The US Treasury Department will designate the Russian mercenary organization Wagner Group as a “transnational criminal organization” and will impose additional sanctions next week against the group and its support network across the world, the White House said on Friday.
“These actions recognize the transcontinental threat that Wagner poses, including through its ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity,” National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby told reporters on Friday, ahead of the Treasury Department announcement.
Along with the new sanctions, the US has released newly declassified photos of Russian railcars traveling from Russia to North Korea and back in November, in what the US believes was the initial delivery of infantry rockets and missiles for use by the mercenary organization Wagner Group in Ukraine.
Kirby said that while the US does not believe the equipment has changed the battlefield dynamics in Ukraine, the US expects those kinds of weapons systems deliveries from North Korea to Russia to continue. Russia has also been receiving equipment, including drones, from Iran, as its military supplies have dwindled over the course of the war.
“The arms transfers from [North Korea] are in direct violation of United Nations Security Council resolution,” Kirby said, adding that the US has shared its intelligence with the Security Council’s DPRK sanctions committee panel of experts.
A senior western intelligence official echoed that assessment on Friday, telling reporters that the West is “certainly concerned that North Korea might plan to expand and deliver more military equipment or to sustain those deliveries.”
Tensions between Russian military and mercenary group
More broadly, the US assesses that tensions between the Russian Defense Ministry and Wagner are increasing as Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly relies on Wagner to carry out operations in Ukraine. There are around 50,000 Wagner Group fighters currently deployed to Ukraine, according to Kirby, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts.
“Wagner is becoming a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries,” Kirby said, and the US has intelligence suggesting that the Russian Defense Ministry “has reservations” about Wagner’s heavy recruitment from Russian prisons.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner Group, has complained that the Russian Ministry of Defense has botched the war effort, and that Wagner fighters should be given more equipment, authority and autonomy to carry out operations in Ukraine.
A senior US official told CNN last month that the Wagner Group has lost thousands of fighters in Ukraine in the last two months alone, most heavily in its operations around Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. But they have also proven more effective than the Russian military in some areas, Pentagon officials have said.
Tensions between Kremlin defense officials and Wagner Group leaders have also been rising amid public complaints by the mercenaries that they are running low on equipment and reports that their leader, Prigozhin, wants to take control of the lucrative salt mines near Bakhmut.
In a video that ran on Russian state media, Wagner Group fighters complain that they are running low on combat vehicles, artillery shells and ammunition, which is limiting their ability to conquer Bakhmut – shortages Prigozhin then blames on “internal bureaucracy and corruption.”
The US believes that Prigozhin’s open defiance of the Russian Defense Ministry is an attempt to generate positive publicity for himself.
“Prigozhin is trying to advance his own interests in Ukraine,” Kirby said on Friday. “And Wagner is making military decisions based largely on what will generate positive publicity for Prigozhin.”