Saying that it “will not stand by” amid an assault on religious freedoms, the U.S. has officially added Russian mercenaries the Wagner Group to a blacklist, paving the way for potential sanctions.
“Around the world, governments and non-state actors harass, threaten, jail, and even kill individuals on account of their beliefs,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Dec. 2, adding that “the United States will not stand by in the face of these abuses.”
Blinken said that the Wagner Group was an “entity of particular concern” for its alleged crimes in the Central African Republic, and confirmed that they had been added to the list that also includes groups such as the Taliban and Boko Haram.
Consisting mainly of veterans of the Russian armed forces, PMC Wagner Group has fought in numerous wars, including conflicts in Syria and Libya, where it has been accused of committing various acts of brutality and human rights violations.
Due to its mainly operating in support of Russian interests or foreign policy objectives, the private military company is widely considered an unofficial unit of either Russia’s Ministry of Defense or its military intelligence agency, the GRU.
Since its first appearance, Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin – a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin – persistently denied having any connection with the Wagner Group, and has even sued journalists for reporting the claim.
However, on social media platform VKontakte on Sept. 28, Prigozhin released a statement via his company Concord Catering, saying that the 2014 Russian-backed separatist movements in the Donbas region had spawned the controversial group, and admitted he had helped found it.
In the statement, Prigozhin claimed that he personally “cleaned the old weapons, sorted out the bulletproof vests myself and found specialists who could help me with this. From that moment, from May 1, 2014, a group of patriots was born, which later came to be called the Wagner Battalion.”
The statement came in response to a request for comment from a Russian news site as to why he had stopped denying his links to Wagner, with Prigozhin adding: “I am proud that I was able to defend their right to protect the interests of their country.”
However, U.S. intelligence officials had attributed the brutal group’s founding to Prigozhin long before his admission.
In a statement on Dec. 15, 2021, the U.S. Department of State said: “We are alarmed by a potential deployment of Russia-backed Wagner Group forces in Mali. We understand that the reported deal — costing $10 million per month — diverts money that could be used to support the Malian Armed Forces and public services to pay for the deployment of Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s Wagner Group forces to Mali. Wagner forces — which are known for their destabilizing activities and human rights abuses — will not bring peace to Mali, but rather will destabilize the country further.”
Prigozhin is already sanctioned by the U.S., the U.S., and the European Union – but continues to openly voice his support for his group’s ongoing barbarity.
On Nov. 12, the Wagner Group once again drew international condemnation after a horrific video widely circulated on social media showed Wagner members executing a Russian prisoner of war with a sledgehammer.
In the footage, convicted murderer Yevgeny Nuzhin, who had been recruited by Wagner as part of their drive to have prisoners from Russian penal colonies fight on the front lines in Ukraine in exchange for pardons, was seen with his head clingfilmed to a large brick.
Seconds before he is killed, Nuzhin gives a seemingly scripted confession: “I am Yevgeny Anatolievich Nuzhin, born in 1967, who went to the front to go to the side of Ukraine to fight against the Russians.”
“On the fourth of September, I carried out my plan to go over to the side of Ukraine. On the eleventh of November, I was on the streets of Kyiv, where I received a blow to the head, as a result of which I lost consciousness.”
“I woke up in this basement, where I was told that I was going to be put on trial.”
A member of the Wagner Group then raises a huge sledgehammer and strikes Nuzhin’s neck. Falling backwards, he is then struck one final time on the head.
Sharing the video on his Telegram channel, Prigozhin wrote: “It seems to me that this film should be called: ‘A dog dies a dog’s death.’ It was an excellent directional piece of work, watched in one breath. I hope no animals were harmed during filming.”
Whilst the Wagner Group has now been added to a blacklist for religious persecutions, the U.S. is yet to pass legislation in response to Wagner’s other human rights abuses.
On Dec. 1, U.S. Senators Roger Wicker and Ben Cardin introduced the ‘Holding Accountable Russian Mercanaries (HARM) Act, urging the Senate to officially recognize the Wagner Group as a terrorist organization.
The new legislation will require approval from the Secretary of State to designate the group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) within 90 days of enactment.
“Vladimir Putin and his cronies will stop at nothing to accomplish their objectives, including employing mercenaries like the Wagner Group to commit atrocities on their behalf,” Senator Wicker said in a statement on Dec. 1.
“The U.S. should call this shadow army what it is: a foreign terrorist group,” he added. “We must hold them accountable along with any who support them.”
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