A fight is brewing between Congress and President Biden over whether to designate as a terrorist organization the private Russian military company Wagner, which is on the front lines of aggression against Ukraine and accused of heinous atrocities there and across the world.
While the Biden administration has sanctioned the Wagner group as a global criminal organization, lawmakers are pushing the State Department to go further by imposing the foreign terrorist designation.
The split underscores a long-running tension: Congress has criticized the Biden administration as slow-walking its support for Ukraine, while the administration says it is managing a delicate escalation ladder and safeguarding against potential, negative blowback.
“We’ve seen that again and again in terms of this support for the Ukrainians and this war, where Congress has been out ahead of the White House,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill.
“It’s been true since Russia invaded Ukraine. I remember in 2014 supporting lethal weapons for Ukraine, and the White House refused to support that. I don’t see this as unusual. I hope the administration and the State Department comes on board.”
Shaheen is a sponsor, along with six other Democratic and Republican senators, of legislation called the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act, which would force the State Department to label Wagner as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).
Supporters of the FTO designation say it imposes significantly more costs on Wagner compared to its current label as a transnational criminal organization.
The FTO designation would increase U.S. resources to target and disrupt Wagner’s activities, serve as a strong deterrent against people or governments doing business with the group and open new pathways for legal action.
“This would be a game changer,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and one of the co-sponsors of the bill.
The National Security Council and the State Department did not respond to questions from The Hill over its specific issues with labeling Wagner an FTO.
Complications with Wagner FTO label
But a congressional aide, requesting anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations, told The Hill that the administration opposes the legislation over concerns it could impede U.S. efforts to convince and work with African nations to end their associations with or dependency on Wagner.
Expert analyses have tied the Wagner group’s activities to countries including Sudan, Libya, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Chad. The private security company is often used as a supplement force for those countries’ weak militaries.
“[The State Department] is concerned that if suddenly the FTO designation lands on Wagner, that those governments, where there’s various officials that deal with them [Wagner], that they would all, immediately be blocked from travel to the United States and have their assets seized for coming into contact with the FTO. So that’s the nature of their concern,” the aide said.
“They claim they’re not opposed to it on Ukraine grounds, but they’re opposed to it on Africa grounds.”
But supporters of the HARM bill say passing the legislation sends an important political signal while also giving the president authority to delay carrying out the letter of the law.
The bill text includes an authority for the president to waive the sanctions requirements over national security concerns.
“The messaging that comes from passing a bill like this, I think, is valuable and we would want that. I think it can have both worlds,” the aide said.
And supporters of the FTO designation say that the Wagner group, in particular, fulfills criteria separate from the transnational criminal organization label. Wagner’s close ties to the Kremlin make it more than just a criminal organization operating for profit, as opposed to other transnational criminal groups like drug cartels in Central and South America.
Wagner is “ostensibly a private outfit, but actually functions as an arm proxy of the Kremlin,” Justyna Gudzowska, a former Treasury sanctions official, testified to lawmakers Thursday during a hearing of the Helsinki Commission.
Gudzowska, the director of illicit financing at the investigative and policy organization The Sentry, said that the organization has tracked Wagner spending money in the Central African Republican on “sophisticated Hollywood-style propaganda glorifying Russia.”
This “makes it clear that the group is not there just for economic spoils, but also to project Russian power abroad,” she told lawmakers.
Still, Gudzowska also warned that an FTO designation on Wagner could harm humanitarian groups working in these countries, another unintended consequence of such a designation, and called for lawmakers to ensure such issues “are properly mitigated.”
What has Wagner allegedly done?
The alleged atrocities committed by the Wagner group make up a long list and are difficult to stomach. In Ukraine, the Wagner group is accused of employing the tactic of human wave attacks to overwhelm front-line positions, throwing bodies to be killed.
Wagner forces are also accused of carrying out the rape, torture and massacre of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, in March 2022.
In countries in Africa, Gudzowska testified bluntly that “Wagner targets civilians,” and said that Wagner forces and Wagner-trained Central African soldiers use terror as a weapon against the civilian population.
“They have committed mass rape, torture, forced disappearance and dislocation, and they have killed thousands of civilians,” Gudzowska said.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is focused on Wagner atrocities in Africa and has talked with officials in Ukraine about the group’s atrocities, said he is supportive of labeling the group as an FTO but is not committed to any one piece of legislation.
“I am trying to make sure that I understand what the consequences might be,” he told The Hill. “But I think this is something we need to move on.”
A move to change Russia’s status
Supporters of the FTO designation also hope it lays the groundwork for labeling Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, a move the Biden administration has also resisted over concerns for unintended consequences, like making it harder to move grain out of Ukraine while it is under a Russian naval blockade.
Graham had earlier tried to work with the administration on legislation to label Russia as an “aggressor state,” in a compromise over the state sponsor of terrorism designation, but that fell apart.
“I’ve worked with the administration — how can you say Russia’s committing crimes against humanity and you won’t label them a state sponsor of terrorism?” Graham told The Hill.
“I don’t like this crime of aggression crap, I want to go to what they are, a state sponsor of terrorism.”
He continued that he is focused on designating Wagner an FTO, followed by becoming “a real vocal, unrelenting force to get Russia labeled as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), co-sponsor of the HARM Act and
“I don’t know about not going through committee, but I don’t think it will have much problem getting through there either,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), co-sponsor of the bill and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where the bill has been referred.
“I think Wagner at this point is the definition of a Foreign Terrorist Organization and they just happen to operate for profit.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he supported designating Wagner an FTO but said he had not seen the legislation.
The congressional aide who spoke with The Hill said that the legislation is unlikely to move quickly, facing a difficult, uphill battle by nature of Senate procedures – between challenges to getting it on the calendar for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in general, and the chance the Banking Committee may exercise jurisdiction because of the sanctions piece of the legislation.
“Also, marking something up in the committee or passing it on the Senate floor does not immediately mean it’s a law that would be implemented,” the aide said.
“And particularly because the administration doesn’t want it, it could disappear, in the dark of night, on a [National Defense Authorization Act] discussion next December.”
Graham, however, was upbeat and said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) appeared to be on board. Schumer’s office did not return a request for comment.
“I talked to Sen. Schumer, he said he thought it was a good idea … I think Sen. Schumer is going to make it happen,” he said.