- The US will declare the Russian group Wagner a “transnational criminal organization”.
- This opens up “additional avenues” for Wagner’s continued weapons stockpile, the White House said.
- The military contractor committed “atrocities and human rights violations” in Ukraine, it added.
A military entrepreneur on whom Vladimir Putin is increasingly dependent in the fight against Ukrainian forces will be designated a “transnational criminal organization,” the White House announced Friday.
Wagner’s group, which has close ties to the Kremlin, has about 10,000 mercenaries and 40,000 ex-prisoners deployed in Ukraine. His forces were responsible for “atrocities and human rights violations,” according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
The new designation puts Wagner’s group in the same category as international drug cartels, organized crime syndicates and human traffickers, but it is not considered a “foreign terrorist organization.”
It comes alongside a new package of sanctions and will open up “additional opportunities” for the US to target a global business network of contractors that supplies weapons and money to its mercenaries, Kirby told a news briefing.
“We will work relentlessly to identify, disrupt, expose and target those assisting Wagner,” he said.
US officials also released an image from November 18, which they say shows rail cars traveling between Russia and North Korea to supply rockets and missiles for the Wagner Group.
“The arms trade is in direct violation of a United Nations Security Council resolution,” Kirby said.
Russia is increasingly relying on Wagner’s mercenaries in Ukraine as more of its forces die.
On Friday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, told a briefing in Germany that Russian casualties now totaled “over 100,000” and had become “an absolute disaster for Russia”.
The leader of the Wagner group, long-time Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, has become increasingly powerful since Russia invaded its neighbor last February. He recently claimed credit for some Russian advances in Ukraine, signaling growing tensions between Wagner and the Russian Defense Ministry.
Wagner was notoriously brutal in Ukraine, both to Ukrainian forces and civilians, and to his own fighters. Russian prisoners sent to fight in Ukraine for Wagner say they witnessed public executions of deserters and those who disobeyed orders.
The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have also accused Wagner’s mercenaries of human rights abuses in a number of African states, including the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.