The US government has designated the Russian private military contractor known as the Wagner Group as a “transnational criminal organization,” giving the notorious mercenary outfit the same status as international drug cartels and human trafficking organisations under US law.
National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby on Friday said the move is the result of Wagner’s ongoing operations in Ukraine, which he described as “committing atrocities and human rights abuses”.
Mr Kirby also said American intelligence has assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war effort is increasingly relying on Wagner, leading to tensions between Russian defence officials and the owner of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
“Wagner is becoming a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries. Prigozhin and his fighters have criticized Russian generals and defense officials for their performance on the battlefield. Prigozhin is trying to advance his own interest in Ukraine and Wagner is making military decisions based largely on what ... they will generate for Prigozhin in terms of positive publicity,” he said.
The White House spokesman also unveiled satellite photographs showing Wagner has had to turn to North Korea as a supplier for munitions and materiel as a result of US sanctions on Russia.
“While we assess that the amount of material delivered to Wagner has not changed battlefield dynamics in Ukraine, we do expect that it will continue to receive North Korean weapons systems. We obviously condemn North Korea's actions and we urge North Korea to cease these deliveries to Wagner immediately and we are going further by taking action against Wagner itself,” he said.
The designation of Wagner as a transnational criminal organization follows the Commerce Department’s decision last month to designate the mercenary group as a military end user, which makes it unlawful for the group to access any equipment containing US components or anything based on US technology.
“These actions recognize the transcontinental threat that Wagner poses including through its ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity,” he said. “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. And we will work relentlessly to identify disrupt, expose and target those who are assisting”.