Senators push for Russian mercenaries in Ukraine to be labeled terrorist organization

"We're putting you on the baddest list we know how," Lindsey Graham said.

February 16, 2023, 3:06 PM

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Lindsey Graham and Sheldon Whitehouse on Thursday called for Congress to have the Russian-backed paramilitary Wagner group formally labeled as terrorists.

The bipartisan trio want to pass the HARM Act ahead of next week's one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, they said during a joint press conference.

The bill, if passed, would direct Secretary of State Antony Blinken to designate Wagner as a "foreign terrorist organization" under U.S. law -- which would enable a number of punishments.

"This means people associated with the group can be expelled from the United States, denied admission, people assisting with the Wagner group in any fashion subject to sanctions," Graham, R-S.C., said. "And we're putting you on the baddest list we know how to put any organization."

Under the HARM Act, Blinken would also be instructed to send reports to Congress each year on Wagner's activities.

"Talk is cheap," said Blumenthal, D-Conn. "We need to put our money where our mouth is, our military where our mouth is."

The Wagner group reportedly first emerged around 2014, toward the beginning of the Ukraine-Russia conflict on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine.

The private military organization is run by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin with tens of thousands of fighters, U.S. officials have said, and it has also operated in Syria and in various African countries.

The HARM Act notes that Wagner fighters have been "have committed, or are credibly accused of committing, terrorist activity" including "massacres, rape, and torture of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine" as well as "massacres in Moura, Mali" and the "kidnapping of children in the Central African Republic," among other incidents.

Whitehouse, D-R.I., said Thursday that he wants to pass the HARM Act "to mark the anniversary of Russia's treachery and brutality with a response to the Wagner group that is their mercenary co-conspirator."

The senators also highlighted the bipartisan support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

PHOTO: Senator Richard Blumenthal, Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse speak at the Capitol in Washington, D.C, Feb. 16, 2023.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse speak at the Capitol in Washington, D.C, Feb. 16, 2023.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Whitehouse said Congress has good communications with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, citing how at one point Zelenskyy called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to urge him to get an amendment through an omnibus funding bill regarding seized Russian assets.

The group of senators who spoke Thursday -- whom Graham referred to as the "Three Amigos" -- will next travel to the annual Munich Security Conference for several days. They'll meet with European allies and discuss the war in Ukraine.

Graham said the conference is an important way to keep European allies close.

"I find it very ironic that as we go into this Munich Security Conference, the map of Europe is put in doubt by force of arms," he said. "Everything we've said since World War II about the world as it should be will ring hollow -- and just talk -- If Putin gets away with this."

The U.S. delegation to the conference also includes Vice President Kamala Harris and Blinken.

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