STORY: A Russian mercenary group fighting in Ukraine - private military contractor Wagner - fired back at the White House Saturday after Washington on Friday announced new sanctions against the group.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said Friday that Wagner, which has claimed credit for Russia's battlefield advances in Ukraine, would be designated a significant Transnational Criminal Organization -- a move that would freeze any U.S. assets and prohibit Americans from providing funds, goods, or services to the group.
KIRBY: "With these actions, and more to come, our message to any company that is considering providing support to Wagner is this: Wagner is a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses, and we will work relentlessly to identify, disrupt, expose, and target those assisting Wagner."
Kirby said the Wagner group had taken delivery of an arms shipment from North Korea to help bolster Russian forces in Ukraine - including infantry rockets and missiles - and that images showed five Russian railcars that traveled from Russia to North Korea.
North Korea's Foreign Ministry has called the report groundless.
On Saturday, the head of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, published an open letter to the White House, asking Kirby "what crime" his company had committed.
Prigozhin, who previously denied connections to Wagner, admitted in September that he founded the mercenary army, which has played a major role in the conflict, describing Wagner as a fully independent force with its own aircraft, tanks, rockets and artillery.
Kirby said Russian President Vladimir Putin has been increasingly turning to Wagner for military support, causing some tensions in Moscow.
“We continue to assess that Wagner currently has approximately 50,000 personnel deployed to Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts. Our information indicates the Russian Defense Ministry has reservations about Wagner's recruitment methods. Despite this, we assess that it is likely that Wagner will continue to recruit right out of Russian prisons.”
Aside from the new sanctions, Prigozhin is wanted in the United States for interference in U.S. elections, something that he said in November he had done and would continue to do.