Accountability for the Wagner Group: To Sanction or Not?

Due to the Wagner Group’s widespread human rights violations across the globe, the EU and the US have imposed sanctions on them. Therefore, the question arises whether Switzerland will join the sanction regime to hold the group accountable and what options are at the disposal of the Federal Council.

By Carla Müller

The Wagner Group is widely known as a proxy force for the Kremlin and oligarch interests in Russia as well as closely entangled with Russian military intelligence. However, the group’s existence is wrapped in a veil of secrecy. Russia does not officially acknowledge its existence partly because mercenary groups are outlawed in Russia. The group’s objectives, leadership, capital, and even its basic existence are kept under wraps but it is rumored to count approximately 5’000 to 6’000 fighters. It originally emerged in 2014 during the annexation of Crimea in which they supported Russian military forces. The Wagner Group’s activities range from fighting in Eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya as well as overviewing the mining of natural resources in various African countries, e.g., in the CAR. These activities in Ukraine and on the continent of Africa have left behind a trail of human rights violations as documented by the UN. It was uncovered, that a group of journalists that tried to investigate the Wagner group’s activities in the CAR tragically died in an ambush which is said to have been orchestrated by the Wagner Group itself. 

Given such horrific acts, the question of international accountability regarding the Wagner group’s activities arises. The US Treasury levied sanctions on the Wagner Group in 2017. In December 2021, the EU imposed further sanctions on the Wagner Group, associated persons and companies. The EU’s sanctions contain the freezing of bank accounts as well as a travel and trade ban for connected entities and individuals. These individuals include, amongst others, the commander of the Group but also a security advisor active in African countries with strong ties to Russian intelligence. In the detailed justification of its sanctions, the EU describes the activities and positions of individuals within the Wagner Group and their links with the Russian state and security apparatus. The reasons given for the sanctions are, inter alia, human rights violations in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya as well as their destabilizing presence in Mali, where the Wagner group is accused of violating international law, intimidating the civilian population, destabilizing activities in the Sahel, and the illegal exploitation of natural resources. 

These sanctions could help to expose the myth of the Wagner Group operating as ghost fighters and the secrecy surrounding its members and their ties to the Russian state. They also take the Russian state out of a grey area of denial into a situation where the Wagner Group and its activities are publicly documented and attached to the Russian state. This means that Russia could theoretically be held accountable for the Wagner Group’s activities under international law. 

According to the Swiss Embargo Act, Switzerland can join EU sanctions to uphold human rights but is under no legal or political obligation to do so. However, if Switzerland were to join the sanction regime, Russia could retaliate with countermeasures, e.g., a ban on the import of goods or rising gas prices. So far, the Federal Council has not made a public statement on this matter. Issuing sanctions is not straightforward for Switzerland because of its long-standing foreign policy of neutrality. Neutrality according to international law does not prohibit the imposition of sanctions, as this can’t be equated to closing an alliance in an armed conflict. Nevertheless, Switzerland often avoids participating in sanctions in order not to diminish its position as a potential mediator on the world stage. The Federal Council also fears that sanctions could jeopardize Swiss economic interests. 

Currently, Swiss participation in direct EU sanctions seems unlikely. However, in light of the looming conflict in Ukraine and a highly likely involvement of the Wagner Group in it, there may be calls for accountability of the Wagner Group from within the Swiss government. Moreover, in case of an outbreak of war, the public pressure to enforce accountability and sanctions on a group that is participating in such unlawful activities should not be underestimated. Even if Switzerland is not going to join the EU sanctions on the Wagner Group, those sanctions as well as the American sanctions, nevertheless, will implicate Switzerland and the Swiss financial sector in particular. E.g., so-called secondary sanctions might be imposed on Swiss banks if financial institutions provide services to a person or organization on a sanction list. Thus, despite Switzerland’s hesitation and it’s tradition of neutrality, sanctions levied by the EU and the US do implicate the Swiss economy and activities on a secondary level.

A different option and a softer measure would be the prohibition of the redirection of transactions which ensures that EU or U.S. sanctions cannot be bypassed via the Swiss banking center, even if the Federal Council decides against participation in the sanction regime. This has the advantage that Swiss neutrality would not be affected and secondary sanctions on the Swiss financial center could be avoided. The Federal Council introduced similar measures in 2014 after the Russian annexation of Crimea and thus, has set a precedent for further actions.



Image credits: @kel_foto on Unsplash