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U.S. to brand Russia’s Wagner Group a ‘transnational criminal’ entity

Wagner has risen to international renown as a ruthless shadow instrument of Russian power, now using convicts to wage Putin’s war against Ukraine

The Biden administration announced on Jan. 20 that it would designate Russia’s Wagner mercenary group a “transnational criminal organization.” (Video: The Washington Post)

The United States will designate Russia’s Wagner mercenary group a “transnational criminal organization,” the White House said Friday, an attempt to disrupt the cash and weapons flow of a private military outfit prosecuting President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine with an army of convicts and contractors.

The designation will come alongside additional U.S. sanctions against Wagner and its support network, spanning multiple continents, said John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the White House National Security Council. The Treasury Department intends to formalize the penalties next week.

Speaking at a White House news briefing, Kirby said the designation would open up “additional avenues” for the United States to go after Wagner’s business activities around the world, and give other nations and institutions the firepower to follow suit.

“These actions recognize the transcontinental threat that Wagner poses, including through its ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity,” Kirby said. He noted the Russian mercenary group had carried out “atrocities and human rights abuses in Ukraine, and of course elsewhere around the world.”

The action comes a month after the Commerce Department imposed new restrictions on Wagner, designating the group a Russian “military end user” to hinder the mercenaries’ ability to acquire items that use U.S. technology.

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At Friday’s briefing, Kirby also displayed photos depicting what he said were five Russian rail cars traveling from Russia into North Korea on Nov. 18 and returning along the same route the following day. He said those rail cars carried an initial delivery of North Korean infantry rockets and missiles for use by Wagner fighters in Ukraine.

Kirby said the arms transfers stood in “direct violation” of United Nations Security Council resolutions. Washington on Friday shared information regarding the prohibited activity with the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions committee panel of experts, Kirby said.

The Biden administration first alleged last month that North Korea was making weapons deliveries to Wagner. Pyongyang’s denials are false, Kirby said, pointing to the newly released imagery as proof of the U.S. allegation.

“We obviously condemn North Korea’s actions, and we urge North Korea to cease these deliveries to Wagner immediately,” Kirby said.

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Since its first appearance in Ukraine in 2014, Wagner has risen to international renown as a ruthless shadow instrument of Russian power that has been accused of human rights abuses in Syria, Mali, Central African Republic and Ukraine.

Its founder, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, spent nine years in prison for robbery and other crimes, before operating a hot dog stand, casinos and a floating restaurant in post-Soviet St. Petersburg, where he came to know Putin.

Prigozhin’s company, Concord Catering, won contracts with Russian state and municipal entities. Meanwhile, the former convict and caterer meddled in foreign affairs, funding the notorious St. Petersburg troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, which interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and also backing Wagner, which swelled into a large battlefield force in Ukraine this past year after Putin allowed him to recruit convicts directly from Russian prisons.

The mercenary group — which U.S. officials say now has 40,000 convicts and 10,000 contractors deployed to Ukraine — for months has been waging a brutal and costly battle against Ukrainian forces in the city of Bakhmut. Wagner recently made gains in the area, pushing into neighboring Soledar.

“They are both mining towns — gypsum in Bakhmut and salt up in Soledar,” Kirby said. “We think that also has a role to play in why Mr. Prigozhin is so adamant on pouring, literally just throwing bodies into a meat grinder to get these two towns. It’s very much in keeping with his modus operandi in places like Africa, where he is going after mining rights and mining capabilities.”

Prigozhin responded in a statement Friday posted on his catering company’s VK page, in which he appeared to liken the United States itself to a criminal organization.

“Finally, the Wagner private military company and the Americans are colleagues,” Prigozhin said. “From now on, our relationship can be called a ‘showdown between criminal clans.’”

The pending designation follows months of tension between Prigozhin and the Russian Ministry of Defense. Prigozhin has assailed the Russian military for incompetent management of the war effort, and according to U.S. intelligence revealed last year by The Washington Post, has voiced similar criticisms personally to Putin. He has become a public figure in Russia after years of operating in the shadows.

Kirby said Friday that Russia has been searching for foreign weaponry to fuel its war effort in part through Wagner, which has long mixed business with private military power.

“To any company considering providing support to Wagner, our message is this,” Kirby said. “Wagner is a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses, and we will work relentlessly to identify, disrupt, expose and target those who are assisting Wagner.”

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