The United States spent more than two decades battling al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and other terrorist organizations that aspired to statehood. In Russia, it confronts a collapsing state whose degeneracy increasingly resembles that of a terrorist organization.
Indiscriminate missile and artillery strikes, massacres, torture, and rape are designed to traumatize Ukraine’s civilian population and exhaust its will to resist Moscow’s revanchist aggression. Similarly brutal tactics have been employed across Africa and the Middle East by the Wagner Group, the Kremlin proxy force masquerading as a private military company. Calls are understandably growing for Western allies to formally recognize Russian atrocities as terrorist acts, and to respond to them more robustly.
In the United States, this debate involves two key considerations. The first is whether the State Department should designate the Wagner Group a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The second is whether Russia itself could then be formally designated a state sponsor of terrorism. Both designations would go far beyond existing proscriptions, with potentially devastating consequences for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Wagner and its commander, the caterer-turned-warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, were first placed under U.S. sanctions in 2017 for their role as “little green men” during Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine. Additional sanctions and export controls have continued to pile up against the group, and it was recently designated not only a transnational criminal organization but also a threat to international religious freedom.
These measures, which have few significant legal ramifications, are becoming duplicative at best and performative at worst. Wagner is structured so as to avoid U.S. jurisdiction, with the consequence that its expansion in Africa and operations in Ukraine have continued largely unimpeded by sanctions.
Designating Wagner an FTO, by contrast, would mark a substantial escalation in U.S. pressure. In particular, it would bring into play a powerful extraterritorial statute that criminalized the provision of “material support” to the group in the form of payment, equipment, or almost any other type of engagement. This is the most powerful deterrent America has to stop foreign leaders, companies, and individuals from doing business with its adversaries. It could choke Wagner’s finances, disrupt its logistics, and hobble its military operations at precisely the moment when exhaustion in Ukraine has left the group most vulnerable.
Despite this golden opportunity, the Biden administration has not made any determination on designating Wagner an FTO, and it clearly does not intend to do so. This position is consistent with the White House’s not only dragging its feet on delivering the weapons systems that Ukraine needs to win the war, but refraining from the legal and economic measures needed to exsanguinate Russia’s economy.
Exasperated members of Congress are advancing the bipartisan HARM Act to force Secretary Blinken’s hand, but it seems that some members, too, are now getting cold feet.
The Biden team’s primary concern is that criminalizing material support for Wagner would alienate the rulers of the Central African Republic, Mali, and other African countries that have retained the group to prop up their regimes, often in return for mining rights and other valuable concessions. It is true that Washington can ill-afford to lose friends in the face of rising Chinese and Russian influence across a continent that it has traditionally neglected. But ultimately, the strategic value of accommodating a handful of corrupt anti-Western autocrats pales in comparison to that of hastening Russia’s defeat in Ukraine.
Others argue that Wagner cannot be a terrorist group because it is motivated by profit. Wagner may not be as overtly ideological as the Islamist groups and communist insurgencies that dominate the FTO list, but it is both a product and propagator of Vladimir Putin’s deranged visions of a restored Russian Empire.
A related objection is that Wagner is so closely integrated with Russia’s military that its atrocities are better characterized as war crimes. But the administration has already identified it as a separate entity, and in any case, other state-affiliated groups such as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have already been hit with an FTO designation.
Designating Wagner an FTO is not only “richly deserved and long overdue,” as Senator Lindsey Graham and Boris Johnson wrote recently. It would also strengthen the case for identifying Russia itself as a state sponsor of terrorism, reducing it to the same pariah status as Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Unlike the current piecemeal sanctions regime, this would unequivocally boot Russia from the global financial system and threaten U.S. charges against anyone who continued to trade with it, including Chinese and Indian firms.
This is obviously a far more drastic step than targeting Wagner alone, and one that even the most hawkish administration would need to coordinate carefully. But instead of sustaining the half-measures currently in place, total isolation for Russia is the direction in which a stronger president would now be moving conversations with allies and partners. The status quo, by contrast, is an abrogation of U.S. leadership that prolongs Ukraine’s suffering and emboldens America’s adversaries worldwide.