WASHINGTON, Dec 22 (Reuters) – Russian military firm Wagner Group delivered an arms 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 denied owner Yevgeny Prigozhin’s assertions as “rumors and speculation”.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said Wagner was seeking arms suppliers around the world to support his military operations in Ukraine.
“We can confirm that North Korea has completed the initial arms delivery to Wagner, and it has paid for that equipment. Last month, North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles to Russia for use by Wagner,” he told reporters.
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 insurgency 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.
Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, regularly made statements based on the Kirby conjecture.
“Everybody knows that North Korea has not supplied any weapons to Russia for a long time, and no such attempts have been made,” he said in a statement.
“Therefore, the supply of arms from North Korea is nothing more than rumors and speculation.”
The amount of supplies provided by North Korea will not change the dynamics of the battlefield, but more military equipment is expected to be provided 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 UN embassies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The US 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 Panel, 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 said Putin has increasingly turned to Wagner’s group for help in Ukraine, where Russian forces have floundered. The European Union has imposed sanctions on the group, accusing it of covert operations on behalf of the Kremlin.
Putin said the group does not represent Russia, 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 announced new restrictions on technology exports to Wagner Group on Wednesday. More sanctions against the company and its support group are coming in the next few weeks in countries around the world, Kirby said.
Kirby said Prigozhin spends more than $100 million a month to finance Wagner’s operations in Ukraine, but has had problems recruiting Russians to fight there.
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 Kirby said heavy casualties have occurred, with about 1,000 Wagner fighters killed in recent weeks.
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, Jarrett Renshaw, David Ljunggren and Ron Popeski; Editing by Ross Colvin, Heather Timmons and Daniel Wallis
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