Hearing: Countering Russia's Terroristic Mercenaries
The notorious Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary network, is known to have conducted predatory and terroristic activities since 2014, including in Ukraine, Mali, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Its actions in the service of Kremlin political interests have been characterized by deliberate violations of human rights and atrocities, including heinous acts of violence against civilians, killings, kidnappings, torture, human trafficking and threatening of journalists. The Wagner Group has also received weapons from North Korea, a designated State Sponsor of Terrorism, for its operations in Ukraine.
As a response to the terroristic actions of the Wagner Group, Members of the House and Senate have introduced the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act (H.R. 506/S. 416), bipartisan legislation that would require the Secretary of State to designate the Russian-based Wagner Group (and its affiliates and successors) as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
At this hearing, witnesses responded to questions posed by a bipartisan group of Representatives and Senators, evaluating the most effective tools to counter the Wagner Group and its affiliates – including potential FTO designation through the HARM Act.
Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) opened the hearing with a powerful statement condemning the Wagner Group, highlighting the atrocities they commit using the resources of the Kremlin: “The Wagner Group has spread terror far and wide, committing acts of political violence resulting in the massacre of thousands of civilians in mass atrocities, as in Bucha in Ukraine and Moura in Mali. Wherever Wagner goes, atrocities are soon to follow.” The chairman displayed a fragment of a Wagner SU-24M that was shot down over Bakhmut, Ukraine, demonstrating a “concrete example of the murderous power of this organization. Can you imagine a supersonic tactical bomber being controlled by terrorists?”
The chairman asked witnesses whether an FTO designation for Wagner Group would automatically lead to a state sponsor of terrorism designation for Russia, how an FTO designation would empower lawyers to prosecute Wagner terrorists, and how Wagner operates in service of Putin’s interests.
Justyna Gudzowska, Director of Illicit Finance Policy, The Sentry, outlined a brief history of the Wagner Group’s growth since 2014, the numerous atrocities they commit in different countries, and how the group advances Putin’s agenda globally. “Russia has been steadily expanding its influence with the help of the Wagner Group, leaving a trail of death and devastation around the world. In addition to Ukraine, Wagner has deployed to other trouble spots – Syria, Sudan, Libya, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Mali. It may seem that since invading Ukraine, Russia has been increasingly isolated as a global pariah, but in Africa the Wagner Group has continued to project Russian influence.” She urged Congress and the administration to “implement the toughest economic tools the United States government has at its disposal to counter the Wagner threat and choke off the group’s resources, while minimizing negative impacts on civilians in fragile countries where Wagner operates.”
Jason Blazakis, Director, Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC) and Senior Fellow, Soufan Center drew from his State Department experience to explain why the Wagner Group qualifies for an FTO designation. He also detailed the practical implications an FTO designation would have on curbing the Wagner’s activities. “There is no question that the Wagner Group meets the legal criteria set forth in the Immigration and Nationality Act.” Blazakis outlined that an FTO designation would allow the U.S. to prosecute members and financial backers of the Wagner Group; it would give prosecutors extraterritorial jurisdiction; and it would limit Wagner Group’s success recruiting fighters.
Jason Wright, Partner, Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP and chair of its Economic Sanctions and Trade Control Committee and National Security Law Practice Committee described that an FTO designation would empower the U.S. justice system to effectively target the Wagner Group, help the U.S. and other countries enforce the rule of law, coordinate interagency deterrence actions, and give U.S. diplomats more leverage to isolate the group. “Members, in my opinion, the global war on terrorism is not over. We have simply started a new chapter. A new threat has emerged.”
Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) expressed her support for designating the Wagner Group an FTO declaring: “I am convinced, on the foreign terrorist designation. I’m a co-sponsor of legislation in the Senate that’s bipartisan that would do that. I think the sooner we do it, the better.” The senator inquired about the rifts between the Wagner Group and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD), the group’s troubling recruiting practices, and how best to counter Wagner’s disinformation operations.
Commissioner Rep. Victoria Spartz (IN-05) asked the witnesses about the Wagner Group’s potential activity in Mexico and Central America, its actions that threaten U.S. national security, possible links to China, using an FTO designation to close existing sanctions loopholes, and analyzing Wagner’s propaganda campaigns.
Commissioner Sen. Whitehouse (RI) expressed his support for the HARM Act, saying: “we are pushing for a date for a vote with Leader Schumer on the designation of the Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization…We just were in Kyiv not long ago. And one of our big takeaways is this really needed to be done. And so I hope it will be shortly.” He posed questions to the witnesses on how “financial institutions, lawyers, company formation agents, and other enablers facilitate” Wagner’s crimes, whether there is consensus among partners on an FTO designation, and the importance of identifying and choking off Wagner’s revenue streams.
Commissioner Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) added to Sen. Whitehouse’s comments that the Senate expects to vote on the HARM Act “if not next week, hopefully very, very soon.” He also asked witnesses about how enforceable and effective an FTO designation for Wagner Group would be: “I think in getting a vote, it helps to say: This is going to have real impact, because it will be enforced.”
Commissioner Rep. Mike Lawler (NY-17) asked witnesses if the Wagner Group’s activities have spilled over into former soviet countries, how the U.S. should respond to North Korea’s military aid to Wagner Group and the prospect of Chinese military aid to Russia, and what specific tools an FTO designation would give the U.S. to target the Wagner Group and hold enablers and bad actors accountable.
Ranking Member Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) expressed his frustration with the State Department’s hesitancy to declare Russia’s war on Ukraine a genocide and to designate the Wagner Group an FTO, saying: “Sometimes the State Department needs a … strong kick in the rear. And that’s what this bill …[is] trying to do.” Ranking Member Cohen asked the witnesses to explain the cause of the State Department’s inaction, discuss other problematic Russian private military companies, and analyze the future role the Wagner Group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, may play in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Witnesses responded to questions emphasizing that labeling the Wagner group a FTO would not automatically lead to a state sponsor of terrorism designation for Russia. They also remarked that an FTO designation would make it much easier to successfully prosecute Wagner fighters and supporters, as it has successfully curbed ISIS and Al Qaeda in the past. An FTO designation would close sanctions loopholes, and deter current and would-be supporters of the organization.