The United States has labeled the Russian Wagner mercenary group a “transnational criminal organization” and has put pressure on the private army, which has recruited tens of thousands of Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Friday that Wagner, controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has about 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, 80 percent of whom are from Ukraine Russian prison system.
Wagner “is a criminal organization that commits widespread atrocities and human rights abuses,” Kirby said.
“We will work tirelessly to identify, disrupt, uncover and target those who support Wagner,” he said.
Kirby also showed US intelligence photos of North Korea, which appeared to supply Wagner with weapons for its operations in Ukraine, and said the private mercenary force had become a rival to Russia’s formal military.
The photos from Nov. 18-19 show Russian railroad cars entering North Korea, picking up a load of infantry missiles and missiles, and returning to Russia, Kirby said. He said the US Treasury Department officially designates Wagner as a transnational criminal organization and puts it in a league with the Italian mafia and Japanese and Russian organized crime.
John Kirby presents satellite imagery showing Russian railcars traveling between Russia and North Korea during a press conference at the White House, Washington, DC January 20, 2023 [Leah Millis/Reuters]
The designation will allow for broader application of sanctions against the group’s sprawling global network, which includes mercenary operations as well as corporations in Africa and elsewhere.
Wagner’s designation as a “transnational criminal organization” under US Executive Order 13581 freezes all of Wagner’s US assets and prohibits US citizens from providing funds, goods or services to the group.
Kirby also said the US had submitted its findings on Wagner’s North Korean arms purchases to the United Nations Security Council’s North Korea Sanctions Unit. The arms shipments from North Korea directly violate UN Security Council resolutions, he said.
Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin last month denied accepting arms shipments from North Korea, calling the report “gossip and speculation.”
Prigozhin, asked for a response to Kirby’s comments on Friday, did not address the US allegations directly but said they show that Wagner and the US are “colleagues” both involved in “dismantling criminal clans.” are an apparent reference to Russia’s claim that the war is intended to eliminate Ukraine’s so-called illegitimate government.
Kirby also said there was evidence that Prigozhin’s reliance on the relative success of his fighters in Ukraine had fueled tensions in the Kremlin.
“Wagner is becoming a rival powerhouse for the Russian military and other Russian ministries,” Kirby said.
“Prigozhin is trying to promote his own interest in Ukraine, and Wagner makes military decisions largely based on what they will generate for Prigozhin in terms of positive publicity.”
Prigozhin has acknowledged several months of Russian advances towards the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, including last week’s capture of the neighboring town of Soledar.
On Thursday, Prigozhin said in a press statement that Russia had “a lot to learn” from the Ukrainian army. But he insisted that “the settlement of Artemovsk be conquered,” using the Russian name for Bakhmut.
Prigozhin’s rivals in the Kremlin
The Wagner mercenary force was formed in 2014 and has been involved in conflicts in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. But Prigozhin’s power struggles with Kremlin officials could hurt him.
According to the US Institute for the Study of War, Putin is “increasingly siding with” Prigozhin’s rivals in high-level circles of power.
Putin also did not directly attribute the successes in the Bakhmut area to Wagner, the institute noted.
“Putin is likely trying to downplay Prigozhin’s profile in favor of re-emerging professional Russian military and government officials,” the group said Thursday.
Last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that he had labeled the Wagner Group an “entity of particular concern” for its activities in the Central African Republic.
Wagner has been under US sanctions since 2017. The Commerce Department last month unveiled new export restrictions targeting Wagner to further restrict its access to technology and supplies.
The European Union imposed sanctions on Wagner and designated individuals linked to the group in 2021 for their involvement “in serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings”.
Wagner has been “involved in destabilizing activities in some of the countries where they operate, including Libya, Syria, Ukraine (Donbass) and the Central African Republic. The group is also spreading its malign influence elsewhere, particularly in the Sahel,” the EU said.