The United States will designate Russia’s Wagner mercenary group a “transnational criminal organization,” the White House said on Friday, in an attempt to disrupt the cash and weapons flow of a private military outfit being used by Russian President Vladimir Putin for his war against Ukraine.
The designation will come alongside additional US sanctions against Wagner and its support network, spanning multiple continents, said John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the White House National Security Council.
Speaking at a White House news briefing, Kirby said the designation would open up “additional avenues” for the United States to go after Wagner’s business activities around the world, and give other nations and institutions the firepower to follow suit, Reuters reported.
“These actions recognize the transcontinental threat that Wagner poses, including through its ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity,” Kirby said. He noted the Russian mercenary group had carried out “atrocities and human rights abuses in Ukraine, and of course elsewhere around the world”.
At Friday’s briefing, Kirby also displayed photos depicting what he said were five Russian rail cars traveling from Russia into North Korea on November 18 and returning along the same route the following day. He said those rail cars carried an initial delivery of North Korean infantry rockets and missiles for use by Wagner fighters in Ukraine.
Kirby said the arms transfers stood in “direct violation” of United Nations Security Council resolutions. Washington on Friday shared information regarding the prohibited activity with the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions committee panel of experts, Kirby said.
The Biden administration first alleged last month that North Korea was making weapons deliveries to Wagner, Reuters reported.
Pyongyang’s denials are false, Kirby said, pointing to the newly released imagery as proof of the US allegation.
“We obviously condemn North Korea’s actions, and we urge North Korea to cease these deliveries to Wagner immediately,” Kirby said.
Wagner, the mercenary group – which US officials say now has 40,000 convicts and 10,000 contractors deployed to Ukraine – has for months been waging a brutal and costly battle against Ukrainian forces in the city of Bakhmut. Wagner recently made gains in the area, pushing into neighboring Soledar.
Kirby said on Friday that Russia has been searching for foreign weaponry to fuel its war effort in part through Wagner, which has long mixed business with private military power.
“To any company considering providing support to Wagner, our message is this,” Kirby said. “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 Wagner.”