By Laurence Norman and James Marson
Nov. 15, 2021
The Wall Street Journal
BRUSSELS—European Union foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions on Russian mercenary company Wagner Group, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday, as European diplomats warned that the company poses a growing threat to EU interests.
The preliminary agreement came after France said repeatedly over recent weeks that Mali’s government appeared close to inviting Wagner into the country, where France has thousands of troops and the EU offers significant assistance. Washington and some EU countries accuse Wagner Group of being a proxy force for Russia’s Defense Ministry. The Kremlin has denied any formal connections with the group.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the EU sanctions have nothing to do with the government or “official Russia.” “This is about a Russian company” for which no evidence of illegal activity had been presented, he said in an interview. “The only thing we know is that it is an extremely demonized Russian company, but we’ve never heard any understandable evidence.” Wagner Group couldn’t immediately be reached to comment.
Mr. Le Drian said that the EU had reached a political agreement to target Wagner officials and entities linked to the company, which Western officials have accused of intervening in, or seeking to intervene in, conflicts in Ukraine, Africa and the Middle East.
EU officials said the bloc would use the EU’s existing sanctions regimes to target Wagner, which should allow the restrictions to be ready for next month’s foreign-ministers meeting. “There is also a common will to create a legal framework which will be in place against Wagner Group, a company which is a Russian firm, using former Russian military members, based in Russia, intervening in various overseas theaters,” Mr. Le Drian said.
The EU is acting amid renewed turbulence in European-Russian relations over a Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, the Kremlin’s support for Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, uncertainty over Russian gas supplies and Moscow’s crackdown on the country’s domestic opposition.
Wagner’s actions in parts of Africa have complicated a push by French President Emmanuel Macron to deepen engagement with Moscow on security and other international issues, diplomats say. The EU on Monday also broadened sanctions against Mr. Lukashenko’s Belarus regime and announced new sanctions against people blocking a return to democracy in Mali.
Wagner emerged from Russia’s covert interventions in eastern Ukraine in 2014, where the Kremlin worked with armed groups fielded by politically connected Russian businessmen. Wagner was financed in part by multimillion-dollar catering and construction contracts for the Russian armed forces awarded to companies linked with Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former restaurateur, according to European officials. The EU imposed sanctions on Mr. Prigozhin last year for his alleged involvement in the Libyan conflict.
As fighting in Ukraine waned in 2015, Wagner turned to Syria, where Russia had intervened on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Prigozhin’s companies also won oil and gas concessions there.
More recently, Wagner deployed mercenaries in Libya, the Central African Republic and Sudan, according to U.S. officials. The U.S. has accused Wagner of spreading violence and insecurity in those countries, a charge echoed by European officials on Monday.
French officials in recent weeks have sounded a growing alarm about negotiations between Wagner and Mali’s military government, which emerged from a coup d’état. France has soldiers deployed in Mali and the broader Sahel region of West Africa as part of an eight-year counterterrorism mission. The EU has a military training mission in Mali.
Mr. Le Drian has accused Wagner of wreaking havoc in the countries where it intervenes and of committing human-rights violations and stoking ethnic tensions. He has also said Wagner clearly acts with the blessing of Russian authorities. “The most spectacular example is in the Central African Republic where in the end, to be paid, they have confiscated fiscal resources of the country,” he said last month.
Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, dismissed the allegation. “Lots of leaders in the West, they’re insisting that Wagner is evil, being able to organize a war in every corner of the world. It sounds ridiculous,” he said.
Mr. Prigozhin, Wagner’s founder, also built a network called the Internet Research Agency that the Justice Department says was behind Russian efforts to sow discord among Americans in the 2016 presidential election. The Treasury Department blacklisted Mr. Prigozhin and IRA in 2018, and has tightened sanctions around companies and people the department says are connected with his network in Africa.
Matthew Dalton in Paris and Ann Simmons in Moscow contributed to this article.