September 29, 2022 | Insight

The Wagner Group: Paramilitary Terrorism

September 29, 2022 | Insight

The Wagner Group: Paramilitary Terrorism

President Biden recently stated he would deny congressional resolutions to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. The president’s response comes amid a broader discussion of how to counter the Kremlin’s defiance of international norms and disregard for human rights. While designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism is fraught with political challenges, designating the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, as a terrorist organization would help restrain one of the main perpetrators of atrocities. Wagner’s pattern of violence in Europe and Africa clearly justifies a terrorism designation.

Legal Criteria for a Terrorism Designation

A terrorism designation may appear counterintuitive at first glance, but Wagner’s activity fits the statutory understanding of terrorism: the consistent and intentional use of violence to intimidate and endanger civilians in service of strategic goals.

The United States has two primary types of terrorism sanctions: It can designate a group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) or as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). Wagner’s actions fit the bill for both. For an FTO designation, U.S. law defines terrorist violence as violence “with intent to endanger, directly or indirectly, the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property.” Similarly, Executive Order 13224, which created the SDGT designation, defines terrorism as an “act” that is “dangerous to human life, property, or infrastructure” and is intended to intimidate or coerce.

As a private military company and state proxy force, Wagner’s actions often lead to war crimes investigations rather than terrorism charges. Indeed, the current list of U.S.-designated entities includes ideologically motivated violent extremist groups (such as al-Qaeda) and cause-oriented paramilitary groups (such as the Real Irish Republican Army) but no private military companies.

However, the House of Representatives and the Senate have both cited Wagner’s atrocities as supporting evidence for Russia’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Fundamentally, U.S. law states that terrorist groups weaponize fear by inflicting violence on people or property, which Wagner does on a routine basis.

Wagner’s Pattern of Violence

Though Russian law criminalizes mercenary work, the Wagner Group operates as a private security force and a proxy force for the Kremlin. The group supplements the Russian military presence in Syria and Ukraine and trains armed forces in Latin America and Africa in support of official bilateral agreements. The Department of the Treasury sanctioned Wagner in 2017 for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty during Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea but did not designate it as an SDGT or FTO.

Beyond service to the Kremlin, Wagner also seems to advance the business interests of Yevgeny Prigozhin. Wagner’s primary financier, Prigozhin is linked to multiple businesses, ranging from disinformation troll farms to mining companies, and appears regularly in Kremlin circles, frequently communicating with senior leadership and attending military planning meetings. In many places where Wagner deploys, host nations grant Prigozhin-linked companies contracts and concessions and employ Wagner as a private security force to protect those enterprises with little regard for collateral damage.

In 2018, Russia sent Wagner to the Central African Republic as part of a bilateral agreement to train government forces and provide security to Prigozhin-linked companies, such as M Finans and Lobaye Invest, which obtained access to lucrative gold and diamond mining operations in the country. This past January, Wagner personnel invaded the gold mining town of Aïgbando, setting homes ablaze, forcing hundreds to flee, and killing several dozen civilians. Two local girls later told reporters that Russians abducted and sexually assaulted them for around 10 weeks. France’s ambassador to the United Nations alleged that in the aftermath of the attack, Wagner laid landmines around the town to inhibit further investigation, calling the massacre “part of a method which aims to provoke terror in order to control certain territories and derive profits from them.”

Elsewhere in the Central African Republic, Wagner has attacked miners, summarily executed men, and conducted unprovoked attacks on civilians taking refuge in a local mosque. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations estimated that around 40 percent of the reported human rights abuses in the country happened at the hands of Wagner fighters.

The group has replicated this pattern of violence in other African states. While supporting Khalifa Haftar’s failed bid to install himself as Libya’s ruler in late 2019 and 2020, Wagner fighters left mines and other explosive traps in homes, furniture, and toys in Tripoli, violating international legal prohibition on the use of unmarked mines. In Mali, Wagner’s arrival in December 2021 brought with it a significant increase in civilian murders. Most notably, Wagner joined Malian armed forces in an operation in the town of Moura, where approximately 300 men were summarily executed. On at least three occasions in the spring of 2022, Wagner operatives in Sudan fired into crowds of workers and bystanders in an effort to take over local gold mines.

Wagner’s brutality leapt into international headlines with its role in the Russian military’s massacre in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. Ongoing documentation of the massacre and survivor testimonials describe summary executions, torture, rape, and wanton destruction. A UN investigation documented 50 civilian executions, while press reporting indicates the civilian death toll was over 1,000. In intercepted communications, Russian soldiers were heard discussing atrocities in a matter-of-fact manner, raising questions about whether there was a deliberate effort to instill fear in the Ukrainian population. Separately, three Wagner mercenaries face war crimes charges for burning houses, systematic torture, and execution of civilians and city leaders in the town of Motyzhyn.

Furthermore, Wagner appears to have indirect ties to the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), a white nationalist group that provides paramilitary training and is a U.S.-designated SDGT. Two graduates of a RIM training camp formed an organization known as Task Force Rusich, which fought alongside Wagner in Ukraine’s Luhansk oblast from 2014 to 2015 and was implicated in Wagner’s atrocities in Palmyra, Syria. In September 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Rusich for its participation in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and said the group is “associated” with Wagner. Rusich is widely considered to be a subordinate of Wagner, although the exact nature of their relationship is unclear. If Rusich has financial ties to RIM, such as paying for ongoing use of RIM’s training facilities, that may constitute separate grounds for an SDGT designation for Rusich or Wagner by extension.Though Wagner’s ties to the Russian white supremacist movement remain obscure, personal and training connections between Wagner, Rusich, and RIM suggest a possible material connection between Wagner and an existing terrorist organization.

Designation to Disrupt and Defend

Designating the Wagner Group as a terrorist entity would introduce new mechanisms to curb Russian aggression and hold war criminals responsible for their brutality. An FTO or SDGT designation against Wagner would criminalize the provision of any material support to the group and allow U.S. citizens to sue for damages wrought by the group’s acts of terrorism against their person or property — penalties that existing sanctions on the group do not entail. A terrorism designation would also signal to foreign governments that working with Wagner would adversely affect their overall relationship with the United States.

Furthermore, a terrorism designation would not preclude international legal action against Wagner for war crimes or crimes against humanity. But whereas that process can often take years and may never achieve tangible results, as Moscow is unlikely to cooperate, a terrorism designation would take immediate effect. Additionally, a designation would be more potent, targeting the full organization, while legal action pursues individual members.

Wagner’s designation would inhibit Russia’s ability to expand its international influence as the group wields terror all too effectively to advance Russian strategic interests. Designating Wagner would counter Russia’s continued violation of international norms and help protect innocent citizens around the globe.

Madison Urban is an analyst at Valens Global and supports the project on domestic extremism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Capt. Sara Downing is an active-duty Army officer currently studying at Duke University and is a visiting military analyst at FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of the Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. government. For more analysis from the authors and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


Domestic Extremism Military and Political Power Russia Ukraine