The US Treasury Department announced Jan. 20 that it will designate the Russian mercenary organization Wagner Group as a “transnational criminal organization,” imposing further sanctions on the group’s financial activities. White House national security representative John Kirby accused the Wagner Group of “committing atrocities and human rights abuses in Ukraine and elsewhere,” especially citing Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic. He also presented satellite photo evidence purporting to show missile deliveries to the Wagner Group from North Korea, via rail across Russia. He added that there are now some 50,000 Wagner mercenaries fighting in Ukraine. (CNN, BBC News)
The press release from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) stated: “Wagner personnel have engaged in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali.” It also made note the Wagner Group’s illegal mining activities: “Moreover, the Wagner Group controls numerous gold and diamond mines in CAR, while raiding and plundering others. The Wagner Group has denied access to CAR government officials seeking to inspect mining operations at Wagner Group-controlled sites.”
Nonetheless, in an open letter posted on social meia in English, Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin asked: “Dear Mr Kirby, Could you please clarify what crime was committed by PMC [Private Military Company] Wagner?” (EuroNews)
Prigozhin is wanted in the United States for interference in US elections, something that he openly boasted in November that he had done and would continue to do. (EuroNews) He is accused of operating a “troll factory” known as the Internet Research Agency, which waged “information warfare against the United States” during the 2016 elections. (NYT)
The Kremlin has meanwhile denied reports of tensions between the Russian army and the Wagner Group, following competing claims of battlefield wins in Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the conflict had been invented by the media and bloggers, calling it a “the product of information manipulation.” Talk of a rivalry between regular forces and the mercenary group intensified after Prigozhin insisted last week his fighters had taken control of the salt-mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine. The first significant Russian gain in several weeks, the taking of Soledar brings Moscow’s forces closer to encircling the strategic eastern city of Bakhmut. Prigozhin criticized attempts to “steal the victory” from Wagner. (AFP, NYT)