A bipartisan group of senators is reinvigorating calls to designate the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, as a foreign terrorist organization as the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches.
The Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries Act, led by Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, and Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican, aims to hold the paramilitary group accountable for human rights abuses in Ukraine by requiring the State Department to apply the designation to any entity associated with the Wagner Group.
The lawmakers backing the legislation say the designation would signal to the Kremlin that the U.S. intends to hold Russia accountable for its war long after the dust has settled in Ukraine.
“When it comes to this war, once Ukraine wins on the battlefield — and they will eventually — then the task of holding all those accountable for this barbaric invasion will be upon us,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “Designating the Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization is a statement by the United States Senate that we are not forgiving and forgetting and we’re using every tool in the toolbox.”
Other sponsors include Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat; Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat; Thom Tillis, North Carolina Republican; Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat; and Marco Rubio, Florida Republican.
The bill’s co-sponsors introduced a similar version that did not receive passage before the end of the last Congress.
The Treasury Department last month labeled the Wagner Group a “transnational criminal organization,” for a long list of human rights abuses in conflicts around the globe. Officials say the group acts as a military arm of the Kremlin in far-flung clashes throughout Ukraine, Mali, Sudan and the Central African Republic.
Adding the group to the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations would push the Wagner Group and its affiliates further to the fringes as the U.S. aims to sideline Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
The U.S. estimates that the Wagner Group’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is spending more than $100 million per month on operations in Ukraine.
In September, videos began to surface online showing Mr. Prigozhin promising Russian convicts release from prison in exchange for combat tours in Ukraine.
The White House assessed in December that the group has 50,000 mercenaries deployed to Ukraine, 40,000 of whom are convicts.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby has accused the Wagner Group of receiving weapons from North Korea to be used by its mercenaries on the battlefield in Ukraine.
Sens. Graham and Blumenthal also introduced legislation last Congress to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism in a bid to further ostracize Russian President Vladimir Putin on the global stage.
The lawmakers cited a list of grievances beyond Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including the Kremlin’s targeting of civilians during the Second Chechen War and the Syrian Civil War, as grounds for the designation.
President Biden has resisted calls from the lawmakers in addition to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and members of Ukraine’s parliament to lump Russia in with Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Syria — the only four countries that currently carry the terrorist designation.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers last spring that while he had “no doubt” that “the Russians are terrorizing the Ukrainian people,” State Department lawyers were still determining “that we actually meet the statutory requirements of that designation.”
The White House in the fall said that applying the designation to Russia could have “unintended consequences for Ukraine and the world” and undermine the U.S. ability to support Ukraine at the negotiating table.