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Wagner Group

Volume 831: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government in which African countries they assess the Wagner Group to be operating.

My Lords, the UK has repeatedly highlighted the Kremlin’s malign and destabilising activities in Africa. These include the Wagner Group’s ongoing military deployments in Mali, the Central African Republic and Libya, with multiple reports of its abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law. The Wagner Group and its owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, also spread Russian disinformation and are engaged in transnational crime while seeking to exploit Africa’s mineral resources, including in Sudan. We will continue to work with our regional and international partners to constrain and counter such harmful activities.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. There is no doubt that the Wagner Group is state funded and is a proxy of the Russian Government. It has been very useful to Putin in the past for plausible deniability of his grey-zone operations. However, as the Minister said, it may have been guilty of murder, torture, rape and robbery, stealing from and plundering the natural resources of the countries in which it is based. It relies on dirty money and is involved in money laundering. It has set up a network of companies and is causing instability in all these regions. It is highly dangerous and although there have been minor sanctions—for example, against Prigozhin in 2016 and 2022—we do not seem to have done enough. Given that the Wagner Group is so malign, and given the damage it is causing, can we get alongside our Five Eyes allies and the EU in order to have a huge impact on these people, because there is no doubt that they are reeling as a result of the events over the past couple of weeks?

There is not much that I could disagree with there. For the second week running —this is all getting very alarming—I am in concurrence with the noble Lord. He is absolutely right: the Wagner Group is a repugnant and discredited organisation. There has been a systematic programme of sanctions. I remind your Lordships that, as the noble Lord indicated, Yevgeny Prigozhin was himself sanctioned through the Libya sanctions regime, while in February 2022 the Wagner Group was sanctioned because of its activity in Ukraine. We have also sanctioned key Wagner commanders in Syria, as well as several key individuals assisting its activity in Ukraine. We constantly review the sanctions regime. The UK has persistently called out this activity internationally and is seeking to work with partners and allies, including the EU, on how we can best counter it.

It may be important to note that it is a demonstrable indication of Putin’s policy on Africa that he relies on an organisation such as Wagner, which seems to be indicative of real weakness.

My Lords, the Wagner Group does indeed have a horrendous reputation for severe human rights abuses, as we have just heard, and it often defends ruling elites in return for securing valuable mineral rights. My noble friend Lord Purvis has been calling for proscription for some time. Given the group’s role in regional conflict and organised crime, surely the case for proscription is now more pressing than ever.

As the noble Baroness will be aware, it is not government policy to comment on whether a group is under consideration for proscription, and, indeed, it is a Home Office responsibility. I would observe that proscription in its own right is perhaps less effective because of the particular environment in which it applies. Hitting wallets with sanctions is what really cuts the legs off at the knees, and that is what we are trying to do in conjunction with global partners.

Does my noble friend agree that although all eyes are understandably on Ukraine and Moscow regarding the Wagner Group, the noble Lord, Lord West, is right to raise the activities of the Russian militias and the Chinese right across the Sahel and throughout the whole of Africa? Will she therefore ensure that her colleagues and policymakers are really focused on this other war, as eyes tend to drift away to Ukrainian affairs, and make sure that we make every effort to reinforce security against the authoritarian regimes, which in many areas are winning? This is of particular note since 21 of the African countries being invaded by the Chinese are Commonwealth members.

My noble friend makes a very important point. He will be aware that through the United Nations and our other relationships and partnerships, whether multilaterally or bilaterally, we are very cognisant of that threat. He is correct that Wagner is a pernicious and unwelcome presence in Africa, and absolutely right that there are other influences at play.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recall that in our defence debate just two weeks ago, on 30 June, I did not ask her about the mutually exclusive options of sanctions versus proscription but called specifically for proscription of Wagner? In considering that, what assessment has she made of the role Wagner is reported to have played in supplying missiles and arms to General Hamdan and the Rapid Support Forces, which have unleashed such violence and unspeakable atrocities in Khartoum and Darfur, and the role Sudan’s gold is playing in funding Russian and Wagner aggression in Syria, Ukraine and Sudan itself?

The noble Lord raises wide-ranging issues and has written to me on them; I have still to respond, which I undertake to do. I shall do that in greater detail than I can perhaps do at the Dispatch Box, but I agree that the evils he identifies are undeniably present, so the question for the UK Government is how we can best counter them. As I indicated to the noble Baroness, we do that in a variety of ways, and do it best in global concert with our allies and partners, but we are unrelenting in our focus on the problem.

My Lords, may I just pick up that last point concerning Syria? Reports are saying that Assad and Russian commanders are extremely concerned about the Wagner troops there because of the possible mutiny. What assessment has the department made of the situation in Syria? How has it impacted on government-controlled areas and wars, and what impact have the Russian commanders had in taking over these troops and making them more officially a state operation?

The noble Lord is correct. We are aware that Wagner mercenaries are in Syria supporting the Assad regime, just as they are in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. What the future is for them following their insurrection and near coup is, at the moment, somewhat unclear. We are very clear that Wagner is essentially a malign organisation, and that is why we are doing everything within our power as the United Kingdom Government to monitor its activities and to deploy whatever remedies we have available to us to curtail and constrain its behaviour.

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned the Central African Republic and obviously, the Wagner Group has been working very closely with CAR President Touadéra. There are examples of war crimes being committed in the CAR and in Mali, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Madagascar. Surely, it is vital that the UK use its influence in the UN to make sure that these war criminals are brought before the ICC. We have influence in the ICC, and surely these people should be brought before it at some stage.

I think there will be a lot of sympathy with my noble friend’s point. The UK continues to highlight Wagner’s reprehensible actions. We do that around the world in whatever fora we can find, and we are not without allies and support in pursing the objective of constraining Wagner. My noble friend makes an important point, and I will certainly relay it to my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon and undertake to try to give my noble friend Lord Bellingham a fuller response.

My Lords, there are consistent reports that Wagner has been making profits from gold mining, diamonds and other minerals in Africa and that it is profiting through exporting them via the Gulf states. Have we had conversations with the Governments of the UAE and the other Gulf states about this trade? It is evading sanctions and is clearly immiserating the countries from which it is stealing these things. This is clearly a problem also in terms of Russian sanctions.

We are aware that Wagner has historically drawn its funding from three main sources: direct payments from the Russian Government, as President Putin has publicly admitted since the insurrection; cash payments from Governments, regimes or organisations employing Wagner, as in Libya; and natural resource concessions. We also know that Prigozhin has sought to evade sanctions through front and shell companies, both in and outside Russia. The noble Lord makes an interesting point to which I do not have a detailed response, but I shall make inquiries and respond to him if I can.

My Lords, it was actually the turn of the Cross Benches, although I do not know what the Lord Speaker will decide, because we are now out of time.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while the existence of mercenary groups such as the French Foreign Legion—which was involved, along with other countries in the West, in expanding into Africa and creating colonies and wealth—was acceptable in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is totally unacceptable in the more moral climate of the 21st century?

I have always been clear in my remarks from the Dispatch Box how much the Government find Wagner to be a repugnant, discredited organisation, and how much we deplore attempts to interfere in sovereign states’ political systems and Wagner’s attempt to exploit these countries. That is why we are doing everything we can to play our part in calling it to account and constraining what it does.