The United States has designated the Russian mercenary group Wagner as a “transnational criminal organization”, pressuring the private military which has recruited tens of thousands of Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said on Friday that Wagner, controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, had about 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, 80% of whom came from the Russian prison system.
Wagner “is a criminal organization that commits atrocities and human rights abuses on a massive scale,” Kirby said.
“We will work tirelessly to identify, disrupt, expose and target those assisting Wagner,” he said.
Kirby also showed photographs of US intelligence from North Korea apparently supplying weapons to Wagner for his operations in Ukraine, and said the private mercenary force had become a rival to the official Russian military.
The photographs, from Nov. 18-19, show Russian wagons entering North Korea, picking up a load of rockets and infantry missiles and heading back to Russia, Kirby said. He said the US Treasury was officially designating Wagner as a transnational criminal organization, putting it in league with the Italian Mafia and Japanese and Russian organized crime.
The designation will allow for broader application of sanctions against the group’s sprawling global network, which includes mercenary operations as well as businesses in Africa and elsewhere.
Declaring Wagner a “transnational criminal organization” under US Executive Order 13581 freezes all US assets of Wagner and prohibits US nationals from providing funds, goods or services to the group.
Kirby also said the United States presented its intelligence on Wagner’s North Korean arms purchases to the United Nations Security Council’s North Korea Sanctions Unit. Arms transfers from North Korea are in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions, he said.
Last month, Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin denied receiving any weapons from North Korea and called the report “gossip and speculation”.
Prigozhin, asked about Kirby’s comments on Friday, did not directly address the US accusations, but said they showed Wagner and the US were “colleagues” who were both involved in “dismantling clans.” criminals,” an apparent reference to Russia’s claim that its war is designed to eliminate what it calls the illegitimate government of Ukraine.
Kirby also said there is evidence that Prigozhin’s confidence in the relative success of his fighters in Ukraine has generated tension within the Kremlin.
“Wagner is becoming a rival power center for the Russian military and other Russian ministries,” Kirby said.
“Prigozhin tries to advance his own interests in Ukraine and Wagner makes military decisions based largely on what they will generate for Prigozhin, in terms of positive publicity.”
Prigozhin claimed responsibility for months-long Russian advances towards the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, including last week’s capture of the nearby town of Soledar.
On Thursday, Prigozhin said in a press release that Russia had “a lot to learn” from Ukraine’s military. But he insisted that “the Artemovsk colony will be captured”, using the Russian name of Bakhmut.
Prigozhin’s rivals in the Kremlin
The Wagner Mercenary Force was founded in 2014 and has been involved in conflicts in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. But Prigozhin’s infighting with Kremlin officials could hurt him.
According to the American Institute for the Study of War, Putin is “increasingly siding” with Prigozhin’s rivals in high-level power circles.
Putin also did not directly attribute successes in the Bakhmut region to Wagner, the institute noted.
“Putin is likely trying to downplay the importance of Prigozhin in favor of the re-emergence of professional Russian military and Russian government officials,” the group said Thursday.
Last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that he had designated the Wagner Group as an “entity of particular concern” for its activities in the Central African Republic.
Wagner has been under U.S. sanctions since 2017. The Commerce Department last month unveiled new export restrictions targeting Wagner in an effort to further limit his access to technology and supplies.
The European Union imposed sanctions on Wagner in 2021 and named people linked to the group for their involvement “in serious human rights violations, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings”.
Wagner had been involved “in destabilizing activities in some of the countries in which they operate, including Libya, Syria, Ukraine (Donbass) and the Central African Republic. The group is also extending its nefarious influence elsewhere, notably in the Sahel region,” the EU said.