The EU is poised to sanction eight people and four entities linked to the Russian private military contractor Wagner, according to draft documents seen by POLITICO.
The shadowy mercenary group first attracted international attention in 2014 when it supported pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Since then, it has been involved in conflict zones including in Syria, Sudan, Mozambique and the Central African Republic (CAR).
Western officials consider the group to be entangled with the Russian security apparatus, although Moscow has always denied any link with it.
The move comes amid high tension between Moscow and the West as Russia has moved thousands of troops close to the border with Ukraine, according to Western officials.
EU foreign ministers last month instructed officials to prepare sanctions against Wagner. The documents show that work has now been done. Foreign ministers are expected to green-light the measures, which include travel bans and assets freezes, at a meeting on Monday.
The group is to be sanctioned for its activities in Ukraine, Libya and Syria as well as for human rights abuses, according to almost 40 pages of draft documents.
EU diplomats say they expect a reaction from Moscow to the sanctions but it may be fairly mild. As the Kremlin has always denied any link to Wagner, a severe reaction would undermine that claim, they say.
France was the driving force behind moves to sanction Wagner, due to concern about the group’s activities in Africa.
In October, a group of U.N. experts on mercenaries and human rights said that civilians, including peacekeepers, journalists, aid workers and minorities in the Central African Republic “have been violently harassed and intimidated by so-called ‘Russian instructors’ from the Wagner Group.”
Earlier this year, the experts said that Wagner was involved in “committing systemic and grave human rights and international humanitarian law violations, including arbitrary detention, torture, disappearances and summary execution.”
One of the EU documents says that the Wagner Group “is responsible for serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan and Mozambique, which include torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings.”
The list of people to be sanctioned includes mercenaries and former members of the Russian security apparatus involved with the group. They are accused of crimes including “torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings” and are all Russian citizens.
Three of the Russians, and one entity, are to be targeted under a human rights sanctions mechanism that the EU introduced last year.
That measure has already been used to target four Russian officials accused of rights violations over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and two other Russian officials accused of persecuting LGBTQ+ people in the southern Russian region of Chechnya.
Three Wagner mercenaries are to be sanctioned for activity in Ukraine. One of the EU documents says that they “supported actions and implemented policies, which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.”
As for Syria, Wagner “provides a crucial contribution to Bashar al-Assad’s war efforts” and “in particular by training and directing Syrian forces and regime-affiliated militias,” one document says.
The Council of the EU “considers that two persons involved in the military operations of the Wagner group in Syria, as well as three companies benefiting from and supporting the Syrian regime” should be sanctioned.
The three companies are all Russian, two are based in Moscow, and all are involved in the gas and oil sectors. One of the companies is explicitly described as “a front for the Wagner Group.”
One Russian mercenary is targeted and is described as “involved in acts that threaten the peace, security or stability of Libya, and who has close links, including financially, to the Wagner Group.”
POLITICO is not naming the individuals or organizations to be targeted in order to protect the source of the documents.