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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - LONDON: Britain has “underplayed and underestimated” the threat posed by the Russian Wagner mercenary group and should ban it as a terrorist organization, a powerful committee of UK lawmakers said Wednesday.
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said the sanctions imposed by Britain on Wagner are “underwhelming” and UK authorities have done little to track the private army’s activities beyond Ukraine, where it has fought as part of Russia’s invading forces.
“There are serious national security threats to the UK and its allies of allowing the network to continue to thrive,” said the committee, whose members come from both governing and opposition parties. It said Britain should “urgently proscribe the Wagner Network as a terrorist organization,” something the Conservative government has so far been unwilling to do.
In a 78-page report, the committee said Wagner, which has close ties to the Russian state, operates like an “international criminal mafia, fueling corruption and plundering natural resources,” especially in Africa, where it provides stability and protection for several authoritarian leaders.
“It is a significant failing to see the Wagner Network primarily through the prism of Europe, not least given its geographic spread, the impact of its activities on UK interests further abroad, and the fact that its wealth creation sits largely in Africa,” the report said. It called it “deeply regrettable” that the UK paid little attention to Wagner before 2022, and “continues to give so little focus to countries beyond Ukraine.”
The committee said with “high confidence” that Wagner had conducted military operations in at least seven countries since 2014: Ukraine, Syria, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, Mozambique and Mali.
The lawmakers said Wagner also has business interests in those countries, such as lucrative gold mining operations in the Central African Republic and Sudan, where Wagner’s gold-smuggling activities “enabled huge quantities of gold to bypass the state” and flow to Russia.
Wagner also has carried out non-military actions such as election interference in Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and South Africa, and there is evidence of the group’s involvement in other countries, the committee said.
The lawmakers urged the government to move “faster and harder” to sanction individuals and entities linked to Wagner, calling British sanctions “underwhelming in the extreme” compared to those imposed by the United States and the European Union.
The lawmakers urged Britain to boost aid funding to fragile and conflict-wracked countries to stop them from turning to Russia and Wagner for help. A decision to slash the UK’s international aid budget from 0.7 percent to 0.5 percent of gross national income should be reversed as soon as possible, they said.
The report, which drew on research by journalists, government and non-government organizations, testimony from Russia experts and evidence from a former Wagner fighter, said Wagner’s future was uncertain after leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s armed mutiny against Russia’s top military leaders last month. The rebellion ended within hours when a deal was brokered for Wagner troops to go to Belarus.
The lawmakers said Britain should take advantage the confused situation to “disrupt” Wagner.
“In the wake of the attempted coup last month, the future manifestations of the Wagner Network are uncertain,” said the committee’s chairwoman, Conservative lawmaker Alicia Kearns. “With the network at its most vulnerable — and the clock ticking — the time for action is now.”
The Foreign Office said in a statement that Britain had “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,” it said. “We continue to work with our allies to expose and counter their destabilising activities around the world.”
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