U.S. putting more sanctions on Wagner mercenary group
Russia claims progress in Eastern Ukraine as Kyiv urges allies for more tanks
The United States will impose additional sanctions next week against Russian private military company the Wagner Group, which U.S. officials say has been helping Russia's military in the Ukraine war, the White House said on Friday.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. Treasury Department will designate Wagner as a significant "transnational criminal organization."
"In co-ordination with this designation, we will also impose additional sanctions next week against Wagner and its support network across multiple continents. These actions recognize the transcontinental threat that Wagner poses, including through its ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity," Kirby told reporters at the daily White House briefing.
The designation, under U.S. executive order 13581, freezes any U.S. assets of Wagner and prohibits Americans from providing funds, goods, or services to the group.
"With these actions, and more to come, our message to any company that is considering providing support to Wagner is this: Wagner is a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses, and we will work relentlessly to identify, disrupt, expose and target those assisting Wagner," Kirby said.
Last month the White House said the Wagner Group had taken delivery of an arms shipment from North Korea to help bolster Russian forces in Ukraine, in a sign of the group's expanding role in that conflict.
North Korea's Foreign Ministry had called the report groundless and denounced the United States for providing lethal weapons to Ukraine. Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin last month denied taking delivery of arms from North Korea and characterized the report as "gossip and speculation."
The White House on Friday made public an image dated Nov. 18 that it said showed Russian rail cars traveling between Russia and North Korea.
Kirby said North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner and that the imagery showed five Russian railcars that traveled from Russia to North Korea. The following day, "North Korea loaded the railcars with shipping containers, and the train returned to Russia," he said.
"While we assess that the amount of material delivered to Wagner has not changed battlefield dynamics in Ukraine, we expect that it will continue to receive North Korean weapons systems," he said.
Kirby said Russian President Vladimir Putin has been increasingly turning to Wagner for military support, causing some tensions in Moscow.
"We are seeing indications, including in intelligence, that tensions between Wagner and the Russian Defence Ministry are increasing," he said. "Wagner is becoming a rival power centre to the Russian military and other Russian ministries."
He said the United States assesses that Wagner currently has about 50,000 personnel deployed to Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts recruited from Russian prisons.
"Our information indicates the Russian Defence Ministry has reservations about Wagner's recruitment methods. Despite this, we assess that it is likely that Wagner will continue to recruit Russian prisoners," he said.
The Wagner Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Kirby's remarks.
Kyiv urges allies for tanks
Russia claimed Friday to have captured a village in eastern Ukraine as part of its intense, months-long push toward the city of Bakhmut, while Ukraine's allies failed to resolve a dispute about whether to send advanced battle tanks that the country avidly desires.
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the village of Klishchiivka, which is located nine kilometres south of Bakhmut, had been "liberated."
The claim couldn't be independently verified, and Ukrainian officials made no immediate comment on the claim.
Taking Klishchiivka would be only a minor breakthrough, but the Kremlin is hungry for good news from the battlefield after months of setbacks.
Bakhmut, on the other hand, would be a bigger prize. It could allow Russia to disrupt Ukrainian supply lines in the east and threaten other Ukrainian-held cities in the surrounding Donestk region.
The war has been largely static during the winter months, according to military analysts, except for some hot spots like Bakhmut and Soledar, a nearby salt mining town.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded with Western allies to send tanks that would help punch through Russian lines. Defence leaders from nearly 50 countries discussed that possibility at a meeting in Germany on Friday, but no decision was made, according to Poland's defence minister.
Marina Miron, of the Defense Studies Department at King's College London, said tanks are useful, but a number of factors need to be taken into account, including how many will be sent and when, what condition they are in, and how Ukrainian crews will be trained and keep the vehicles supplied.
Giving the tanks would be "more of a political gesture" than something that will change the complexion of the war, Miron said.
Ukraine needs at least 300 tanks to keep Russia from advancing in the Donbas and Zaporizhzhia province, as well as for a possible counteroffensive in the country's southeast, analysts say. Such a number looks unlikely, for now.
"The war of resources has begun," said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov. "It is becoming apparent that Ukraine's successes in the war with Russia will depend directly on the willingness and readiness of Western countries to supply not only defensive weapons to Kyiv, but also powerful offensive weapons, including modern tanks and planes."
With files from The Associated Press