The Biden administration is considering designating the Wagner Group, a Russian private military group, as a foreign terrorist organization amid ongoing efforts to impose costs on Russia for the Ukraine war, a US official said.
No final decision has been made, and it is unclear how far out the administration is from potentially making this designation given the laborious legal process in making this determination, the official explained.
The Wagner Group is a mercenary firm that has been heavily involved in the fighting in Ukraine. The group is often described as President Vladimir Putin’s off-the-books troops. It has expanded its footprint globally since its creation in 2014. The group has been accused of war crimes in Africa, Syria and Ukraine.
The group was founded by a Russian oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, which he admitted to earlier this year. Prigozhin is so close to the Kremlin that he is known as Putin’s “chef.”
The group is already sanctioned by the US, but the Biden administration has its sights on labeling it a terrorist organization amid pressure – both from the Ukrainians and from Congress – to declare Russia as a state sponsor of terror due to the invasion of Ukraine and the constant attacks on the civilian population.
“As Ukraine continues to seize momentum on the battlefield, President Putin has focused his ire and his fire on Ukraine’s civilian population,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a news conference Wednesday at the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Bucharest, Romania, noting that Putin’s targets are heat, water and electricity. “This brutalization of Ukraine’s people is barbaric.”
The Biden administration has so far resisted efforts to label Russia as a state sponsor of terror, making the case that it would be a largely symbolic designation that could create obstacles when it comes to getting support into Ukraine, particularly through the Black Sea.
“We have to take into account the consequences, both the intended and the unintended. And that has led us to the approach we’ve taken here,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said earlier this year.
The conversations regarding Wagner are currently happening within a small group of US officials, and no final decision has been made.
“I have no discussions to confirm on this. The United States will continue to hold those responsible for perpetrating Russia’s war against Ukraine to account,” a State Department spokesperson said when asked about the discussions.
Earlier this year, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told CNN that Wagner troops were being deployed in the “most difficult and important missions” in Ukraine, playing a key role in Russian victories in Mariupol and Kherson.
CNN has reported on plummeting morale in the private army as Russia’s Ukraine war falters.
Bloomberg first reported that the administration is considering the foreign terrorist organization designation for the Wagner Group.