Rishi Sunak had no involvement in helping the head of a Russian mercenary group to “circumvent sanctions” and take a British journalist to court, a minister has claimed.
Treasury minister James Cartlidge was speaking in the commons after reporting by media website openDemocracy. It claimed that a Treasury team gave Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s lawyers permission to sue a Bellingcat journalist in the UK in 2021 while the Russian oligarch was subject to sanctions. It is claimed this happened while Sunak was Chancellor.
However Cartlidge denied Sunak was involved. He said: “There is a delegated framework whereby decisions on legal fees for persons designated under all the sanctions regimes are routinely taken by senior civil servants. I want to be clear on that. We are not aware of any case of legal fees under any of the sanctions regimes being taken by a minister. I just want to be absolutely clear with the House on that.”
OpenDemocracy says that a vast cache of hacked emails show that the Treasury issues licences to Prigozhin - which overrode UK sanctions - and allowed him to sue Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat founder. The case only ended, allegedly, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Previously, Sunak was asked about the claims by Labour MP Clive Efford during PMQs. He said: “I’m proud of our record in leading actually when it comes to sanctioning those people connected with the Putin regime. I am aware of the case he has raised.
“We are looking at it but there is as he knows OFSI (Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation) who deal with the licensing situations in these matters, but I’m happy to get back to him on that specific case that he raised.”
The Treasury has also said it is considering changes to the process which allowed Prigozhin’s lawyers take legal action against Eliot Higgins. Cartlidge said that the OFSI followed a strict set of rules “for strong constitutional reasons” when granting sanctioned individuals permission to bring lawsuits, because “everyone has a right to legal representation”.
He added: “However, I can confirm in light of recent cases and related to this question, the Treasury is now considering whether this approach is the right one, and if changes can be made without the Treasury assuming unacceptable legal risk and ensuring that we adhere to the rule of law.”
A Treasury spokesperson previously said: “We do not comment on individual cases. Everyone has a right to legal representation and the Office for Financial Sanctions Implementation can grant a licence to allow sanctioned people to cover their own legal fees, provided the costs are reasonable.”
What is the Wagner Group?
The Wagner Group has variously been described as a private militia, a proxy force for the Russian Ministry of Defense and a “pseudo-private” military company which allows Russia to exert military influence abroad while ensuring ‘plausible deniability’ (where senior officials can deny knowledge of or responsibility for any unlawful actions).
Also known as PMC Wagner, ChVK Wagner or CHVK Vagner, their number is estimated to have grown to 6,000 by the end of 2017, according to Bloomberg. The Wagner Group is mostly comprised of retired regular Russian servicemen, typically aged between 35 and 55.
The ‘plausible deniability’ is a key factor in their worth to Russia. In his book We Need To Talk About Putin, Mark Galeotti describes how they were used in Syria: “When they needed to send in ground troops to stiffen Syria’s wavering army, instead of regular forces they sent ‘mercenaries’ working for the Wagner Group, a front organisation set up by military intelligence.
“Even though most of Wagner’s soldiers were Russian, it meant that the Kremlin could reassure ordinary Russians that their boys would not be coming home from the Middle East in body bags, and that, if any did die at the hands of Americans, Moscow could pretend it had nothing to do with them.”
The Wagner Group of paid mercenaries has operated in conflicts including Syria, Libya and Sudan. They were also active in Donbas in Ukraine in 2014, helping the separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.
It is thought that around 4,000 members of the Wagner Group were in Ukraine at the start of the war, and get bonuses for hitting “assasination targets”. The USA is set to designate the group a “transnational criminal organisation” and impose fresh sanctions on the organisation and its support network.
Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?
The Wagner Group is believed to be owned by Prigozhin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, to the extent that he is known as ‘Putin’s chief’. He got to know Putin when he ran a restaurant in the president’s native Saint Petersburg, and like many Putin friends, he has done very well out of his ties to the regime.
His companies still provide food services to the Kremlin and other government agencies, and he was photographed back in 2010 showing Putin around his school lunch factory. Prigozhin, for his part, has denied any communication with the Wagner Group.
Kimberly Joy Marten, an expert at Columbia University, told ForeignPolicy.com: “I think he [Prigozhin] is the middleman, I think he is the contractor. I’m sure he gets a huge payment off the top by being the contractor, and then he has these companies which seem to be benefiting in cases where there are minerals or oil involved.”
Prigozhin is also believed to finance the Internet Research Agency - better known as the ‘troll factory’ - which interfered in US elections in 2016 and 2018.