UK to proscribe Wagner group within weeks, say government insiders

by The Insights

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The UK will proscribe the Wagner group as a terrorist organisation “within weeks” as part of a fresh crackdown on the Russian mercenary network, according to British government insiders.

Home secretary Suella Braverman is expected to announce the designation imminently in line with powers under the Terrorism Act 2000, following months spent by officials building up a detailed legal case.

The move follows accusations from MPs of inaction by the government, with one cross-party group of parliamentarians last month labelling the UK’s approach to combating Wagner so far as “underwhelming in the extreme”.

Britain has already imposed sanctions on the Wagner group, its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and an array of the paramilitary network’s senior commanders. 

Among those already designated are Wagner officials and front companies accused of spearheading some of the bloodiest fighting by Russia in Ukraine and committing numerous war crimes, as well as mercenaries allegedly responsible for executions, torture and stoking instability in countries across Africa.

Proscription goes further than sanctions, however, by in effect banning an organisation under UK law and rendering it a criminal offence to belong to, encourage support for, assist, or use the logo of that group. Most proscription offences carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years, which can be handed down alongside or in place of a fine.

Proscribing Wagner would put it in the same legal category in Britain as al-Qaeda, Isis and Hizbollah. The change would also render the group’s financial assets terrorist property, meaning they could be subject to seizure, not just freezing — a move enabled by sanctions.

Ministers have been criticised for delays in deploying “robust counter-terrorism powers, such as proscription” to tackle Wagner, which they said they would consider in a refresh of the 2021 integrated review of defence and security in March.

In July, the House of Commons foreign affairs committee said the government had “underplayed and underestimated” Wagner for almost a decade and urged ministers to proscribe the group.

While noting that the EU and US, which have different mechanisms to the UK for designating terrorist groups, had “held back”, the MPs found that “the activities of the network already fulfil the UK’s legal threshold for proscription”.

However, government insiders defended the time taken to approve the move. “People think you can do this type of thing immediately, but it takes time to build a detailed, watertight legal case,” one government figure said.

People familiar with the matter said remarks by President Vladimir Putin in June that Wagner had been “completely financed” by the Russian state, following years of Kremlin denials, had further complicated the case built by officials and made the decision more sensitive for the UK.

Braverman’s expected proscription of Wagner as a terrorist group is likely to be greeted with approval by Tory MPs on the right of the party who believe she has backed a hardline approach.

The proposed measure is backed across government, according to Whitehall insiders, unlike the more controversial debate over whether to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, where stark tensions have arisen between Braverman and foreign secretary James Cleverly.

The Commons foreign affairs committee acknowledged in its report that there were risks associated with proscribing Wagner, including driving its activities underground and potentially damaging the UK’s diplomatic ties with nations hosting the network.

However, the MPs also insisted the move could make it easier to bring legal action against Wagner officials in British courts, encourage whistleblowing about its operations, and facilitate the use of existing mechanisms designed to block the financing of terror groups.

Tom Keatinge, director of the centre for financial crime and security studies at the London-based think-tank RUSI, said proscribing the Wagner group would be a “significant move”.

The government said that while it kept the list of proscribed groups under review, “we do not comment on whether a specific organisation is or is not being considered for proscription”.

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