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EU Sanctions Russian Mercenaries

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The EU has imposed sanctions on a Russian mercenary organization accused of human rights abuses in Libya, Syria, Ukraine and the Central African Republic (CAR).

The measures target the Wagner Group and eight individuals and three entities connected to it. The EU has also said it will no longer train CAR government soldiers because of their links to Wagner.

In a statement, the European Council said that the Wagner Group has “recruited, trained and sent private military operatives to conflict zones around the world to fuel violence, loot natural resources and intimidate civilians in violation of international law, including international human rights law.”

The individuals sanctioned include the Group’s founder, Dimitriy Utkin, and Valery Zakharov, security counsellor to the President of the Central African Republic. All eight are accused of being involved in serious human rights abuses, including torture, executions and killings, or destabilizing activities in some of the countries they operate in. 

“The aim of today’s decision is to curtail the subversive activities of the Wagner Group. It signals the EU’s strong determination to stand up for its interests and values in its neighborhood and beyond, and to take tangible action against those threatening international peace and security, and breaching international law,” the EU statement continues.

The EU suspended its military training mission in CAR after at least one battalion it had produced was led by the Wagner Group. 

Those sanctioned will be subject to an asset freeze and travel ban in the EU, and persons and entities in the EU will be prohibited from making funds available, either directly or indirectly, to them.

The new measures fall under four different sanctions regimes operated by the US – its human rights framework, as well as specific programs relating to Libya, Syria and Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

What is the Wagner Group?

The Wagner Group is currently in CAR supporting its president in a fight against rebels. A BBC report says that the mercenaries are believed to have started working in CAR in 2017, after the UN Security Council approved a Russian training mission there. While the UN only agreed to 175 Russians operating as trainers for the local military, it is believed that more than 2,000 were deployed.

In a UN report in August about human rights abuses in the CAR, 526 incidents were documented in the year from July 2020, including extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence and serious violations against children.

“The Central African Armed Forces, Internal Security Forces and other security personnel – including Russian military instructors deployed under an agreement between the Governments of CAR and the Russian Federation, and private military contractors operating in the country – were responsible for 46% of the confirmed incidents,” the report states.

The Wagner Group’s mercenaries are also accused of operating in Libya, Sudan and Mozambique. Mali recently said it was looking to employ 1,000 Wagner operatives to help provide security, following a French announcement that it would withdraw half of its 5,000 troops from the country. 

In response, the US warned Mali that accepting the Russian mercenaries would divert needed funds and further destabilize the country.

Heightened tensions

The new sanctions were first reported by Politico, with EU foreign ministers saying they expected a “fairly mild” reaction from Moscow, which has denied any links to Wagner. The report adds that France was the driving force behind the sanctions, due to concerns about Wagner’s activities in Africa. 

Russia has since claimed that US mercenaries are preparing Ukrainian special forces and radical armed groups for “active hostilities” in eastern Ukraine, and had delivered “an unidentified chemical component” to the region “to commit provocations.”

These latest sanctions reflect wider growing tensions between the EU and Russia. In March, the EU imposed sanctions on four leading Russian officials for serious human rights violations following the “arbitrary arrest, prosecution and sentencing” of opposition politician Alexei Navalny. This was the first time the EU employed its new Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, which was established in December 2020.

Divisions have been further widened by Russian antagonism on the Ukraine border and major geopolitical rifts within Europe regarding the €10bn Baltic Sea pipeline Nord Stream 2, which carries gas from Russia to Germany.

Germany’s new government is already squaring up with Russia. After the December imprisonment of a Russian national for the murder of an ethnic Chechen in a Berlin park in 2019, Germany’s foreign minister called the shooting “murder by state contract” and two Russian diplomats were expelled.

Her Russian counterpart said Berlin’s “unfriendly stance” would be met with an “appropriate response.”

Compliance teams should ensure they understand the scope and nature of the Wagner Group’s activities, in order to fully assess their clients’ risk exposure. They should be mindful of any transactions where there is a suggestion that the end user could belong to the group, screening against up-to-date sanctions lists. Due to the dynamic geopolitical situation, its likely new measures will be enacted as short notice. Adverse media checks will also help firms build a full picture of any potential client connections to the Wagner Group. 

Read more about global sanctions trends and updates in our 2021 report.

Originally published December 23, 2021, updated December 23, 2021

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