WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Russia’s private military company, the Wagner Group, has received a shipment of weapons from North Korea to help build up Russian forces in Ukraine, the White House said, in a sign of the group’s growing role in the conflict. Thursday.
Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin dismissed the assertion as “chatter and speculation”.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said Wagner was searching around the world for arms suppliers to support its military operations in Ukraine.
“We can confirm that North Korea has completed an initial weapons delivery to Wagner, which has paid for that equipment. Last month, North Korea delivered infantry and rocket missiles to Russia for use by Wagner,” he told reporters.
The news was first reported by Reuters. The Wagner Group was founded in 2014 after Russia captured and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and sparked a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.
Kirby said the United States estimates Wagner has 50,000 personnel deployed to Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts recruited from Russian prisons.
Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Kirby used to make statements based on conjecture.
“Everyone knows that North Korea has not provided any weapons to Russia for a long time. No such effort has even been made,” he said in a statement.
“Therefore, the supply of weapons from North Korea is nothing but gossip and speculation.”
The American estimate is that the amount of material delivered by North Korea will not change the dynamics of the battlefield 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 dealt with Russia in arms and had no plans to do so.
The Russian and North Korean UN missions did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said in a statement that the United States has accused Pyongyang and Moscow of violating UN sanctions against North Korea, and will share information with the UN Security Council’s North Korea Sanctions Committee.
Weapons experts say Pyongyang has built ballistic missiles capable of hitting almost anywhere on Earth, as well as short-range weapons.
Kirby said Putin has increasingly turned to the Wagner Group for help in Ukraine, where Russian forces have faltered. The European Union imposed sanctions on the group, accusing it of carrying out covert operations on behalf of the Kremlin.
Putin said the group does not represent Russia, but that private military contractors have the right to operate anywhere in the world as long as they do not violate Russian law.
Sanctions on Wagner
On Wednesday, the Biden administration unveiled new restrictions on technology exports to the Wagner Group. Kirby said more sanctions are coming in the coming weeks against the company and its support group in countries around the world.
Kirby said Prigozhin spends more than $100 million a month funding Wagner’s operations in Ukraine, but has had problems recruiting Russians to fight there.
Staffed by veterans of the Russian armed forces, the Wagner Group has fought in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali, among other countries.
Kirby said that US intelligence indicates that Wagner played a major role in the battle of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut and suffered heavy losses there, as about a thousand Wagner fighters were killed in recent weeks.
Kirby said that Prigozhin’s influence within Russia is expanding, and his group’s independence from the Russian Defense Ministry “has increased and risen during the ten months of this war,” without providing evidence.
In some cases, Kirby said, Russian military officials in Ukraine were affiliated with Wagner’s forces.
In addition, Prigozhin criticized Russian generals and defense officials for their performance since the invasion.
(Reporting by Steve Holland). Additional reporting by Idris Ali, Michelle Nichols, Garrett Renshaw, David Leungren and Ron Popeskey; Editing by Ross Colvin, Heather Timmons and Daniel Wallis
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