US Designates Russia’s Wagner Mercenaries a ‘Criminal Organization’

The United States designated Russia’s Wagner mercenary group a “transnational criminal organization” on Friday, ratcheting up pressure on Russia’s private military fighting in Ukraine.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Wagner, controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to President Vladimir Putin, has about 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, 80% of them from prisons.

Kirby showed US intelligence photos of North Korea supplying Wagner with weapons for its operations in Ukraine, saying the private army has become a rival to Russia’s formal army.

The photos, from November 18-19, show Russian rail cars entering North Korea, picking up a load of rockets and infantry missiles and returning to Russia, he said.

He said the US Treasury was formally designating Wagner as a transnational criminal organization, putting it on the same level as Italian mafia groups and Japanese and Russian organized crime syndicates.

The designation will allow for the broader application of sanctions on the group’s sprawling global network, which includes mercenary operations as well as businesses in Africa and elsewhere.

Wagner “is a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses,” Kirby said.

“We will work tirelessly to identify, disrupt, expose and target those who are helping Wagner.”

Kirby also said the United States had submitted its intelligence about Wagner’s purchase of North Korea to the United Nations Security Council unit on sanctions on North Korea.

Arms transfers from North Korea are in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions, Kirby said.

Kirby said there is evidence that Prigozhin’s confidence in the relative success of Wagner’s fighters in Ukraine has led to tensions in the Kremlin.

“Wagner is becoming a rival power center for the Russian military and other Russian ministries,” Kirby said.

“Prigozhin is trying to promote his own interest in the Ukraine and Wagner is making military decisions based largely on what they will generate for Prigozhin, in terms of positive publicity.”

Prigozhin has claimed credit for months-long Russian advances towards the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, including last week’s capture of neighboring Soledar.

On Thursday, Prigozhin said in a press release that Russia has “a lot to learn” from the Ukrainian military.

But he insisted that “the Artemovsk settlement will be captured,” using the Russian name of Bakhmut.

Wagner was founded in 2014 and has been involved in conflicts in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Wagner’s fighters are tough and disciplined, Prigozhin says, but they are brutally punished if they run away from battle.

But his infighting with other Kremlin officials could be working against him.

According to the American Institute for the Study of War, Putin is “increasingly siding” with Prigozhin’s rivals in high-level power circles.

Putin has also not directly attributed successes in the Bakhmut area to Wagner, he noted.

“Putin is likely trying to reduce Prigozhin’s prominence in favor of the revival of the Russian professional army and Russian government officials,” the group said on Thursday.

Known as “Putin’s chef” for having catered events for the Russian strongman since the two were in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, Prigozhin, 61, has been in the US’s crosshairs for years.

He was indicted by the US Department of Justice in 2018 for interfering in the US presidential election two years earlier by the Internet Research Agency and Concord Management and Consulting, two companies he owns.

He and his companies are also under US and European sanctions for various activities.

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