It’s Time to Designate Wagner Group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization

Wagner Group’s activities in Ukraine have been notorious since 2014, but they also have had a persistent presence in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), and—most recently—Mali. In all of these countries, Wagner Group mercenaries have been linked to extrajudicial murders, torture, rape, and other war crimes. Most recently, credible reporting indicates that Wagner Group was involved in murdering Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, while other Wagner Group members were involved in a similar massacre against innocent civilians in Mali. Such persistent violations of the Geneva Conventions and the law of armed conflict by Wagner Group have not resulted in any investigations or punishments by 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 in order to enrich a handful of oligarchs and advance the foreign policy objectives of the Russian Federation.

In many cases, such as in the CAR and Mali, Wagner Group forces are better armed and equipped than any other force in the region. While Wagner Group is ostensibly a private military company, which are banned under Russian law, its business activities align with the Kremlin’s covert and overt foreign policy goals. Wagner Group’s notoriety, however, is based not on its connection to the Kremlin, but on its use of violence to achieve influence through the intimidation and coercion of civilian populations. This fear-driven tactic allowed Wagner Group to obtain critical concessions for exclusive access to the mineral wealth of African states, for example—directly benefiting Wagner Group’s owners, as well as the Kremlin. 

Petrila and Wasielewski write that these activities, carried out by a self-described private actor that claims to have no formal tie to the Russian state, threaten the national security of the U.S. and its allies. These activities also pose a direct threat to U.S. nationals, such as in the case of Wagner Group’s threats to CNN reporters investigating the murder of three Russian journalists allegedly carried out by Wagner Group members in the CAR.

While the group may claim no Russian affiliation, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has already designated Wagner Group as a “Russian Ministry of Defense proxy force.” And in September 2020, OFAC, which had already sanctioned Prigozhin for interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections, sanctioned eight individuals and seven entities directly involved in furthering Prigozhin’s operations in the CAR, assisting the activities of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or engaging in sanctions evasion activities. 

The contend that to effectively end the Kremlin’s use of Wagner Group as a covert tool of terror (while officially and persistently denying any connection with the group), the U.S. secretary of state should designate 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 U.S.C.§ 1182(a)(3)(B)(iii); and the terrorist activity threatens the security of the U.S. or its nationals. The secretary may rely on both classified and unclassified information in making the designation.

The designation of Wagner Group as an FTO has four major consequences: First, the Treasury Department may freeze the FTO’s assets; second, FTO members are barred from entering the U.S.; third, those who knowingly provide “material support or resources” are subject to U.S. criminal prosecution; and, finally, civil remedies are available to U.S. persons who are victims of a terrorist act committed by an FTO against both the FTO and any person or entity who knowingly provides substantial assistance to an FTO

Petrila and Wasielewski conclude:

While recognizing that Prigozhin, the group’s leader, and a number of entities that he owns or controls have been sanctioned under Treasury Department regulations, the designation of Wagner Group as an FTO, consistent with existing U.S. law, is an important additional step. Critically, this action would make any financial, logistical, or other support to the Wagner Group subject to prosecution by the U.S. for material support to terrorism—thus imposing new difficulty on the group’s MENA operations. As such, this designation would be an important step to protect the U.S. and its allies from the violent and disruptive activities of one of the world’s most notorious organizations. 

Where the United States leads, others are likely to follow. The goal of these sanctions, like similar sanctions against other terrorist groups, would be to deny the organization’s members the ability to travel internationally, destroy the group’s financing, derail its recruitment efforts, and discourage foreign governments from employing it. This is an important and necessary step toward ending Wagner Group’s utility to the Kremlin and, therefore, its existence.