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World: US Is Weighing a Terrorism Label for Russia’s Wagner Group Mercenaries

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(Bloomberg) -- The Biden administration is weighing whether to label Russia’s Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization, two people familiar with the matter said, as part of efforts to handicap the privately owned military company’s involvement in Ukraine and its growing presence in Africa.

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The administration has made no final decision on the designation, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations. Labeling Wagner a foreign terrorist organization would allow the US to pursue criminal prosecution against the group and its members, as well as go after its assets around the globe.

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Moving against Wagner would mark a new US effort to counter a group that has gained in prominence and power around the globe, especially since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, as its mercenaries have played a major role in the fighting. The group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is considered a major ally and supporter of President Vladimir Putin and his war effort in Ukraine.  He’s known as “Putin’s chef” because his catering business hosted dinners attended by the Russian president.

Russian President Vladimir Putin Attends The Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum © Photographer: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images Europe Russian President Vladimir Putin Attends The Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum

A State Department spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to confirm discussions about Wagner but said the US would continue to hold those responsible for Russia’s war to account. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov didn’t return a message seeking comment. Russia’s government has denied any official connection to Wagner in the past.

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Prigozhin and Wagner are already sanctioned by the US, the UK and the European Union, though the group has only continued to gain strength and influence.

In September, Prigozhin acknowledged for the first time that he had founded the group, and that it had been active in Syria and other Arab states, as well as Africa and Latin America. He referred to it as “one of the pillars of our homeland.”

Russian state television has highlighted the group’s role in Ukraine. In September, video emerged of a man who bears a strong resemblance to Prigozhin offering an early release for prisoners who survive a six-month stint fighting at the front in Ukraine.

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Western officials have also grown increasingly alarmed by Wagner’s presence in parts of Africa. The United Nations announced in March it was probing human rights abuses in Mali by Wagner mercenaries, whose deployment in the West African nation prompted France and its allies to withdraw forces.

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Sanctioning the Wagner Group could help the White House deflect pressure from some US lawmakers who have called on the Biden administration to name Putin’s government as a state sponsor of terrorism. In July, the Senate unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution urging Biden to do so. US officials have argued that current sanctions already achieve the same result and a designation could have unintended consequences such as blocking humanitarian transactions with Russia.

In an article in June, two former Central Intelligence Agency officials called for Wagner to be designated a foreign terrorist organization, saying that doing so “would bring a critical component of U.S. criminal law into play.”

“This is an important and necessary step toward ending Wagner Group’s utility to the Kremlin and, therefore, its existence,” James Patrila and Phil Wasielewski wrote in the blog Lawfare.

--With assistance from Courtney McBride.

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