U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland says he would not "object" to designating Russia's Wagner mercenary group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, calling its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a "war criminal."
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Garland was asked by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch supporter of Ukraine, if he agreed that the Wagner group "should be a Foreign Terrorist Organization under U.S. law."
"I think they're an organization that is committing war crimes, an organization that's damaging the United States," Garland said, noting that the designation is made by the State Department.
Graham, along with a bipartisan group of senators, is sponsoring legislation that would direct the secretary of state to designate Wagner as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
Pressed by Graham if he would "object to me making it a Foreign Terrorist Organization," Garland said, "I don't object, but I'd defer in the end to the State Department."
Although the Justice Department is not directly involved in designating foreign terrorist groups, Garland's comments amount to an endorsement in the case of Wagner.
Before making a designation, the secretary of state is required to consult both the attorney general and the treasury secretary.
"The fact that he would not object, I think, is important because what that indicates to me is the fact that in his view ... the activities of the Wagner Group throughout the world, I'd say, primarily in Africa, meet the statutory definitions," said James Petrila, a retired CIA lawyer now an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Law School.
Founded in 2014, the Wagner Group is run by Prigozhin, a sanctioned oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
With an estimated 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, the majority recruited from Russia's prisons, the paramilitary force has become a veritable arm of the Russian military in Ukraine. It is also accused of committing war crimes and other abuses in Ukraine and elsewhere.
In recent months, the U.S. government has sought to crack down on the Wagner Group.
In December, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken designated the group as an "entity of particular concern."
In January, the U.S. Treasury Department labeled it a Transnational Criminal Organization, a designation that allows the government to seize and block its assets.
But Graham and others pressing for designating Wagner as a Foreign Terrorist Organization say these measures don't go far enough.
Of far greater consequence for the group, they say, would be an FTO designation.
Among other things, it would make providing support of any kind to Wagner tantamount to the provision of "material support to terrorism."
"What that means is that individuals who provide material support, which is broadly defined, to an FTO, have violated the material support to terrorism statutes," Petrila said.
While the designation won't end all support for Wagner, it could make some legitimate businesses that currently do business with the group more reluctant, Petrila said.
The State Department has not said whether it is considering applying the designation to Wagner. But in a recent interview with VOA, Beth van Schaack, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice said, "It's extremely important that the most serious consequences that we have in terms of sanctions and accountability criminal accountability, also be focused on the Wagner Group."
Prigozhin has long been in the Justice Department's crosshairs.
In 2018 he was indicted in connection with Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
As part of the effort, the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based "troll farm" controlled by Prigozhin, allegedly created hundreds of fictitious online personas and used the stolen identities of Americans.
The FBI is offering $250,000 for information leading to his arrest.
Branding Prigozhin a "war criminal," Garland said, "Maybe that's inappropriate for me to say as a judge before getting all the evidence, but I think we have more than sufficient evidence at this point for me to feel that way."
Oleksii Kovalenko of VOA's Ukrainian Service contributed to this article.