Britain is preparing to designate the Wagner Group — a Russian private army that is deeply involved in the invasion of Ukraine — as a terrorist organization, according to The Times of London newspaper, citing government sources.
The European Union and the United States are debating similar designations, which would put the group in the same bracket as Islamic State and al-Qaida.
Wagner mercenaries, many of whom have been recruited from Russian prisons, are spearheading Russia’s fight for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The battle for the city has been raging for months. Ukrainian and Western governments say Wagner has suffered tens of thousands of casualties.
Wagner operates closely with the Russian government. The group is blamed for widespread atrocities in Ukraine, including the torture and killing of prisoners of war and civilians, among them children. Wagner commanders deny the accusations, despite widespread evidence on the ground and testimony from former mercenaries.
Members of the group — including its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin — are already subject to American, European Union and British sanctions. Britain has been building a legal case for the last two months and could designate Wagner as a terrorist group within weeks, according to the Times report. The British government declined to comment.
Belonging to or promoting Wagner, or even displaying its logo, would become a criminal offense, said Tanya Mehra of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, based in The Hague.
“It may deter companies maybe to do business with Wagner. But it’s doubtful what effect it will have because Wagner is getting their financial resources, not so much from Europe, but from the activities they’re carrying out, the illegal activities in Africa. So what could be the benefits? It is maybe more symbolic,” Mehra told VOA in an interview.
Wagner mercenaries have operated in Syria and several African countries, including Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali and Sudan, typically offering governments security services in return for access to mineral wealth and support for Russia’s geopolitical aims.
Wagner fighters are accused of widespread human rights abuses. In one incident in March 2022, around 300 civilians died in an attack on the Malian town of Moura, which was then controlled by jihadist forces.
Speaking at the time, witnesses accused Malian forces and Russian Wagner fighters of summary executions. Amadou, who ran a stall in Moura, spoke to Reuters after fleeing the attack for the Malian capital, Bamako. He did not want to give his family name.
“They [the Malian army] came with a lot of white men, we can call them Russians. They didn’t understand one other. … They took 15 to 20 people. They lined them up about 100 meters from us. They made them kneel down and they shot them,” Amadou said.
Lawmakers in the French National Assembly voted unanimously Tuesday to designate the Wagner group as a terrorist entity. The resolution was non-binding but increases the pressure on the European Union to take action.
In Washington, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing for the United States to classify Wagner as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The U.S. attorney general said in March he would not object to the move. “I think they’re an organization that is committing war crimes, an organization that’s damaging the United States,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said March 1, noting that the designation is made by the State Department.
Such a move by Washington could have a big impact on Wagner, said Mehra, of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism.
“In the U.S., if they would be designated as a terrorist group, it would have the most far-reaching consequences — as anyone who will be providing material support to the Wagner group could also face criminal prosecution. So that would mean that states or certain government officials from African states, who would be engaging with Wagner could be liable for criminal prosecutions,” Mehra said.
However, governments should be wary of using the terrorist designations as a political tool, Mehra added.
“When you’re looking at Wagner group, they’re not just an ordinary terrorist organization. We are maybe blurring the distinction here and I think it’s important to be careful about that. In fact, Wagner is a private military security company. And Wagner has very strong interconnectedness with the Russian state,” she said.
“I think by designating them as a terrorist group, we do have to look at the long-term effect of it and whether or not it is now being used only solely as a political instrument, or whether that we are really talking about adding another layer of sanctions and whether they would really also meet the criteria … to be designated as a terrorist group,” Mehra said.