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Eastern Europe

Congress and Biden Clash Over Labeling Wagner A Terrorist Organization

Ukrainian Soldiers Fight Wagner Mercenaries in Donbass

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A Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH), has joined with 6 other Democrat and Republican senators to introduce legislation titled the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act that would force the State Department to add the Wagner Group to the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list.

The bill is also intended to force the Biden administration to give the organization a terrorist label, something the administration has been hesitant to do, labeling it only as a global criminal organization, which has limited the number of financial sanctions that can be imposed on the group. The move comes as Wagner has garnered international attention for leading the fight against Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut.

In a statement released over the weekend, Sen. Shaheen expressed Congress’s frustration toward the Biden administration for its shortsightedness, given how much of a role Wagner has taken in fighting Ukrainian troops in the east. “We’ve seen that again and again in terms of this support for the Ukrainians and this war, where Congress has been out ahead of the White House,” Sheehan said.

“It’s been true since Russia invaded Ukraine. I remember in 2014 supporting lethal weapons for Ukraine, and the White House refused to support that. I don’t see this as unusual,” Sheehan added. “I hope the administration and the State Department comes on board,” she concluded.

The FTO would expand Washington’s ability to target Wagner, including being able to go after third parties that deal with the mercenary firm. Adding to the Congressional frustration, many members of Congress are questioning why Biden has hesitated to classify Wagner as an FTO, given that both Ukrainian and Western leaders have claimed that the firm has been committing atrocities in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, a Congressional aide explained that the State Department isn’t necessarily concerned about imposing an FTO label on Wagner in Ukraine as much as it is concerned about the repercussions of labeling the mercenary firm an FTO in Africa, where the organization also operates.

“[The State Department] is concerned that if suddenly the FTO designation lands on Wagner, that those governments, where there’s various officials that deal with them [Wagner], hat they would all, immediately be blocked from travel to the United States and have their assets seized for coming into contract with the FTO. So that’s the nature of their concern,” the aide told The Hill.

“They claim they’re not opposed to it on Ukraine grounds, but they’re opposed to it on Africa grounds,” the aide added.

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Despite being heavily criticized by both the Russian Defense Ministry and the military’s chain of command for not being accountable and acting almost as a rival to authorized military commanders, Wagner announced a massive recruiting expansion last week. The mercenary firm, with connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is opening recruitment centers in more than 40 Russian cities.

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