© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: An interior view shows PMC Wagner Centre, which is a project implemented by the businessman and founder of the Wagner private military group Yevgeny Prigozhin, during the official opening of the office block in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Novemb
By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The private Russian military company, the Wagner Group, took delivery of an arms shipment from North Korea to help bolster Russian forces in Ukraine, a sign of the group’s expanding role in that conflict, the White House said on Thursday.
“Wagner is searching around the world for arms suppliers to support its military operations in Ukraine,” John Kirby (NYSE:), spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, told reporters.
“We can confirm that North Korea has completed an initial arms delivery to Wagner, which paid for that equipment. Last month, North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner,” Kirby said.
The news was first reported by Reuters. The Wagner Group was founded in 2014 after Russia seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and sparked a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
The United States estimates that Wagner has 50,000 personnel deployed in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts recruited from Russian prisons, Kirby said.
The U.S. assessment is that the amount of material delivered by North Korea will not change the battlefield dynamics in Ukraine, but more military equipment was expected to be delivered by Pyongyang.
In November, after the White House said Pyongyang was covertly supplying Russia with a “significant” number of artillery shells, North Korea said it had never had arms dealings with Russia and has no plans to do so.
The Russian and North Korean missions to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday’s news.
The United States accused Pyongyang and Moscow of violating U.N. sanctions on North Korea and will share its information with the U.N. Security Council’s North Korea sanctions committee, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said in a statement.
Pyongyang has built ballistic missiles capable of striking almost anywhere on earth, weapons experts say, as well as shorter-range weapons.
Kirby said Russian President Vladimir Putin has increasingly turned to the Wagner Group, owned by Putin’s ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, for help in Ukraine, where Russian forces have stumbled in their bid to topple the Kyiv government.
The European Union has imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group, accusing it of clandestine operations on the Kremlin’s behalf.
Putin has said the group does not represent the Russian state, but that private military contractors have the right to work anywhere in the world as long as they do not break Russian law.
SANCTIONS ON WAGNER
The Biden administration on Wednesday unveiled new curbs on technology exports to the Wagner Group in a bid to further choke off its supplies.
More sanctions are coming in the weeks ahead against the company and its support group in countries around the world, Kirby said.
Russian businessman Prigozhin is spending more than $100 million per month to fund Wagner’s operations in Ukraine, but has encountered problems recruiting Russians to fight there, Kirby said.
The Wagner Group, staffed by veterans of the Russian armed forces, has fought in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali, among other countries.
U.S. intelligence indicates that Wagner has played a major role in the battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut and has suffered heavy casualties there with about 1,000 Wagner fighters killed in recent weeks, most of them convicts, Kirby said.
Inside Russia, Prigozhin’s influence is expanding, and his group’s independence from the Russian Defense Ministry “has only increased and elevated over the course of the 10 months of this war,” Kirby said, without providing evidence.
Kirby said that in some instances, Russian military officials in Ukraine were subordinate to Wagner forces.
In addition, Prigozhin has criticized Russian generals and defense officials for their performance since the invasion.