The Biden administration designated Russia’s Wagner Group a transnational criminal organization in a new effort to blunt the mercenary company’s powerful role on the battlefield in Ukraine and around the world.
New sanctions will be coming in the next week against the group, which the U.S. estimates has about 50,000 personnel deployed in Ukraine, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Friday.
The Treasury Department’s designation will give the administration new authorities to impose financial restrictions on Wagner and those who work for it.
“These actions recognize the transcontinental threat that Wagner poses,” Kirby said at a briefing. “Our message to any company that is considering providing support to Wagner is simply this: Wagner is a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses.”
The move marked the latest effort to disrupt the group, which has gained in prominence and power around the world despite a raft of U.S., U.K. and European Union sanctions. The group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is considered a major ally and supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war effort in Ukraine.
Administration officials debated labeling Wagner a foreign terrorist organization but have so far withheld that designation despite urging from some members of Congress.
Prigozhin on Saturday published an open letter to the White House asking what Wagner has been accused of. The letter, written in English and posted on the Telegram channel of Prigozhin’s press service, said: “Dear Mr. Kirby, Could you please clarify what crime was committed by PMC Wagner?”
Kirby said the U.S. is seeing indications of increased tensions between Wagner and Russia’s defense ministry. He said Wagner is “becoming a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries,” even as Putin increasingly leans on the group for support.
Russian state television has highlighted the group’s role in Ukraine. In September, video emerged of a man bearing a strong resemblance to Prigozhin offering an early release for prisoners who survive a six-month stint fighting at the front in Ukraine.
At the same briefing, Kirby said the U.S. has evidence that Wagner is receiving deliveries of North Korean munitions and equipment in support of the war effort in Ukraine.
“While the amount of material that’s been delivered won’t change the battlefield dynamics in Ukraine, allies are concerned North Korea could deliver further military equipment,” Kirby said.
As evidence, he displayed two photographs that purported to show Russian rail cars traveling between Russia and North Korea.
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