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Understanding the US Designation of the Wagner Group as a Transnational Criminal Organisation


Last week US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that the Treasury Department will designate the private military company (PMC) Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organisation (TCO). Western states and institutions have explored a variety of legal mechanisms against Wagner in recent years, including terrorism designations and sanctions for supporting separatist forces in Ukraine. The TCO designation is thus the latest measure in a layered sanctioning strategy designed to counter the PMC’s vital and frequently brutal role in advancing Russian state interests internationally. In this piece, we demonstrate that the legal case for the TCO designation is strong. Wagner unambiguously meets the criteria for what constitutes a TCO.

The United States is declaring Wagner a TCO under Executive Order (EO) 13581, established in 2011 to block the assets of “significant transnational criminal organizations” that pose “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” What constitutes a significant transnational criminal organisation under EO 13581 is admittedly broad, including any “group of persons … that includes one or more foreign persons; that engages in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity involving the jurisdictions of at least two foreign states; and that threatens the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States.”

As this Perspective details, there is ample evidence to suggest that Wagner engages in an ongoing pattern of serious cross-border criminal activity. Natural resource smuggling in Africa is Wagner’s main criminal enterprise, but it has also been implicated in money laundering and illicit financing. Much of this activity appears to be designed for private gain and to help Russia circumvent and offset the impact of US and European sanctions. Wagner’s transnational criminal activities likely also extend quite a bit further. Another criminal activity that Wagner could be involved in that may come to light as the PMC’s activities are further exposed is trafficking. Wagner likely also engages in the mafia-style actions that violent non-state actors (of which PMCs are one sub-set) often resort to in conflict zones, such as extortion, theft, and armed robbery. Indeed, the group’s trajectory into criminality is only likely to increase due to its members’ feelings of impunity and the highly questionable new recruits that it is now bringing aboard.

The plummeting quality of Wagner recruits is connected to the group’s forces suffering significant casualties in Ukraine. Reporting suggests that, in response, Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin has lowered standards for his mercenaries to the point where he is now deliberately recruiting felons directly from Russian prisons. Additionally, security sources in the Central African Republic (CAR) claim that Wagner is freeing and conscripting criminals from prisons in CAR and Mali, many of whom are reportedly considered terrorist fighters by these governments and were imprisoned for violent crimes. Adding violent criminals to Wagner’s ranks underscores the PMC’s image as a TCO and ensures future anomie in areas where its members operate.

Designating a tool of Russian state power like Wagner involves numerous policy considerations, and we are not arguing in favour of the US’s designation decision. Rather, the point of this Perspective is to explain the legality of, and evidence for, Wagner’s designation for its connections to transnational organised crime.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is an Associate Fellow at ICCT and the founder and chief executive officer of the private firm Valens Global. Before founding Valens, Gartenstein-Ross had established himself as a leading subject matter expert on violent non-state actors and terrorism, with the International Herald Tribune describing him as a “rising star in the counterterrorism community.” He is also a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and leads a project on domestic extremism there. Follow him on Twitter @DaveedGR.

Emelie Chace-Donahue is the director of analysis at Valens Global and supports the firm’s public sector clients. 

Colin P. Clarke is a Senior Research Fellow at The Soufan Center. He is the Director of Policy and Research at The Soufan Group, where his research focuses on domestic and transnational terrorism, international security, and geopolitics. Prior to joining The Soufan Group, Clarke was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, where he spent a decade researching terrorism, insurgency, and criminal networks. Clarke is also an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), a non-resident Senior Fellow in the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), an Associate Fellow at the Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET), and a member of the “Network of Experts” at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

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