What is the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary outfit in Ukraine?

A mural depicting Wagner Group mercenaries is seen vandalized with paint on a wall in Belgrade, Serbia, on Jan. 13. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

The United States has designated the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, a network of private security contractors that have taken up arms in Ukraine, as a “significant transnational criminal organization,” the Treasury Department announced Thursday.

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

“Today’s expanded sanctions on Wagner, as well as new sanctions on their associates and other companies enabling the Russian military complex, will further impede [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s ability to arm and equip his war machine,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said in a statement.

Treasury noted that Wagner had been accused of “mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali,” and it placed sanctions on a number of organizations the department said provided support for the group, including a Chinese satellite imagery company and an aviation firm based in the United Arab Emirates.

The United States estimates that some 50,000 Wagner fighters have deployed to Ukraine, the majority of whom were recruited from inside Russian prisons. Even its founder, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin, has recently joined his ranks on the front lines in the east.

But the group’s growing presence on the battlefield has also irked Russian military leaders who have either ignored or dismissed Prigozhin’s claims of victory. In recent years, the group has served primarily as a tactical tool of Moscow in places where Russia has political or financial interests, such as Syria.

In Ukraine, a Russian mercenary group steps out of the shadows

Here are some facts about the Wagner Group and what it’s doing in Ukraine.