LONDON — The British government failed for years to adequately respond to the threats posed by Russia’s Wagner Group, according to a damning assessment by a parliamentary committee.
In a report on ministers’ efforts to counter the private military contractor — whose future has been left in doubt after its leader rebelled against the Russian military in June — the House of Commons foreign affairs committee on Wednesday said the government should now proscribe Wagner as a terrorist organization.
And it warned Wagner still poses “serious national security threats” to the U.K. and its allies.
“In the ten years since the Wagner Network’s formation, the U.K. government has lacked a coherent strategy and efforts to meaningfully tackle Wagner have been non-existent,” the committee’s chair Alicia Kearns said. “This has allowed the network to grow, spread its tentacles deep into Africa, and exploit countries on their knees due to conflict or instability.”
‘Fundamental lack of knowledge’
The mercenary group first attracted international attention in 2014 when it supported pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. It has since been involved in conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa. Moscow initially denied any links with the group, but Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted in June that it is fully funded by the Kremlin.
Putin’s admission came after Wagner troops turned against Russia’s military leadership, bringing the country to the brink of civil war. Wagner’s boss, oligarch-turned-warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, aborted his attempted coup amid a deal with the Kremlin, and Wagner troops are relocating to Belarus.
In its report, the foreign affairs committee argues that a “significant failing” of the U.K.’s strategy on Wagner is to have only seen the network “primarily through the prism of Europe, not least given its geographic spread and the impact of its activities on U.K. interests further abroad.”
This, it says, adds to a “fundamental lack of knowledge” in government about the group’s functions — and that of other malign private military companies.
“It is deeply regrettable that it was not until early 2022 that the government began to invest greater resource in understanding the Wagner Network, despite Wagner fighters having already conducted military operations in at least seven countries for almost a decade,” the report says.
The U.K. last week announced a wave of new sanctions against officials involved with the group in Mali, the Central African Republic and Sudan — adding to sanctions it has already leveled against Prigozhin and several of his key commanders.
But the committee said the British government simply failed to act quickly enough, and must now “move faster and harder” to sanction those involved.
“If we are to undermine the operations of the Wagner Network, we need to sever the network’s wealth at its source,” Kearns said.
The U.K.’s foreign office has been approached for comment.
Responding, an FCDO spokesperson said: “We have heavily sanctioned the Wagner Group, including its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and several key commanders, limiting their travel and freezing their assets.
The UK has been one of the leading suppliers of military aid to Ukraine, who have been fighting Wagner forces on the battlefield. We continue to work with our allies to expose and counter their destabilising activities around the world.”