The United States has labeled Russia’s Wagner mercenary group as a “transnational criminal organization”, putting pressure on the private army that 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 the country. Russian prison system.
Wagner “is a criminal organization engaged in widespread atrocities and human rights violations,” Kirby said.
“We will work relentlessly to identify, disrupt, expose and attack those who aid Wagner,” he said.
Kirby also showed U.S. intelligence photos of North Korea apparently supplying weapons to Wagner for its operations in Ukraine, and said the private mercenaries have become a rival to the formal Russian military.
The photos, from Nov. 18-19, show Russian railcars entering North Korea, picking up a load of infantry rockets and missiles and returning to Russia, Kirby said. He said the U.S. Treasury Department formally labeled Wagner a transnational criminal organization, cooperating with the Italian mafia and Japanese and Russian organized crime groups.
The designation will allow wider application of sanctions against the group’s vast global network, which includes mercenary operations as well as companies in Africa and elsewhere.
Declaring Wagner a “Transnational Criminal Organization” under U.S. Executive Order 13581 freezes all of Wagner’s U.S. assets and prohibits U.S. citizens from providing money, goods, or services to the group.
Kirby also said the US had presented its intelligence on Wagner’s North Korean arms purchases to the UN Security Council’s sanctions unit against North Korea. The arms transfers from North Korea are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, he said.
Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin last month denied receiving weapons from North Korea, characterizing the report as “gossip and speculation”.
Prigozhin, who was asked for a response to Kirby’s comments on Friday, did not address the US allegations directly, but said they showed Wagner and the US were “colleagues” who were both involved in “dismantling criminal clans,” a clear reference to Russia’s claim that its war is designed to remove what it calls Ukraine’s illegitimate government.
Kirby also said there are indications that Prigozhin’s confidence in the relative success of his fighters in Ukraine has led to tensions within the Kremlin.
“Wagner will become a rival center of power for the Russian military and other Russian ministries,” Kirby said.
“Prigozhin is trying to further his own interest in Ukraine and Wagner makes military decisions based largely on what they will generate for Prigozhin, in terms of positive publicity.”
Prigozhin has taken credit for several months of Russian advances towards the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, including last week’s capture of the neighboring city of Soledar.
On Thursday, Prigozhin said in a press statement that Russia had “a lot to learn” from the Ukrainian military. But he insisted that “the settlement of Artemovsk will be captured”, using the Russian name for Bakhmut.
Prigozhin’s rivals in the Kremlin
Wagner’s mercenary force was founded in 2014 and has been involved in conflicts in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. But Prigozhin’s power struggle 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 power circles.
Putin also did not directly credit Wagner for the successes in the Bakhmut area, the institute noted.
“Putin is likely trying to reduce Prigozhin’s notoriety in favor of the re-emerging 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 special interest” 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 against Wagner in an effort to further limit his access to technology and supplies.
The European Union imposed sanctions on Wagner in 2021, citing individuals associated with 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 (Donbas) and the Central African Republic. The group is also spreading its malign influence elsewhere, particularly in the Sahel region,” the EU said.