WASHINGTON, Dec 22 (Reuters) – Private Russian military firm Wagner Group took a weapons ship from North Korea to help bolster Russian forces in Ukraine, the White House said, in a sign of the group’s expanding role in the conflict. Thursday.
“Wagner is looking for arms dealers around the world to support his military operations in Ukraine,” John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, told reporters.
“We can confirm that North Korea has completed initial arms deliveries to Wagner, and it has paid for that equipment. Last month, North Korea delivered anti-infantry rockets and missiles to Russia for use by Wagner,” Kirby said.
This news was first reported by Reuters. The Wagner group was founded in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and fueled a separatist uprising in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.
The United States estimates Wagner has 50,000 personnel recruited from Russian prisons, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts in Ukraine, Kirby said.
According to the US assessment, the amount of goods supplied by North Korea will not change the battlefield dynamics in Ukraine, but more military equipment is expected to be supplied by Pyongyang.
In November, after the White House said Pyongyang was secretly supplying Russia with a “significant” number of artillery shells, North Korea said it had no arms deals with Russia and had no plans to do so.
The Russian and North Korean embassies to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday’s report.
The United States has accused Pyongyang and Moscow of violating UN sanctions on North Korea and will share its information with the UN Security Council’s North Korea Sanctions Committee, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a statement.
Pyongyang has developed ballistic missiles capable of hitting almost anywhere on Earth, weapons experts say, as well as short-range weapons.
Kirby says Russian President Vladimir Putin has turned to the Wagner Group, owned by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, for help in Ukraine, where Russian forces have fumbled in an attempt to topple the Kyiv government.
The European Union has imposed economic sanctions on the Wagner Group, accusing it of covert operations on behalf of the Kremlin.
Putin said the group does not represent the Russian government, but that private military contractors have the right to work anywhere in the world as long as they do not violate Russian law.
Bans on Wagner
The Biden administration on Wednesday unveiled new restrictions on technology exports to Wagner Group.
More sanctions against the company and its support group are coming in the next few weeks in countries around the world, Kirby said.
Russian businessman Prigozhin spends more than $100 million a month financing Wagner’s operations in Ukraine, but has had problems recruiting Russians to fight there, Kirby said.
The Wagner Group, which includes soldiers from the Russian Armed Forces, has fought in countries such as Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali.
U.S. intelligence points to Wagner playing a key role in the battle for the Ukrainian city of Bagmut, and about 1,000 Wagner fighters have been killed in recent weeks, most of them criminals, Kirby said.
Inside Russia, Prigozhin’s influence is expanding, and his group’s independence from the Russian Defense Ministry “has only grown and grown over the last 10 months of this war,” Kirby said, without providing evidence.
In some cases, Kirby said, Russian military officers in Ukraine have surrendered to Wagner forces.
In addition, Prigozhin criticized Russian generals and defense officials for their performance since the invasion.
Report by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Michelle Nichols and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Ross Colvin, Heather Timmons and Daniel Wallis
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