Vladimir Putin may have inadvertently made it easier for an international court to prosecute him and the Russian state for the war crimes Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group has been accused of committing.
For years, the Russian president distanced himself from the paramilitary group founded in 2014.
In 2018, when Wagner was operating in Syria, he went as far as to claim that there were no private military companies in Russia.
However, last week Putin stated Prigozhin’s troops had been “fully funded” by Russian authorities.
Between May 2022 and 2023 alone, the Russian President said the Defence Ministry and state budget provided Wagner with £762,419,240 (86bn roubles) for salaries and bonuses.
He added: “We always treated fighters and commanders from this group with great respect because they really showed bravery and heroism.”
However, following the mutiny led by Prigozhin last weekend, authorities would look into how the money paid to the Wagner Group and its leader was spent, Putin said.
Philippe Sands KC, an author and professor of law at UCL, told The Observer about how the Russian president’s remarks may eventually be used against him: “Those words potentially have very significant consequences in terms of exposing the Russian state to responsibility for the acts of Wagner, and Putin, personally and individually as the leader of the Russian state.”
Funding Wagner wouldn’t automatically make Putin or Russia legally responsible for the group’s crimes, Dapo Akande, professor of public international law at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford, noted.
However, it could be an important piece in a broader case against the mercenary group and the Russian leadership.
The expert said: “It’s a significant admission. Funding is, in and of itself, not sufficient to say that somebody’s responsible for an international crime … [but] it makes it more difficult to say ‘these things have nothing to do with us’.
“You said that you were actually funding this group, so that means that in one sense, you were contributing to what this group is doing.
“Now, the prosecution might need to show more, or a court might need to find more, but at least the first element is present.”
Over the years, the actions of the mercenary troops attracted several accusations of war crimes and even sparked an investigation by the United Nations in 2014 into Wagher’s presence in the Central African Republic.
The group of independent experts said in 2021 to be “deeply disturbed” by the connection between the mercenaries and the series of violent attacks that had taken place in the landlocked CAR.
More recently, a new investigative report by Washington-based anti-corruption organisation The Sentry claimed Prigozhin’s troops were “perfecting a nightmarish blueprint for state capture” in the African nation.
The report also said CAR’s soldiers and militia had undergone Wagner’s training, which included “ultraviolent” torture techniques as well as “sweeping” or “cleansing” – which sources in the Central African military said meant killing everyone, including women and children.