It’s time to designate the Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization
International sanctions aimed at punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine have overlooked a key part of the Kremlin’s toolbox for international terror and coercion: the private military company (PMC) Wagner Group, which is owned by the confidant of Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
In the months following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the international community responded with a wide range of international sanctions designed to isolate the Russian economy from the industrial world and punish individuals and institutions for their complicity. in the war. Yet, so far, the United States has missed an opportunity to designate the Wagner Group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).
The Wagner Group and its military leader, Dmitry Utkin, have been subject to Treasury Department sanctions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) since June 2017. The specific designation of Wagner as an FTO under the AEDPA would be an appropriate response not only to the war crimes that the Wagner group has committed in occupied Ukraine from 2014 until today, but also to the documented crimes he has committed throughout the Middle East and Africa. These crimes took place as Wagner enriched the Kremlin and served as a covert instrument of Russian foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
In addition to acting as an open condemnation of the illegal acts the Wagner Group has already committed, the FTO designation would make it a crime under US material support for terrorism laws to provide any form of material support to the Wagner Group in the past. ‘coming. This would increase the risk of potential violation of US law for the myriad of financial institutions and logistics companies whose support is essential to the activities of the Wagner group in the Middle East and Africa. Treasury Department sanctions that list the Wagner, Prigozhin and Utkin Group as Specially Designated Nationals under the IEEPA are having a significant impact in freezing and freezing assets in the United States, but designation as an FTO would put an essential element of American criminal law at stake.
The Wagner Group’s activities in Ukraine have been notorious since 2014, but they have also had a lingering presence in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR) and, more recently, Mali. In all these countries, the mercenaries of the Wagner group have been related extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and other war crimes. More recently, credible reports noted that the Wagner Group was involved in the murder of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, while other members of the Wagner Group were involved in a similar massacre against innocent civilians in Mali. These persistent violations of the Geneva Conventions and the law of armed conflict by the Wagner group have not given rise to any investigation or sanction by the Russian authorities. This lack of enforcement indicates that these persistent violations are not the result of individual criminal actions. Rather, they represent a deliberate policy in which terrorism is used to enrich a handful of oligarchs and advance the foreign policy goals of the Russian Federation.
In many cases, such as CAR and Mali, Wagner Group forces are better armed and equipped than any other force in the region. While the Wagner Group is ostensibly a private military company, banned by Russian law, its business activities align with the secret and overt foreign policy goals of the Kremlin. The notoriety of the Wagner group, however, is not based on its connection with the Kremlin, but on its use of violence to exert influence through the intimidation and coercion of civilian populations. This fear-based tactic authorized Wagner Group to secure critical concessions for exclusive access to the mineral wealth of African states, for example, for the direct benefit of Wagner Group owners, as well as the Kremlin.
These activities, carried out by a self-proclaimed private actor who claims to have no formal ties to the Russian state, threaten the national security of the United States and its allies. These activities also pose a direct threat to US nationals, as in the case of the Wagner Group threats to CNN reporters investigating the murder of three Russian journalists allegedly carried out by members of the Wagner Group in the CAR. Although the group cannot claim any Russian affiliation, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has already designated the Wagner Group as a “proxy force of the Russian Ministry of Defense”. And in September 2020, OFAC, which had previously sanctioned Prigozhin for interfering in the 2016 US presidential elections, sanctioned eight individuals and seven entities directly involved in continuing Prigozhin’s operations in the CAR, assisting Russian Federal Security Service activities, or participating in sanctions-busting activities.
Although OFAC added the Wagner Group to its list of Specially Designated Nationals in 2017, which prevents U.S. residents from having any business or financial dealings with the organization, the designation of the Wagner Group (and its related entities ) as an FTO and the corresponding link to material support for terrorism laws would be a stronger step that would further denigrate the Wagner Group’s ability to operate overseas. Due to the broad scope of U.S. material support laws, designation as an FTO would restrict members of the Wagner Group from traveling internationally, transferring money, and engaging in commercial purchases, qu whether or not they affect the United States. Moreover, these measures would be likely to deter mercenaries from joining the ranks of the organization in the future.
To effectively end the Kremlin’s use of the Wagner Group as a covert tool of terror (while formally and persistently denying any connection to the group), the US Secretary of State should designate the Wagner Group as an FTO. Under the AEDPA, the Secretary of State may designate an entity as an FTO based on a determination that the entity is foreign; the entity engages in “terrorist activity” or “terrorism,” as defined in 8 USC § 1182(a)(3)(B)(iii); and the terrorist activity threatens the security of the United States or its nationals. The secretary may rely on classified and unclassified information to make the designation.
The designation of Wagner Group as an FTO has four major consequences: first, the Treasury Department can freeze the FTO’s assets; second, OTF members are barred from entering the United States; third, those who knowingly provide “material support or resources” are subject to criminal prosecution in the United States; and, finally, civil remedies are available to US persons who are victims of a terrorist act committed by an FTO both against the FTO and against any person or entity that knowingly provides substantial assistance to an FTO.
The current designation of the Wagner Group under the IEEPA means that these first two consequences are already in effect. The last two, however, are not. The FTO designation would make financial institutions and international businesses more reluctant to engage with the Wagner Group due to the risk of criminal indictment under US law. Indeed, the primary impact of such a designation – the potential use of material support for counter-terrorism laws – would likely have a significant impact on the willingness of various foreign companies to provide continued support for Wagner Group activities.
Traditionally, FTO designations have focused on Islamic terrorist groups and non-state actors. The Wagner Group’s closest analogue, however, is Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which was designated FTO in April 2019 – a designation that has drawn criticism for several reasons. As reported by the New York Times a few days later, the designation of a state entity as an FTO (as opposed to the designation of an entire country as a state sponsor of terrorism) was an unprecedented move directed against an organization which would potentially cover 11 million members of the Iranian group. Moreover, the IRGC was already sanctioned by the IEEPA, and the U.S. military expressed concern that such a designation would encourage the IRGC to further target U.S. personnel and interests in the Middle East. As discussed in a Right According to an article by Elena Chachko, the IRGC designation also appeared to be timed to give then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a boost in the impending Israeli elections. Moreover, the move was announced as the Trump administration revoked the endorsement of the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, a move that has been widely denounced as an abuse of US sanctions authority. particularly after the Chief Prosecutor was sanctioned under the IEEPA. in December 2020. (These designations have been survey in April 2021 by the Biden administration.)
Would such a criticism also apply to a Wagner Group FTO designation?
We would argue, no. Unlike the IRGC, which is an important component of the Iranian government, the Russian government routinely denies any formal connection between itself and the group, even though it reports suggests Otherwise. The group’s existence as a separate, ostensibly commercial entity allows the US government to make this designation without creating the same diplomatic difficulties inherent in designating a government entity. And unlike the case of the IRGC, which continues to be able to attack US personnel and US interests in the Middle East, the Wagner Group’s potential ability to do the same is not as likely. Finally, such a designation would be a significant intervention aimed at degrading the ability of the Wagner Group to engage in violent business activities in Africa and the Middle East.
While acknowledging that Prigozhin, the leader of the group, and a number of entities he owns or controls have been sanctioned under Treasury Department regulations, the designation of Wagner Group as an FTO, in accordance with the legislation US in force, is an important additional step. Critically, this action would render any financial, logistical or other support to the Wagner Group liable to prosecution by the United States for material support of terrorism, thus imposing new difficulties on the group’s operations in the MENA region. As such, this designation would be an important step in protecting the United States and its allies from the violent and disruptive activities of one of the world’s most notorious organizations.
Where the United States leads, others will likely follow. The purpose of these sanctions, like similar sanctions against other terrorist groups, would be to deprive the organization’s members of the ability to travel abroad, to destroy the group’s funding, to derail its recruitment efforts and to discourage foreign governments from using it. This is an important and necessary step to end the usefulness of the Wagner group for the Kremlin and, therefore, its existence.