While the measures against the Wagner Group had been planned beforehand, they were briefly delayed as US officials sought to avoid taking sides in the power struggle between the group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The US Treasury Department announced sanctions against four companies, such as Midas Resources, a mining company operating in the Central African Republic, and Diamville, a company involved in gold and diamond purchases in the same country. Both entities were identified as being under Prigozhin’s control. The sanctions will block any US assets and criminalize transactions with these companies. Additionally, a Dubai-based company called Industrial Resources General Trading, accused of handling Prigozhin’s financial dealings in Diamville, was also targeted.
Brian Nelson, a Treasury sanctions official, stated that the Wagner Group funds its brutal operations, partially through the exploitation of natural resources in countries like the Central African Republic and Mali. He emphasized that the United States would continue to target the group’s revenue streams to counter its expansion and violence not only in Africa but also in Ukraine and other locations.
The Wagner Group has been contracted by military regimes in Africa and has played a progressively violent role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Prigozhin has urged Putin to employ even greater force.
In March, Tuaregs either side of the Mali-Niger border allegedly confirmed to Nigerien generals that Wagner Group were committing human rights abuses in their communities. The African men also confirmed that Wagner mercenaries did not appear to be equipped by Moscow but by African armies and were largely protecting their mining assets and not the governments that loaned them the equipment’s interests.
On May 30th, Wagner Group took to Telegram, Whatsapp and Wagner-branded VK pages to actively recruit to Africa. The outreach was accompanied by a film depicting a Wagner mercenary describing his new role in Africa, once his contract in Ukraine expired, touting the African “palm trees and weather” and how they always got paid “on time”.
Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the US State Department, reiterated his criticism of the Wagner mercenaries, accusing them of widespread abuses in Africa. He expressed the belief that wherever the Wagner Group operates, death and destruction follow, with detrimental impacts on local populations, mineral extraction, and community finances. Miller urged African governments and others to cease any cooperation with the group.
In a report last month, the United Nations human rights body identified foreign forces, identified by the US as Wagner, as being involved in a massacre that claimed the lives of at least 500 people in the town of Moura in central Mali in March 2022.
As part of an agreement with the Kremlin, Prigozhin was granted permission to travel to Belarus, a close ally of Russia. This decision by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko was criticized by Miller, who viewed it as another example of prioritizing the interests of Putin and the Kremlin over those of the Belarusian people.
Wagner’s leader has not been heard nor seen since his communication from Belarus that he had halted the mutiny according to television network France24.
The mutiny led by Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin triggered widespread speculation regarding loyalty and divisions within Moscow’s leadership, and the absence from public view of leading generals affiliated with Vladimir Putin has raised questions about whether they are under suspicion or have been arrested.
Valeri Garzemov, chief General of the Russian armed forces, commander of Russia’s war in Ukraine and one of the three alleged people in charge of the nuclear briefcase, has not been seen for almost a week.
General Sergei Surovikin, a high-ranking commander involved in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, known to Russian media as “General Armageddon”, has been apprehended, according to the Moscow Times, although he and his bodyguards have not been seen nor reachable since Saturday.
The widely acknowledged connections between Surovikin and Prigozhin have sparked speculation that Surovikin could face purging or investigation due to his alleged support for the mutiny. Prigozhin and Surovikin had collaborated closely during Russia’s military engagement in Syria, with Prigozhin even referring to Surovikin as a “legendary figure.”
However, when Prigozhin initiated the uprising, Surovikin made a clear and unequivocal statement on Friday, denouncing the mutiny and expressing his support for the Russian government.
Established in 2014 by Dmitry Utkin, a former officer in the Russian military intelligence agency known as the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), the Wagner group was initially formed as a security contractor to protect Russian energy assets abroad.
In 2014, the Wagner Group reportedly operated in Ukraine during the conflict in the Donbass region, where it supported separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Its involvement included participating in combat operations alongside pro-Russian rebels.
Over time, the Wagner Group expanded its activities beyond Ukraine and became involved in other conflicts. It reportedly operated in Syria, where it supported the Syrian government forces in the Syrian Civil War besides reports of the group’s involvement in Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali. A military complex for Wagner Group is being built in Belarus where Prigozhin is reportedly in exile since Saturday.
Although the Wagner Group is officially a private entity, it has been widely speculated that it maintains close ties to the Russian government and had, up until now, operated with its tacit approval, although the Russian government had neither confirmed nor denied the group’s existence or activities officially.
This is not the first time that the United States has imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group or its leader Prigozhin who, along with 12 other Russians, was charged in 2018 for a vast and wide-ranging effort to sway political opinion during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, through a company called Internet Research Agency following the Mueller indictment. The St Petersburg-based company had “allegedly used bogus social media postings and advertisements fraudulently purchased in the name of Americans to influence the White House race” according to the Associated Press.