The European Union has imposed sanctions on Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, as well as on eight individuals and three other energy companies in Syria accused of helping finance the mercenaries in Ukraine, Libya and Syria.
The EU accused the Wagner Group, whose members are mostly former service personnel, of human rights abuses and said they carried out clandestine operations on the Kremlin’s behalf.
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“The Wagner Group is responsible for serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique,” the EU said in its official journal, listing torture and extrajudicial executions.
Russia has denied any wrongdoing. President Vladimir Putin has said private military contractors have the right to work and pursue their interests anywhere in the world as long as they do not break Russian law. Putin has said the Wagner Group neither represented the Russian state nor was paid by the Russian state.
The travel bans and asset freezes – designed to limit any governments from working with the Wagner Group – are unlikely to have a big impact in Moscow, but they marked a further hardening of EU foreign policy towards Russia, diplomats said.
Among those targeted, the EU blacklisted Dimitriy Utkin, a former Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer, saying he was the founder of the Wagner Group and responsible for “coordinating and planning operations for the deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries in Ukraine”.
Two others, Denis Kharitonov and Sergey Shcherbakov, were a part of a group of alleged Wagner mercenaries who were briefly detained in Belarus last year and sent back to Russia, according to Belarus state news agency Belta.
The EU also said that Kharitonov had fought for Russia in eastern Ukraine, “personally shot down a Ukrainian helicopter” in the region and “received the Russian Federation’s Order of Merit for the Fatherland”.
Three Russian-based entities linked to the Wagner Group that the EU said were involved in oil and gas production in Syria were also hit with sanctions.
The sanctions follow an EU travel ban and asset freeze in October 2020 on one-time Russian caterer Yevgeny Prigozhin, dubbed “Putin’s cook” for his close links to the Kremlin, who the bloc said had close ties to the Wagner Group.
“The Wagner Group is financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin,” the EU said on Monday in its official journal.
Prigozhin denied any such links in a statement on Friday.
The Wagner Group has been accused by Western governments and United Nations experts of human rights abuses in the Central African Republic and involvement in the conflict in Libya. France and Germany have both objected to the presence of its fighters in Mali.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said the company has a “legitimate” right to be in Mali because it was invited by the transitional government, and he insisted the Russian government is not involved.