BRUSSELS -- The Council of the European Union (EU) Monday (December 13) slapped sanctions on the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company accused of serious human rights abuses and destabilising activities in several conflict zones.
The sanctions target the Wagner Group itself, as well as eight individuals and three firms connected to it, and indicate the group's "destabilising activities" and "malign influence" in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR), among others.
The sanctions list was drawn up by EU officials and unanimously approved by foreign ministers, who met Monday to discuss various world crises and prepare Thursday's summit of European leaders.
The 27 EU ministers met in Brussels following a meeting of G7 ministers in Liverpool at the weekend, where the United States and major allies warned the Kremlin of "massive" consequences if it invades Ukraine.
The European ministers also discussed a much larger package of potential economic sanctions against Russia, to be held in reserve to deter any threat from Moscow to directly invade Ukraine.
A global threat
"The Wagner Group has recruited, trained and sent private military operatives to conflict zones around the world to fuel violence, loot natural resources and intimidate civilians in violation of international law, including international human rights law," the EU Council said in a statement.
"The individuals listed by the EU are involved in serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings, or in destabilising activities," it said.
The Wagner Group "constitutes a threat for the people in the countries were they are present, the wider region and for the European Union", the statement said, adding that the sanctions aim to curtail the group's "subversive activities".
Western capitals and security analysts say the Wagner Group surreptitiously works on behalf of the Kremlin, and is bankrolled by 60-year-old Saint Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank has described Wagner as "one of Moscow's worst kept secrets".
It said the group has two primary goals: "To provide the Kremlin with plausible deniability when deploying fighters in war zones" and to offer "a ready-made capability for building influence with receptive states".
Wagner first emerged in Ukraine in 2014, when war first broke out and Russia illegally seized Crimea.
Since then, its mercenaries have been involved in conflicts around the world, including in Syria, Mozambique, Sudan, Venezuela, Libya, the CAR, Chad and Mali.
A slew of sanctions
The sanctioned individuals and entities are subject to an asset freeze in the EU and a travel ban.
The EU Council listed Dmitry Utkin, 51, a former Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer who is "the founder of the Wagner Group and responsible for co-ordinating and planning operations for the deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries across various countries".
Utkin "is responsible for serious human rights abuses committed by the group, which include torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings", the Official Journal said.
It named a June 2017 incident in Homs, Syria, in which four Wagner mercenaries tortured, mutilated and killed a Syrian deserter.
Stanislav Dychko, born in 1990, a Wagner mercenary and former employee of the Stavropol police, was sanctioned for participating in torturing the Syrian deserter to death.
The EU Council sanctioned two other individuals and three companies operating on behalf of the Wagner Group in Syria.
The three private companies named are Moscow-based Velada LLC, Moscow-based Mercury LLC and Krasnogorsk-based Evro Polis LLC. All three are involved in the oil and gas sector in Syria, thus benefiting from or supporting the Syrian regime.
Evro Polis LLC is also used as a front for the Wagner Group in Syria.
"It has signed a number of contracts with the Syrian regime, through the state-owned General Petroleum Corp., under which it receives 25% of the proceeds from the production of oil and gas in fields captured by the Wagner Group," the Official Journal said.