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US to designate Russia’s Wagner Group as transnational criminal organization

The Russian mercenary group has been accused of war crimes from Syria to Libya, the Central African Republic and Ukraine.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The US Treasury Department is set to designate Russia’s Wagner mercenary group as a “significant transnational criminal organization,” the White House announced Friday.

The designation will enable the US government to further sanction Wagner and clamp down on the organization’s ability to do business around the world, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said during a press briefing.

Additional US sanctions against the Wagner Group and its supporters will be announced next week, Kirby said.

Why it matters: The designation comes as the United States aims to prepare Ukraine for a possible renewed Russian offensive. Wagner has led Russia’s push for control of key towns in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region in recent weeks using conscripted convicts.

US officials say the thrust by Wagner — which played a key role in cementing Russia’s influence in war-torn Syria and Libya — is designed to overshadow efforts by regular Russian forces in Ukraine.

Wagner founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin, Kirby said Friday, “is trying to advance his own interests in Ukraine and Wagner is making military decisions based largely on what they will generate for Prigozhin in terms of positive publicity.”

US intelligence assesses some 50,000 Wagner personnel are deployed in Ukraine, Kirby said, among them 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts.

“Our information indicates the Russian Defense Ministry has reservations about Wagner’s recruitment methods. Despite this, we assess that it is likely that Wagner will continue to recruit out of Russian prisons,” Kirby said.

Russia has suffered well over 100,000 casualties in the war since it started last February, the Pentagon’s top general, Mark Milley, said Friday at Rammstein Air Force Base in Germany.

What's next: Western support for Ukraine’s self-defense has depleted Russia’s stockpiles of munitions, leading the Kremlin to turn to Iran and North Korea for additional supplies.

Russia continues to seek additional arms from foreign countries, “including through Wagner,” Kirby said today. On Monday the White House revealed declassified imagery showing North Korean train shipments of rockets and missiles to Russia for use in Ukraine in November.

The shipment has not changed dynamics on the battlefield, but US intelligence believes Russia will continue to receive North Korean weapons.

Know more: Iran has supplied hundreds of armed attack drones to Russia, which has repeatedly launched them against civilian infrastructure across the country as winter approached. US officials have decried the tactic and revealed that Iran has been in talks over sending ballistic missiles to Russia for use in the war, though no such transfer has yet been completed.

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