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4th Feb 2023

EU sanctions shed light on Kremlin mercenaries

  • Wagner Group chief personally ordered torture and murder in Syria, the EU said (Photo: Reuters/Omar Sanadiki)
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The EU has blacklisted Russia's mercenary Wagner Group, shedding new light on the activities of the Kremlin-linked fighters.

It sanctioned the group itself and eight of its commanders as well as three companies linked to its financing.

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"The Wagner Group is a Russia-based unincorporated private military entity, which was established in 2014 as a successor organisation of the Slavonic Corps [another private security group]," the sanctions notice in the EU's Official Journal said on Monday (13 December).

And it was "responsible for serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, and Mozambique, which include torture and extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions," the EU said.

The eight Wagner commanders added to the EU visa-ban and asset-freeze register were: Dimitriy Utkin, Stanislav Dychko, Valery Zakharov, Denis Kharitonov, Sergei Scherbakov, Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Andrey Troshev, and Andrey Bogatov.

The three firms were Evro Polis, Mercury, and Velada, involved in Syria's mining, oil, and gas business.

Utkin, whom the EU listed for fighting on Russia's side in east Ukraine and Syria and for human rights abuses, was a former Russian special-forces lieutenant colonel who was the "founder and commander of the Wagner Group" and who had "personally ordered the torturing to death of ... [a Syrian army] deserter as well as the filming of the act" in 2017, it said.

Russian diplomats claim not to know what Wagner Group is.

But all eight sanctioned individuals were Russians and several of them came from Russian security services, the EU noted.

Utkin was linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-friendly oligarch, through their Concord group of companies, the EU said.

The mercenaries also had access to high-end weapons and one of them, Scherbakov, was said to have boasted of shooting down two Ukrainian aircraft and a helicopter using surface-to-air missiles, after which he was awarded the Russian Federation's Order of Merit for the Fatherland.

And all of Wagner's blacklisted Syria companies were domiciled in Russia.

The EU showed detailed knowledge of Wagner Group, which is said to command thousands of fighters from eastern Europe and Africa, by publishing its eight commanders' military call-signs and naming Wagner structures, such as its '1st Attack and Reconnaissance Company'.

An internal EU document recently said Wagner Group and Russia had worked hand-in-hand in CAR to seize control of the country.

And Monday's EU sanctions come amid Western fears they were now doing the same in Mali.

Russia's EU ambassador recently confirmed Wagner Group had signed a contract with Mali's authorities.

By some reports seen by EUobserver, Wagner had more than 2,000 fighters there already.

And "the Sahel [region] is ... the scene of competitive political interests, notably between the EU and other actors such as Russia," the EU foreign service said in another internal memo.

"The aim of today's [sanctions] decision is to curtail the subversive activities of the Wagner Group," the EU noted in a statement on Monday.

"It signals the EU's strong determination to stand up for its interests and values in its neighbourhood and beyond," it said.

Wider concern

The sanctions, agreed by foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, also come amid concern Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine a second time.

And they come amid spreading jihadist violence in the Sahel, Libya, and Nigeria as well as civil wars in CAR, Ethiopia, and Syria.

"Any aggression against Ukraine will come with political consequences and with a high economic cost for Russia," the EU's foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, said, after ministers' talks on potential new gas and banking-sector sanctions.

"We are in deterrent mode," he added.

Borrell had earlier threatened to also blacklist Ethiopians who obstructed international aid workers.

But he said on Monday he had been unable to muster all 27 member states to agree.

Ethiopia was "one of my biggest frustrations [this year]", he told press, "because we were not able to react properly to the large-scale human rights violations, mass rapes using sexual violence as a weapon of war, killings, and concentration camps based on ethnic belonging", Borrell said.

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