enemies seemingly possessed greater initiative. In an army where supposedly rigid doctrine reigned, forces outside the direct administration of the military had the most room to adapt.

Last month, a Ukrainian officer claimed that “one of the biggest threats posed by Wagner is that they have much more freedom in assaults than regular [Russian] forces.” Konrad Muzyka argued that “there are two Wagners,” the better-known one “with convicts conducting frontal assaults” and a lesser-known “well-trained force that’s adaptable and flexible.” Michael Kofman has also observed: “There [is] a prisoner Wagner expended in large numbers … but also assault, fire support, and supply detachments composed of better trained forces.” 


So what happened to these 18th-century Freikorps, and what might happen with Wagner? As the Seven Years War came to an end, Frederick realized that he had little use for troops outside his formal command structure and forcibly incorporated them into regular Prussian formations. Wagner may suffer a similar fate or even be weakened by the war itself. The Institute for the Study of War recently argued that the Russian Ministry of Defense is purposely weakening Wagner through the fighting around Bakhmut. True or not, Prigozhin might do well to think about the consequences for proprietors of failed 18th-century Freikorps. Some, like the Polish Prince Jerzy Marcin Lubomirski, ended up on the run and exiled from Prussia for their troubles.  

This point stands in opposition to the idea that Prigozhin is a modern-day Albrect von Wallenstein, exerting considerable political influence over Putin and the course of the war. Wallenstein was an experienced commander of state-funded mercenary forces during the 17th century Thirty Years War. Because, in this earlier period, there was no state military, Wallenstein and his mercenaries were the state’s monopoly on violence. As a result, Wallenstein felt empowered to give policy input and even began to direct policy himself. It would be almost unthinkable in the current environment for Prigozhin to be making independent foreign policy decisions for Russia. Instead, as Alma Keshavarz and Kiron K. Skinner have written, “institutions like the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and Wagner are tools of foreign policy by their respective states.” Russian foreign policy drives Prigozhin’s opportunities to employ Wagner, rather than the other way around. Like some of his eighteenth-century counterparts, Prigozhin’s private resources pale in comparison to the scale of modern, state-run war. Recently, Bloomberg reported that as a result of the costs of the conflict, Prigozhin is shifting focus toward Africa, and drawing down the size of Wagner forces in Ukraine. Time will tell if this actually occurs, but it is more likely that Prigozhin’s trajectory will mimic Prince Lubomirski’s rather than Wallenstein’s.

For those in the West, thinking about Wagner as a Friekorps can also lead to a more accurate appraisal of its capabilities. Military institutions often respect peer forces and underestimate those which appear alien. In the aftermath of the American and French Revolutions, “mercenary” became a dirty word. Likewise, the idea of recruiting prisoners as troops flies in the face of Western perceptions of the virtuous citizen soldier. It could be easy to underestimate Wagner if we think of them primarily in these terms. Understanding Wagner in a new historic light allows us to see it as a potentially flexible, adaptable, and dangerous organization — one with the ability to cause problems for both the Ukrainian military and the West.



Alexander S. Burns is an assistant professor of history at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, studying the American Continental Army’s connection to European militaries. His edited volume, The Changing Face of Old Regime Warfare: Essays in Honour of Christopher Duffy, was published in 2022. You can follow him @KKriegeBlog. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons