The U.S. hit Russia’s Wagner Group, a private military company that has been fighting the war in Ukraine, with new sanctions that are now also targeting several individuals and firms linked to what the Department of the Treasury said was a “transnational criminal organization.”
The lawless mercenary group that consists of a significant number of convicted felons is owned by President Vladimir Putin’s close ally, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Backed by the Russian armed forces, the paramilitary organization arose in the wake of Russia’s initial attack on Ukraine in 2014. Its fighters took part in the illegal occupation of Crimea and in the much bloodier battles in the country’s east.
Among those sanctioned on Thursday are the director of a front company for the Wagner Group in Africa, the CEO of a Russia-based defense firm, two Russian officials involved in the annexation of the Donbas region, and the chairman of a producer of strategic bombers for Russia’s armed forces and his wife.
“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 Putin’s ability to arm and equip his war machine,” said the Secretary of the Treasury, Janet L. Yellen.
In addition to sanctioning Wagner Group and the individuals, the U.S. also struck out a network of Russia supporters, from airline to defense industries. According to Yellen, the Kremlin “is desperately searching for arms and support.”
Last week, the White House had said that the sanction would come because they seek to counter the “atrocities and human rights abuses” attributed to this mercenary group in Ukraine or elsewhere.
Currently, Wagner Group has about 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts in Ukraine that cost about US$100 million a month. Wagner has recruited its personnel right out of Russian prisons, which, according to the White House, the Russian Defense Ministry has reservations about.
On the other hand, Prigozhin, the head of the Group who was named OCCRP’s 2022 Most Corrupt Person of the Year, has openly criticized the official Russian forces for their performance on the battlefield and taken credit for some of the recent advances in Ukraine.
The White House believes that it is likely “there are mounting tensions between Russian officials and Prigozhin.”
Apart from Ukraine, members of the group are accused of numerous human rights abuses in Africa, “including mass summary executions, rape, arbitrary detention, torture, and displacement of civilians,” the Treasury Department said.
According to the Under Secretary of Commerce for Industry and Security, Alan Estevez, Wagner Group “is one of the most notorious mercenary organizations in the world.”
Last month, the U.S. Department of Commerce designated the group as a “military end user,” which means that it “cannot access any equipment anywhere in the world, based on U.S. technology or production equipment,” unless the exporter secures a license.
“It made crystal clear which entities are a threat to Ukraine and need to be denied access to our technologies,” said the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration, Thea Rozman Kendler.
However, searching for arms and ammunition abroad, including through Wagner, turned to North Korea which delivered infantry rockets and missiles to Moscow, in direct violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Five railcars with shipping containers allegedly traveled from Russia to North Korea on Nov. 18 and returned from there to Russia loaded. North Korean officials denied the allegations that “they have provided arms to Wagner.” However, Kirby condemned the Asian country during last week’s press conference.
“We urge North Korea to cease these deliveries to Wagner immediately,” he added.
January 27, 2023 Published by The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.