The United Kingdom is set to classify Russia’s Wagner mercenary group as a terrorist organization, a move that will open the door to prosecution of its members and supporters.
The decision – which puts the the organization into the same category as the likes of al Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram – comes with the group weakened and the UK government facing questions on why it took so long to proscribe it.
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and the group’s field commander Dmitriy Utkin died last month in what Western officials believe was a deliberate plane crash, two months after Prigozhin staged a short-lived rebellion against the Kremlin, the biggest threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s power in more than two decades.
Most security experts doubt Wagner will survive in its current form without Prigozhin, but that has not stopped the UK to move against the group.
In a statement on Wednesday, the UK Home Office said the designation will make it “illegal to be a member or support Wagner Group” and punishable by up to 14 years in jail. The listing will also ban promoting the group, arranging or addressing its meetings and showing its logo in public.
“They are terrorists, plain and simple – and this proscription order makes that clear in UK law. Wagner has been involved in looting, torture, and barbarous murders. Its operations in Ukraine, the Middle East and Africa are a threat to global security,” UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman said in the statement. The order still needs to be passed in parliament.
The inclusion on the the terror list will also allow the government to seize Wagner’s property, which could pave a way for Ukrainians seeking to sue Wagner for compensation through the British court system.
In November, a UK law firm launched a lawsuit against Wagner on behalf of Ukrainian refugees living in Britain, seeking compensation for the damage from Russian aggression.
The UK government sanctioned Wagner last year, describing it at the time as “Russian mercenaries reportedly tasked with assassinating President Zelensky.”
But it has been under pressure for months to designate the group a terrorist organization. A parliamentary report concluded in June that the government had “underplayed and underestimated” Wagner’s activities for nearly 10 years and was “remarkably complacent” about the role of mercenary groups.
The report specifically said that it was not enough to sanction Wagner and that the government needed to proscribe it as a terror group.
Many of Ukraine’s Western allies have imposed sanctions on Wagner and its top officials. But these sanctions appear to have had only limited impact on the mercenary group’s operations in Ukraine and across several countries in Africa.
The US Treasury Department designated Wagner a “transnational criminal organization” in January.
The Biden administration was considering designating the group as a foreign terrorist organization but has not done that so far. A bipartisan group of members of Congress has called for the designation.
In February, the European Union followed by adding Wagner to its global human rights sanctions regime.
Lithuania and Estonia have classified the group as a terrorist organization. In May, the French parliament passed a resolution calling on the EU to add Wagner to the EU list of terrorist groups.
The UK government is hoping that the inclusion of Wagner on the lists will put extra pressure on the group at a time when its future is already very uncertain.
For years, the Kremlin denied the existence of Wagner. But Wagner managed to secure several symbolic victories for Russia in its assault on Ukraine, especially in the bitter fighting around the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The group became more visible and Putin himself recently acknowledged it was funded by the Russian state.
Wagner’s power started to diminish in late spring and over the summer, as Kremlin tried to limit Prigozhin’s growing influence. When Prigozhin ordered his men to march on Moscow in late June, his fate appeared to be sealed. The group was officially exiled to Belarus after the short-lived mutiny ended and Prigozhin more or less disappeared from the public eye.
The Kremlin will now need to decide what to do next with the group – whether to legalize it and make it part of the Russian armed forces, or let it continue on in some other form. It is unclear whether the terrorist designation will have any impact on that decision.