On 23 November, the European Parliament adopted the resolution defining Russia as a state sponsor and user of terrorist modalities. At the same venue, MEPs asked the EU Council to include the Wagner group and the 141st Motorized Regiment of Chechen fighters, also known as “Kadyrovites”, in the list of terrorist organizations of the European Union, as well as other armed militias.According to recent reports, also the United States government is considering adding the Wagner Group to the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
From the institution’s point of view, adding organizations to terrorist lists raises the stakes by raising the reputational risk associated with dealing with terrorists. But what could be the consequences of these choices from the Wagner’s viewpoint?
Wagner’s reaction was immediate. In response to the vote, the head of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prighozin, released a video showing a violin case with inside a hammer with traces of blood to “give away” to MEPs (figure 1). On the Telegram channel of the Concord Group, which controls Wagner, a video was published in which Prigozhin responds by opening the custody to reporters’ questions on the request by the EU Parliament to the Commission and the Council that the Wagner group be included in the European Union List of Terrorist Organizations.
Figure 1: content analysis
Moreover, on December a reconnaissance military unit attached to Wagner, published a post on its Telegram page in which it encourages readers living in the Baltic countries – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – to anonymously share information about military units, border posts, movement data of EU border guard patrols (including official and personal vehicle data), location of communication towers and coordinates of fuel depots and their protection system (figure 2).
Figure 2: screenshot gathered from pro-Wagner channel
With this vote, the European Parliament has once again demonstrated that the definition and boundaries of the concept of terrorism are purely political. Although paramilitary groups do not fall within the conceptualization of terrorism, the assignment of a label, such as the terrorist one, has triggered a process capable of transforming the subject, legitimizing actions and methods typical of terrorist groups aimed, first, at creating collective fear. And from here, the use of the bloody hammer and the online call to action for the search of the coordinates of sensitive targets on the European continent. The threat without the manifestation of the act is the sublimation of terrorism which does not need to carry out what it threatens to obtain the effects it wants. Even in the digital ecosystem, as we have observed, the Wagner Group is increasingly present in a pervasive way, with dozens of new online groups to spread propaganda and recruit new members.
The Wagner Group is more and more interested in symbolic recognition and propaganda operations. If before the Russo-Ukrainian war the Wagner Group had always tended towards secrecy, without any official recognition from Prigozhin himself, in recent months there has been a growing outsourcing of it, up to its sublimation last September when, for the first time, Prigozhin admitted its existence. In addition, the PMC Wagner Center in St. Petersburg was inaugurated on November 4th. On its website we have seen the following statement: “A complex of buildings in which places are available for free accommodation of inventors, designers, IT specialists, experimental production and start-up spaces, whose purpose is to provide a comfortable environment for generating new ideas in order to increase Russia’s defense capability, including information”.
The fact that the Wagner Center has been founded is proof that there is an interest in spreading the work of mercenaries, and its branding can lead to direct affiliations in the near future.