Exclusive: US says Russia’s Wagner Group bought North Korean weapons for Ukraine war

WASHINGTON, Dec 22 (Reuters) – Russian private military company Wagner Group has received a shipment of weapons from North Korea to help bolster Russian forces in Ukraine, a sign of the group’s expanding role in that conflict, the White House said on Thursday.

“Wagner is looking around the world for arms suppliers 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 the initial delivery of weapons to Wagner, which paid for this equipment. Last month, North Korea delivered anti-personnel missiles and rockets to Russia for use by Wagner,” Kirby said.

The news was first reported by Reuters. The Wagner group was founded in 2014 after Russia seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and sparked separatist insurgencies in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.

The United States estimates that Wagner has 50,000 employees in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 inmates recruited from Russian prisons, Kirby said.

The US assessment is that the amount of material supplied by North Korea will not change the dynamics of the battlefield in Ukraine, but more military equipment is expected to be delivered 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 never had arms deals with Russia and had no plans to do so.

The Russian and North Korean missions to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday’s news.

The United States has accused Pyongyang and Moscow of violating UN sanctions against North Korea and will share its information with the UN Security Council’s North Korea Sanctions Committee, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a statement.

Pyongyang has created ballistic missiles capable of hitting almost anywhere on the ground, weapons experts say, as well as shorter-range weapons.

Kirby said Russian President Vladimir Putin has increasingly turned to the Wagner Group, owned by a Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhinfor aid in Ukraine, where Russian forces have stumbled in their attempt to topple the government in Kyiv.

The European Union has imposed sanctions on the Wagner group, accusing it of covert operations on behalf of the Kremlin.

Putin said the group did not represent the Russian state, but that private military contractors were allowed to operate anywhere in the world as long as they did not violate Russian law.


Biden administration on Wednesday introduced new borders on technology exports to the Wagner Group in an attempt to further strangle its supplies.

More sanctions are coming in the coming weeks against the company and its support group in countries around the world, Kirby said.

Russian businessman Prigozhin spends more than $100 million a month to finance Wagner’s operations in Ukraine, but has encountered problems recruiting Russians to fight there, Kirby said.

The Wagner groupmade up of veterans of the Russian armed forces, it has fought in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali, among other countries.

American intelligence indicates that Wagner played a major role in the battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut and suffered heavy losses there, with about 1,000 of Wagner’s fighters killed in recent weeks, most of them prisoners, 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 10 months of this war,” Kirby said, without providing evidence.

Kirby said that in some cases, Russian military officials in Ukraine were subordinated to Wagner’s forces.

In addition, Prigogine criticized Russian generals and defense officials for their performance after the invasion.

Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Idris Alli, Michelle Nicholls and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Ross Colvin, Heather Timmons and Daniel Wallis

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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