To Achieve Deterrence on the Northeastern Flank - We Need to Use Counterterrorism Tools
By Peter Roberto and Erik Kacprzyk
(Written October 2022)
The wake of Russia’s once unimaginable invasion of Ukraine has put Europe at war for the first time in nearly a century. All signs point towards a resurgence of Cold War tensions as Finland and Sweden finalize discussions to join NATO, NATO bolsters its rapid reaction force to include 300,000 soldiers from its previous 40,000, and the U.S. plans to add a new headquarters in Poland. However, this movement to secure NATO members on the border with Russia may be futile if NATO and the U.S. do not address Russia’s exploitation of private military companies and the legal cover they provide. As a result, Europe and NATO now find themselves once unimaginable times and must anticipate unimaginable threats to their sovereignty. However, the ever-expanding sanctions imposed from a wide range of states, such as the U.S., the European Union, and even the traditionally neutral Switzerland, can be further enhanced by utilizing tools often used for counterterrorism.
The Wagner Group is a private army allegedly funded by a key Putin ally that the Kremlin uses as a tool for its foreign policy goals. Wagner mercenaries have conspicuously appeared where Russia has interests in crucial natural resources and engages in protracted conflicts with insurgents. Putin has relied upon the Wagner Group to carry out his foreign policy agenda since it gives Russia a cheap and deniable option to assert themselves. Private military forces prevent conflicts from escalating, much like how the presence of Russian troops during the initial 2014 invasion of Ukraine was denied by the Kremlin, giving NATO and the U.S. the ability not to intervene in the conflict. Since current international law does not hinder the use of private military forces aside from its loose definition of “mercenary,” states can continue to utilize these forces to fight wars that states lack the political will to do.
The plausible deniability and legal cover provided by private militaries could also be incredibly damaging to the recent efforts to secure NATO’s northeastern flank from Russian aggression. The plausible deniability afforded by private military companies (PMC) allowed a firefight between Russian mercenaries and American special forces to stay on the battlefield and not bring the world to nuclear Armageddon. It’s entirely possible that this same deniability could allow Russia to use the Wagner Group to start combat operations in the Baltic states. Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine has been an unprecedented move, and now NATO member states must confront the next event Putin plans for Europe. Russia has repeatedly competed with the U.S. and NATO in “gray zones,” i.e., areas where the line between everyday statecraft and warfare blur together to threaten their interests while minimizing the chance of escalation. Many of these operations have involved cyber and influence operations alongside supporting deniable paramilitary assets like Wagner Group and separatists in Ukraine.
Thankfully, one of the preeminent tools that the U.S. could use to curtail the effectiveness of Wagner mercenaries and their use by Russia already exists - adding the Wagner Group to the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. The Wagner Group meets the qualifications, having engaged in gross human rights violations and terrorizing civilians in Mali, the Central African Republic, and Libya. The head of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa has even likened the Wagner Group to terrorist organizations amid their destabilization efforts throughout several African states.
Adding the Wagner Group to the FTO list would give the U.S. and its allies powerful tools to curb Russian aggression and limit their influence. Placing the Wagner Group on the FTO list empowers the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and State to do three things to target the Wagner Group. First, it freezes the financial assets affiliated with Wagner Group in the U.S.; second, it prosecutes those giving material support to Wagner Group; and third, it halts the immigration of Wagner Group personnel to the United States and those who support them.
This plan has one hurdle to overcome: the Wagner Group does not officially exist. Russia’s constitution banned PMCs, so the Wagner Group operates by using an overlapping network of businesses. However, the State Department has designated similar groups before. The FTO list is littered with the various offshoots and forms of terrorist groups, including those from the IRA, FARC, and ISIS. The U.S. thankfully has another tool: Executive Order 13224. This empowers the President and the Secretaries of State and Treasury to designate any entity or individual a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). The government has used the SDGT designation against several Palestinian charities accused of financing militant groups. In 2020, the Department of State designated the Russian Imperial Movement an SDGT because they supplied training to other white supremacists who subsequently carried out attacks in Europe. Thus, the U.S. government can designate any organization suspected of providing Wagner operatives with material support. Although the SDGT designation is a weaker tool than the FTO, it can still inflict a deterrent and stigmatizing effect on the organization at minimal cost to the US government. The State Department’s designation could come in a similar form, adding each business in the network to the FTO.
Although this may be viewed as an escalatory move in confronting Russian aggression due to its direct ties to Putin, the continued invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin’s insistent use of influence operations necessitate the use of any tools that degrade Russia’s capabilities. The stigmatizing effect of terror designation is enough to justify such a move by the United States, even if it may not significantly impair Wagner’s ability to operate in the short term. Furthermore, the Kremlin has vehemently opposed lethal aid provided to Ukraine, and the FTO designation would be an expansion of the existing sanctions aimed at Putin’s inner circle.