On 22 August, it was reported that the UK Government is considering the proscription of the Wagner group as a terrorist organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000. The Wagner group is a collection of individuals and entities globally making up the ‘Wagner Network’, which is engaged in military, economic, political, and influencing operations. They are known for being a private military company.
Proscribing Wagner as a terrorist organisation would put it in the same legal category in Britain as al-Qaeda, Isis and Hizbollah. This impending designation would be in addition to existing UK financial sanctions imposed on the Wagner group, its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, and other senior commanders.
These news reports were published prior to the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin on 23 August 2023, and it is unclear whether this development will impact upon the UK Government’s proposals.
Wagner military forces have been hired in Ukraine, Syria, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, Mozambique and Mali, and rumoured activities in many other countries. In 2014, Wagner started backing pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine and is thought to have helped Russia annex Crimea. The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has solidified views that the Wagner group is funded by, and acts as a proxy of, the Russian Government.
On 26 July 2023, the UK Foreign Affairs Committee published a report entitled “Guns for gold: the Wagner Network exposed” (the “FAC Report”, available here). The FAC Report described Wagner’s evolution and current activities, and included strong criticism of the UK Government’s failures to sufficiently address and respond to the threat posed by Wagner, noting that these efforts had been “underwhelming in the extreme”. The UK Government imposed financial sanctions on the Wagner group in March 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, under the authority of the Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 (the “UK Russia Regulations”). Whilst the UK Government has stated that the designation of Wagner under the UK Russia Regulations should also impose financial sanctions on all entities that it owns or controls, the FAC Report has stated that existing UK financial sanctions fail to appreciate the complexity of the Wagner Network, and this complexity can make it very difficult for authorities and market participants to assess which entities are within scope of the UK financial sanctions.
Proscription of an organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000 is a ministerial decision guided by criteria set out in section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The effect of proscription goes further than financial sanctions, rendering it a criminal offence to belong to, encourage support for, assist, or use the logo of that group. Criminal offences related to a proscribed organisation include inviting support for a proscribed organisation, expressing an opinion that is supportive of a proscribed organisation, participating in meetings that support the activities of a proscribed organisation, and wearing clothing that arouses suspicion of membership or support of a proscribed organisation. If Wagner is proscribed, these broad offences can be invoked which apply to British nationals and UK residents overseas.
Proscription would also mean that the Wagner group’s financial assets would be deemed to be terrorist property, meaning that these assets could be subject to seizure, and not just freezing (as is currently the case under the financial sanctions measures). Proscription offences generally carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years and possible fines.