The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on Russian private military contractor Wagner Group as well as on eight individuals and three other energy companies in Syria accused of helping to finance the mercenaries in Ukraine, Libya and Syria.
"The Wagner Group is responsible for serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique," the EU said in its official journal, listing torture and extrajudicial executions.
Warning to countries considering using Wagner units
France in particular has been pressing its EU partners to act, arguing that Wagner's inroads into Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic have had a destabilising effect.
Russia's government denies any link to the group, which has been compared to similar US private military outfits, such as the notorious former Blackwater group.
But French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has called them "a company of Russian mercenaries which makes war by proxy on Russia's account" and added: "Even if Russia denies it, nobody is fooled".
European diplomats said the bloc would make use of several existing sanctions regimes in order to add names of Wagner-linked personnel and firms to target lists.
They said the list would also be a warning to countries tempted to hire Wagner units, such as Mali, a former French colony where European troops are fighting Islamist insurgents.
Wagner is said to be financed by 60-year-old Saint Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, reputedly close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Dubbed "Putin's cook" for his close links to the Kremlin, Prigozhin has already been hit with EU and US sanctions for destabilising Libya and meddling in US elections.
"The Wagner Group is financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin," the EU said on Monday in its official journal.
Prigozhin once again denied any such links in a statement released on Friday.
The travel bans and asset freezes are unlikely to have a big impact in Moscow, but they mark a further hardening of EU foreign policy towards Russia, diplomats said.
Russian former intelligence officials
Among those targeted, the EU blacklisted Dimitriy Utkin, a former Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer, saying he was the founder of the Wagner Group and responsible for "coordinating and planning operations for the deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries in Ukraine".
Two others, Denis Kharitonov and Sergey Shcherbakov, were a part of a group of alleged Wagner mercenaries who were briefly detained in Belarus last year and sent back to Russia, according to Belarus state news agency Belta.
The EU also said that Kharitonov had fought for Russia in eastern Ukraine, "personally shot down a Ukrainian helicopter" in the region and "received the Russian Federation's Order of Merit for the Fatherland".
Three Russian-based entities linked to the Wagner Group that the EU said were involved in oil and gas production in Syria were also slapped with sanctions.
Separately, the EU adopted on Monday a sanctions regime relating to Mali, although no names were added.
Mali's military junta was in discussions about deploying the Wagner Group in Mali, according to news reports. France says the use of Wagner units is not acceptable because it has its own troops in the region.
Economic response to military assault on Ukraine
The sanctions on the Wagner Group were announced after a meeting in Brussels of EU foreign ministers, who signalled their readiness to impose huge new measures targetting Russia’s economy if a troop build-up near the Ukrainian border leads to direct military action.
“Allow me to say, once again, firmly that the European Union is standing united in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels.
“The ministers – all of them – have been very clear today that any aggression against Ukraine will come with political consequences and with a high economic cost for Russia.
“We are globally coordinating with our transatlantic and like-minded partners,” he added,
Before the talks, Lithuania’s Gabrielius Landsbergis stressed that the sanctions threat was a deterrent but that, if they proved necessary, they would have to be on an “unprecedented scale”.
The meeting on Monday was the first EU foreign affairs council for Germany’s new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, a Green politician who came to office last week in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s new coalition.
Berlin holds one of the most important cards in the sanctions deck, if it decides that Putin’s actions warrant blocking the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
Asked about the threat to Ukraine before heading to Brussels, Baerbock told ZDF television that “in the event of further escalation, this gas pipeline could not come into service.”
After the Brussels meeting, Baerbock insisted that Germany’s position on the pipeline had been made clear, without repeating it, and said “any action by Russia would have severe diplomatic consequences.”
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)