The Wagner Group, a Russian proxy force headed by Kremlin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, has supported authoritarian regimes and extended Russian influence across the globe. How can the US best stifle their operating model?
The Wagner Group had built a shocking reputation for human rights abuses long before the recent invasion of Ukraine, operating as a proxy force to extend Kremlin influence among the globe’s cruellest regimes.
In November, Defence Connect published an analysis of Russia’s growing military footprint in Africa, quoting a submission by Jared Thompson, research associate at the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), to the Modern War Institute at West Point.
“The Wagner Group is less a single entity than a network of businesses and mercenary groups, linked through their connections to associates of President Vladimir Putin, most notably Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin,” he wrote.
“While ostensibly a private security contractor, Wagner has been characterised as a ‘creature of the Russian state’ with close ties to its military intelligence services and a directive to pursue the economic interests of Russian elites. The Wagner Group has undertaken a variety of security tasks, including training local forces and VIP protection, which now form the basis of a potential contract in Mali.”
So how can the West best combat the Wagner Group?
While the United States and allied governments have instituted sanctions regimes on the Russian government, the Wagner Group has nevertheless been able to travel between countries continuing to commit humanitarian atrocities. More targeted actions must be taken to cripple the Russian war machine.
This has prompted James Petrila and Phil Wasielewski to call for the group to be designated as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) in a blog for the Lawfare Institute last week.
According to the pair, designating the Wagner Group as an FTO as part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) would inhibit Wagner’s ability to operate by threatening those that collaborate with the group with US prosecution.
“In addition to acting as an overt condemnation of the unlawful acts Wagner Group has already committed, the FTO designation would make it a crime under the US material support to terrorism statutes to provide any form of material support to Wagner Group going forward,” the pair argue.
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“This would increase the risk of potential violation of US law to the myriad financial institutions and logistics companies whose support is critical to Wagner Group activities throughout the Middle East and Africa.”
According to the pair, designating the Wagner Group as an FTO would impact all members associated with the group.
“Because of the broad reach of US material support statutes, designation as an FTO would impede Wagner Group members’ ability to travel internationally, transfer money, and engage in commercial procurements whether these touch the United States or not,” the pair continue.
Petrila and Wasielewski contend that this will result in four major disruptions for the group:
- Designation would allow the US to freeze the group’s assets;
- It will stop those associated with the Wagner Group from entering the US;
- Ensure that actors who knowingly provide the group with assistance are eligible to face prosecution; and
- Allow US citizens to seek “civil remedies” from the group and those associated with the group if they are victims of that FTO.
Perhaps such actions will enable the United States to more tangibly target the Russian war machine, more so than the broader sanctions regimes that the US and allied governments have levied.
In a recent article published by Defence Connect, the efficacy of sanctions regimes were assessed in light of the effect that they facilitate a growth in nationalism – spurring greater belligerence among adversarial populations.
According to famed international relations thinker John Mearsheimer, sanctions are an offensive tool used by governments to inflict humanitarian punishment on a population, encouraging revolution and consequent regime change.
Obviously, this doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone in defence and international relations.
Though Mearsheimer’s analysis has a catch: sanctions rarely work. And in the case of sanctions on Russia, they will likely weaken the US-led campaign against Russian aggression by fomenting retributive nationalism among Russia’s body politic.
“States are able to sustain huge amounts of punishment and the population does not rise up against the ruler. You want to think about what we did to Japan in World War II. You want to think about what we did to Germany. You want to think about the literature on sanctions, economic sanctions. Look at Iran. It’s amazing what we’ve done to Iran. Look at Cuba. There have been sanctions on Cuba forever. And these countries don’t throw up their hands,” the famed thinker said during a recent discussion with the Committee for the Republic.
“So the first point I would make to you is nationalism is a very powerful force. And I think that the Russian people will rally around Putin.”
Already, opinion research has demonstrated that Mearsheimer’s hypotheses are coming true.
Polling conducted by the Levada-Center in 2015, in response to sanctions following Russia’s clandestine invasion of Ukraine, illustrated that a majority of the Russian population perceived sanctions on political elites and the military as intended to “weaken and humiliate Russia”.
More recent opinion research from the Levada-Center has demonstrated that those in Russia who hold the US responsible for the war in Ukraine jumped from 50 per cent to 60 per cent in the three months leading to the invasion.
Perhaps Simon Constable in Time put the sanctions dilemma most carefully under the microscope, noting that “sanctions often prompt a country’s population to rally around the flag”.