The White House announced Friday new sanctions to be put in place by the U.S. Treasury Department next week on the Wagner Group, designating the Russian private military company as a transnational criminal organization.
The Biden administration urged other countries to join the U.S. in targeting the group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russian oligarch and confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has been playing a key role in Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The administration also released newly declassified photos taken in November of what it says are Russian rail cars delivering infantry rockets and missiles from North Korea for use by Wagner forces. It submitted the imagery to the U.N. Security Council panel charged with enforcing North Korea sanctions to push for action on what it believes is a violation of Security Council resolutions on arms transfers.
VOA White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara spoke Friday with John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, about the significance of the designation and possible further actions concerning the Wagner Group, which the administration says has recruited 40,000 convicts to fight in Ukraine.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: We’ll focus on the Wagner announcement, but briefly, can you clarify the U.S. position on this debate on tanks for Ukraine that’s going on in the donor conference in Germany? Does the U.S. want Germany to send Leopard tanks and allow the transfer of Leopard tanks from other countries? Would the U.S. send Abrams tanks if that’s the only way to get Germany to send their Leopard tanks?
John Kirby, National Security Council spokesman: We believe that it’s important that every nation that can support Ukraine and their defense needs, and right now, President Zelenskyy has talked about this, one of the critical needs for the Ukrainian armed forces this winter and probably into the spring is going to be armor, armor capability, because of the kinds of fighting they’re doing in the Donbas. That can include tanks, and the Ukrainians do have a real need for additional tanks. They’ve been using largely T-72s, which are old Soviet-made tanks and, you know, it’s been almost a year. So we certainly welcome the contributions of other nations, including the U.K., which just in the last week or so agreed to send Challenger tanks. And we know that Germany is working through their own process here with respect to the Leopards. The Leopards are great tanks, very capable, won’t require an exorbitant amount of training for the Ukrainians should Germany want to move in that direction.
It’s Germany’s decision to make. We are not out there arm twisting and pushing and cajoling. We want countries to give what they can, contribute what they can, when and where they can, and on the size and scale and scope that they’re comfortable with. And that’s for Germany to decide. I will add, though, that Germany has increased their contributions – they were already, even early on in the war, one of the world’s leading financial contributors to Ukraine, in terms of just financial aid and assistance, and they have over, certainly, the last several months really … [we’re] aware of their own willingness and ability to provide advanced capabilities. And that’s been deeply appreciated by everybody.
VOA: Is this standoff on tanks an example of the threat to NATO unity that President Biden spoke about in December?
Kirby: I would not describe this as a standoff. I mean, these are ongoing iterative discussions that we have with all our allies and partners about what they can provide and at what scale. And again, these are sovereign nations, they get to decide, because they have their own national security needs they have to consider as well, just like we do. But in just stepping broadly back, the alliance has been just incredibly, solidly behind and supportive of Ukraine, and we don’t see … we don’t see that fracturing at all.
VOA: The U.S. is designating [the Wagner Group] as a transnational criminal organization. As I understand, that primarily means freezing Wagner assets in the U.S. and also prohibiting Americans from providing support. How significant is this move? What size assets are we talking about?
Kirby: It will give us more flexibility. We were already sanctioning Russia writ large across the board, and some of those sanctions and export controls we know also tangentially had an effect on private military contractors like Wagner. But this is really targeted towards Wagner specifically, and I’ll let Treasury talk to this in more detail. They’ll have more to put out on this next week, but you’re right about what that designation does. It blocks and prevents the transfer of monies to Wagner from any U.S. entity. And it might lead to additional measures by other countries now that we’re doing this, so we’ll see where that goes.
VOA: How immediate will the impact be? Will it impact Wagner operations not just in Ukraine but also other countries?
Kirby: Once the designation is in place, we’re executing it. So, there’ll be an immediate effect. And again, we encourage other nations as well to help us in cracking down on Wagner’s ability to literally commit atrocities around the world. It’s not about just cutting off their ability to commit atrocities in Ukraine. It’s about their ability to commit atrocities around the world.
VOA: Why is the U.S. designating the Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organization (TCO) and not as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO)?
Kirby: I think we believe that this move right now is the appropriate move, and it will have an impact on Wagner.
VOA: Is the goal FTO next?
Kirby: I’m not going to get ahead of where we are, but right now we’re deciding that we’re going to designate them as a TCO, and we’re going to continue to try to further squeeze their ability to operate and to fund themselves, and I’m not going to get ahead of where that is.
VOA: The other thing that you underscored today was the sharing of information about the transfer of weapons from North Korea to the Wagner Group that you will share with the Security Council’s North Korea Sanctions Committee —
Kirby: We shared it today.
VOA: You did share it today. So, what is the goal here specifically for North Korea?
Kirby: We believe it’s two things. The most important thing is to try to stop this flow of support from North Korea to Russia. And that’s why what I also said was, “We urge them to stop this immediately.” They are violating existing U.N. Security Council resolutions, and the reason we brought it up today is because we want to see if there’s additional sanctioning flexibility here. We don’t know. That’s one of the reasons why we brought it up to the committee of experts. But we certainly want it to stop.
The second component here, and this isn’t unimportant either, is the North Koreans had just been baldly lying about their support to Russia. They’ve just said they’re not doing it. They’ve claimed they had nothing to do with it. And today, we felt it was important, in keeping in conjunction with our conversations at the U.N., to lay out demonstrable evidence that, in fact, they are supporting Russia with arms and ammunition, and we got the goods on them, and we put it out there.
VOA: You’ve said that they are using 40,000 Russian convicts to fight in Ukraine. Experts who study the group say that the casualty levels are quite massive – 80% to 90% die in battle during their standard contract. Is this something that you can confirm?
Kirby: We can confirm that they certainly are the bulk of their manpower, at least in the Donbas, are convicts. I said today some 50,000 Wagner employees are in Ukraine and 40,000, the vast majority, we believe, are convicts. I mean, they’re going into the jails and they’re opening up the cells and they’re just pulling people out, putting them right into the fight.
VOA: Do you know the casualty levels?
Kirby: The casualty rate, we believe, for the convicts is extraordinarily high. As a matter of fact, what we think is that 90% of their casualties are convicts themselves. They’re just throwing them into the flight. No training, no organizational capability, no command and control. They’re just throwing them into this meat grinder in the Bakhmut and Soledar areas, and they’re paying a heavy price for it.
VOA: But do we have an understanding of the exact number of how many Russian convicts have died in battle?
Kirby: I’m afraid I wouldn’t have that exact number for you.
VOA: At this point, does the U.S. believe that Vladimir Putin should be prosecuted for his use of Russian convicts in Ukraine?
Kirby: We believe that Russia needs to be held properly to account for the atrocities and war crimes that we know Russian soldiers and Wagner contract employees are conducting inside Ukraine, which is why we’re helping the international community document that. We’re going to help provide whatever support to international investigative efforts are ongoing and make sure that the Russian armed forces, and in this case Wagner as well, can be properly held to account.
VOA: Specifically on the use of Russian convicts, does the U.S. believe that this is a violation of human rights?
Kirby: I’ll leave that to the international lawyers to determine. Without a doubt, Wagner employees and Russian soldiers are committing atrocities and war crimes in Ukraine, and that’s as plain as the nose on your face. You can see what they’re doing. We just want to make sure it’s properly documented so proper accountability measures can be held.
VOA: Can you speak more about the tension between Prigozhin and the Russian leadership? What does it tell you about cohesion in the Russian top leadership at this point?
Kirby: We know that the tensions between Prigozhin individually, Wagner institutionally, and the Ministry of Defense are increasing because Mr. Prigozhin wants to take credit for all the work he’s doing in the Donbas region and the progress that he’s making in towns like Bakhmut and Soledar, and that is causing tensions. In addition to that, he has been a very open critic of Russian generals and the way that the Russian military has been prosecuting the war, not just in the Donbas but elsewhere as well. I mean, he’s been very open. And it appears to us that he’s trying to raise his profile with Mr. Putin and make himself seem more relevant and more viable than even the Russian military. When in fact, what he’s also doing is trying to fill his own coffers, and it appears he also has economic gains here at play for what he’s trying to do.
VOA: Is the tension between Prigozhin and the Russian leadership something that the U.S. can take advantage of?
Kirby: We think it’s important for the world to know what we’re seeing in respect to these tensions. We think what should be taken advantage of is the opportunity for Putin to end this war. He could do it today. He could pull the Wagner group out, he can pull all his troops out. That’s the opportunity that needs to be taken advantage of. But we do think it’s important to showcase for the world the utter brutality with which Mr. Putin is willing to keep fighting this war, this unprovoked war against the Ukrainian people. And now, in addition to everything else, the cruise missiles, the drones, hitting apartment buildings in the last couple of days, he has taken people out of jail.
Putin is allowing Prigozhin to just empty out the jails and throw convicts into the fight. No training, no skills, no leadership, to do nothing more than just kill Ukrainian soldiers and innocent Ukrainian civilians. And we believe it’s important for that to be out there publicly so that everybody can see exactly the depravity with which he and his forces are running this war.
VOA: Is there anything else you can share about the Wagner Group? For example, is the flow of convicts to fight in Ukraine lessening? Is there any indication that the Wagner Group is getting fighters from Syria, former ISIS fighters?
Kirby: We know Mr. Prigozhin has tried to recruit for Ukraine in places like Syria. I couldn’t give you the exact numbers of how many he got or whether they’re still in the fight. But it is certainly one of his plays, to go ahead and recruit fighters from outside Russia and other countries, and we know that he’s, as I said, clearing out prisons. Now how many he’s got on any given day, what the throughput is, I don’t believe we have, you know, that specific. But in general, as I said, today, we know that he has, you know, thrown about 50,000 people into Ukraine.
VOA: Do you believe they are a formidable force? How effective are they, the Wagner Group?
Kirby: Without question they have made some incremental progress in Bakhmut and Soledar that are in the Donbas, but at a heavy, heavy price in casualties, as we talked about. It’s a meat grinder. He is throwing — literally throwing — ill equipped, ill prepared, almost no training individuals into this fight with the Ukrainian armed forces, who, while they may not have the same numbers, in terms of advantage, have a huge advantage in skill, organizational alignment, command and control, weapons systems provided by so many countries including the U.S., and they’re just chewing these prisoners up.
Because manpower doesn’t seem to be a problem for Mr. Prigozhin, they have made some incremental progress. But as we’ve also said, and Ukrainians are still fighting over Bakhmut and Soledar, and so that’s not over, we still consider that contested territory. But even if they — the Prigozhin group — end up with Bakhmut and Soledar, there’s no guarantee they’re going to keep it for very long, because the Ukrainians have proven time and time again that even when they lose territory, they’ll go back and retake it. And even if that doesn’t happen, it’s not as if those two towns are going to change the strategic direction of the war. They’re not going to put the Ukrainians on their back feet to a degree that the whole war changes character. These are two mining towns in the Donbas, and the fact that they’re mining towns ought to give you some clues as to why Mr. Prigozhin is so interested in them.