- Bernd Debussmann Jr
- BBC News – Washington
The United States has decided to classify the Russian Wagner Group, which is believed to have deployed thousands of mercenaries in Ukraine, as an “international criminal organization”.
The White House said that the decision will lead to the imposition of new sanctions, on the organization and the network that supports it, during the next week.
US national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the organization “is committing atrocities and human rights abuses in Ukraine and elsewhere.”
He added that there are approximately 50,000 mercenaries affiliated with the Wagner Organization currently in Ukraine.
The new designation enables the US government to apply broader sanctions against the paramilitary organization, which has also operated in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and other hotspots.
According to John Kirby, 80 percent of the Wagner forces deployed in Ukraine are ex-prisoners.
He added that the group had become a competitor to the Russian army, and that the United States believed that there was “escalating tension” in the relationship between Russian officials, on the one hand, and the controversial founder of the organization, Yevgeny Prigozhin, on the other.
Kirby said that US intelligence took pictures of Russian train cars as they entered North Korea, where they allegedly carried artillery shells and missiles for later use by the Wagner Organization.
“We will work tirelessly to identify, disrupt, detect and target those who assist Wagner,” he added.
The United States believes that transferring weapons from North Korea violates UN Security Council resolutions. And the US intelligence sent the information in its possession to the International Security Committee, which is charged with monitoring sanctions on North Korea.
“We expect that (Wagner) will continue to receive North Korean weapons,” Kirby said.
He added, “We clearly condemn North Korea’s actions, and urge it to immediately stop these deliveries to Wagner, and we will go further by taking action against Wagner itself.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin was asked for a comment about John Kirby’s statements, but he did not comment directly, according to Reuters.
The United States does not suggest that North Korean arms shipments had a significant impact on the fighting in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian forces said that the Wagner fighters suffered heavy losses in the battles taking place in the Bakhmut region, after they were asked to advance in open ground that was within the range of fire.
In September 2020, the United States imposed sanctions on Wagner, after the authorities alleged that the organization was being used to enrich Prigozhin through mining activities in Sudan and in the Central African Republic.
The US authorities also indicated the possibility that Prigozhin had sent Wagner’s forces to take part in the attack on Bakhmut, with the aim of taking control of the salt and gypsum mines in the area.