Oksana Bidnenko is a staff correspondent for JURIST. She is a Ukrainian law student at the Riga Graduate School of Law in Riga, Latvia, and is currently an exchange student at the University of Oslo, Norway.
On March 14, the Lithuanian Parliament unanimously voted in favor of designating the Russian private military company (PMC) “Wagner” as a “terrorist organization,” accusing it of committing “systematic major acts of aggression” in Ukraine. The resolution highlights the fact that Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, formed PMC Wagner, which it describes as “a shadow tool of the Russian government.” The resolution also urges other nations to adopt a similar policy.
The Wagner Group began operations after Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and captured Crimea in 2014. The group supplied mercenaries who collaborated with the Russian military and supported separatist groups in Ukraine. According to the US State Department, the Wagner Group has since hired and supplied mercenaries for a number of covert military operations abroad, notably in Mali, the Central African Republic, and Syria.
The organization has been accused of horrific human rights violations during these military operations, including the murder of dozens of civilians and sexual violence against men, women, and young girls in the Central African Republic in January 2022. Additionally, Wagner is blamed for laying landmines and booby traps in Libya between 2019 and 2020.
In the context of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Wagner Group is accused of playing a key role in the Bucha massacre, according to German intelligence. Apart from this, the Wagner Group has been actively involved in other war crimes (such as the bombardment of civil infrastructure, rape, and killing POWs) in different parts of Ukraine.
On January 26, 2023, the US Department of Treasury recognized PMC Wagner as a transnational criminal organization and applied a number of sanctions. In the US Senate, Democrat Ben Cardin and Republican Roger Wicker have lately reintroduced the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act, but it has not yet passed.
In February this year, the Ukrainian parliament recognized PMC Wagner as an international criminal organization. Furthermore, the Parliament also recognized additional Russian private military companies in general as terrorist organizations.
The international community at large, however, has not rushed to start investigations of Wagner. In January this year, former PMC Wagner paramilitary commander Andrey Medvedev came to Norway to seek asylum. On July 6th, 2022, Andrey signed a contract with PMC Wagner and was fighting on the battlefield for four months as a commander. Medvedev previously served in the Russian army, and from 2017 to 2018, he served a prison sentence. When his Wagner contract was about to expire, the company unilaterally extended it for six months. Andrey has stated that he received an order to kill prisoners of war (Ukrainian soldiers). However, he has not said whether he complied with the order or refused to do so. In the middle of January, he was detained for a couple of days in Norway but was released shortly thereafter.
The legal status of Andrey Medvedev under International Humanitarian Law is that of a mercenary, so he does not have all the rights and privileges of combatants, primarily because he was not mobilized as a member of the Russian armed forces. Medvedev may be subject to the exclusion clause of the 1951 Refugee Convention as he joined the PMC Wagner of his own free will, and if his war crimes are proved, his contribution as a commander can be taken into account.
Additionally, Norway is a party to the International Convention on Combating the Recruitment, Use, Financing, and Training of Mercenaries. Under this Convention, Norway is obligated to either arrest Medvedev, start an investigation, and try him in a national court or transfer him to Ukraine. It has also been reported that Medvedev was arrested at the end of February for allegedly attacking a police officer after a brawl at a bar. This approach of delaying investigations and harboring mercenaries may set a precedent for war criminals seeking a comfortable life in Europe without facing punishment. The reluctance of the international community to hold those responsible for their actions accountable may encourage war criminals to seek asylum in other countries. The Medvedev case also raises questions about the legal status of mercenaries and whether governments have an obligation to pursue them under international law. It is essential for the international community to take strong action to investigate these crimes, hold those responsible accountable, and put an end to war criminal impunity.