US sanctions on Wagner group hit Russian mercenary operations in Africa

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Friday, 27 January 2023 10:53
A pedestrian walks past a mural depicting Russia's para military mercenaries 'Wagner Group' reading : "Wagner Group - Russian knights" on a building's wall in Belgrade, on November 17, 2022. (Photo by OLIVER BUNIC / AFP)

The US government slapped new sanctions on Russia’s Wagner Group on 26 January, putting African nations on notice that working with the Kremlin-linked mercenary group carries high risks.

The Treasury Department’s designation of Wagner as a “transnational criminal organisation” officially aims to undercut military support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Several Wagner-linked individuals and entities are also being punished for alleged abuses in Africa, particularly in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR).

“Wagner Group personnel have perpetrated numerous instances of human rights abuses against civilians in the CAR, including mass summary executions, rape, arbitrary detention, torture, and displacement of civilians,” the Treasury said in a press release. “Moreover, the Wagner Group controls numerous gold and diamond mines in CAR, while raiding and plundering others.”

Threatening peace

This isn’t the first time the US takes aim at Wagner. The US Treasury had previously sanctioned the group in 2017 for threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine.

This time around, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated eight individuals and 16 entities, blocking any assets they may have in the US, while the State Department sanctioned five entities and one individual for their ties to Wagner.

The Wagner Group itself was singled out for its actions in Africa, as were four affiliated companies and two Russian individuals including the former national security advisor to CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

“I think it’s more a message to the African governments that are actively debating a more active and formal partnership with Wagner,” says Cameron Hudson, a former State Department Africa official now with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Hopefully, it gives those governments some pause and causes them to ask if they want to be doing business with a criminal organisation and a US-sanctioned entity.”

“This is reinforced by the fact that only Wagner entities in Mali and CAR were targeted in Africa,” Hudson adds. “Those are places where Wagner is already deeply entrenched so there is a very low political risk to Washington in going after them.”

Wagner is also believed to be involved in Sudan, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Madagascar and Eritrea. Last month Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo alleged that Burkina Faso had hired “Russian mercenaries” to combat insurgency in the country, causing a diplomatic rift with its neighbour to the north.

“OFAC will continue to target Russia’s efforts to resupply its weapons and sustain its war of aggression against Ukraine and destabilising activities worldwide, including any foreign individuals or entities that assist the Russian Federation in those efforts,” the Treasury Department said. “Non-US persons risk exposure to sanctions […] for supporting Russia’s military-industrial complex.”

The Africa connections

The Treasury Department specifically mentions Wagner’s operations in Africa in making its case for the transnational criminal organisation designation.

“Wagner personnel have engaged in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali,” the department concluded.

Wagner is also being designated “for being responsible for or complicit in, or having engaged in, the targeting of women, children, or any civilians through the commission of acts of violence, or abduction, forced displacement, or attacks on schools, hospitals, religious sites, or locations where civilians are seeking refuge, or through conduct that would constitute a serious abuse or violation of human rights or a violation of international humanitarian law in relation to the CAR.”

I think it’s more a message to the African governments that are actively debating a more active and formal partnership with Wagner.

In addition to the group itself, Treasury also slapped sanctions on several entities for allegedly forming part of Wagner’s “global network” in Africa:

  • The Officer’s Union for International Security (OUIS), identified as a Wagner front company based in Russia that claims to represent Russian instructors in CAR, according to Treasury. Since early 2021, Treasury says, the Wagner Group has used OUIS “to obscure an increase of Wagner Group personnel operating in CAR;
  • Sewa Security Services, a CAR-based security company that the US Treasury says is controlled by Wagner and provides protection for senior CAR government officials while also claiming to provide instructors for training exercises in CAR;
  • Kratol Aviation, a UAE-based aviation company that Treasury says has provided Wagner with aircraft to move “personnel and equipment” between CAR, Libya and Mali;
  • Africa Politology, a small editorial company based in St. Petersburg and headed by Sergueï Machkevitch. According to the State Department, Africa Politology “develops strategies and mechanisms to induce Western countries to withdraw their presence in Africa and is involved in a series of Russian influence tasks in the Central African Republic, to include undermining Western influence, discrediting the UN, and carrying out lawsuits against Western press outlets;
  • Prime Security and Development, which the State Department says is a Wagner front company whose director general allegedly represented Wagner in discussions with African governments.

Treasury also sanctioned Valery Nikolayevich Zakharov, a Wagner employee who served as President Touadéra’s national security advisor until he was replaced by Vitali Perfilev last year. Also sanctioned is Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Ivanov, another Wagner employee who heads the OUIS.

The State Department announced its own sanctions on Sewa Security Services, the OUIS, Africa Politology and Prime Security and Development.

Call to action

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters this week that the transnational criminal organisation designation will provide the US government with “another tool” to go after Wagner.

“It will leave senior officials and employees of the Wagner Group susceptible to visa bans,” Price said. “For example, it will allow our law enforcement entities to work with law enforcement counterparts around the world to counter the Wagner Group’s activities from that angle.”

Where the Wagner Group operates, atrocities follow.

Some in Congress want the administration to go further and designate the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). This would allow the US government to pursue criminal penalties against entities across the world that provide material support to the Wagner Group and allow the US to claim universal jurisdiction.

“Where the Wagner Group operates, atrocities follow,” said Tennessee Democrat Steven Cohen, who introduced the bipartisan Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act this week along with eight of his colleagues.

“The HARM Act will identify Putin’s private mercenary group as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation and let the world know that its activities are both malign and illegal,” Cohen, a senior member of the US Helsinki Commission, said in a statement announcing the bill. “It’s time to shine some light on this infamous group and label it with the HARM-ful reputation it deserves.”

The European Parliament has likewise called for the Wagner Group to be included in the EU’s terrorist list.

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