Last January, an escaped mercenary of the Wagner private military company crossed into Norway by walking over a frozen river marking the border with Russia, pursued by Russian police.

Andrei Medvedev told the rights group Gulagu.net that his life was in danger, after a soldier under his command attempted to flee the Ukraine war, in which Wagner is playing a leading role, and was murdered with a sledgehammer blow to the head.

Medvedev said this was standard practice for Wagner deserters, and wanted to testify against Wagner proprietor Yevgeny Prigozhin, but needed asylum in Norway.

He may now become a star witness in a series of civil lawsuits being prepared across the world against Wagner, with a flagship class-action lawsuit now ready to go to court in the United Kingdom.

Visitors pose for a picture outside PMC Wagner Centre [File: Igor Russak/Reuters]

Last November, UK-based law firm McCue Jury and Partners served a letter before action on Prigozhin and 32 defendants associated with the company.

“We’re going to prove that Wagner is a terrorist organisation, that Wagner committed acts of terrorism against not only specific individuals or buildings in Ukraine, but against the populace as a whole, because Wagner is in an unlawful conspiracy with the Russian Federation,” the company’s senior partner, Jason McCue, told Al Jazeera.

“The Russian Federation used Wagner terrorism [against] the Ukrainian people so they would put up less resistance and evacuate the country to enable a simpler invasion. It was purposely done,” he said.

McCue has done it before.

He fought for and won compensation for victims of the Irish Republican Army, after the British government agreed not to pursue the group as part of a 1998 peace agreement.

When suspected Russian-controlled forces shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014, killing all 298 people on board, the Ukrainian parliament asked McCue to launch a lawsuit on the victims’ behalf.

Now, McCue has formed a global alliance of law firms backed by a vast, evidence-gathering machine of investigative journalists and retired spies, aided by input from the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office and Ukrainian military intelligence, called the Ukraine Justice Alliance, to sue the St Petersburg-based Wagner private military company.

It feeds evidence to a broader forum called the Ukraine Civil Society Lawfare Programme (UCSLP), comprised of law firms around the world.

The British case will seek to prove that Wagner operatives placed explosives near a nuclear facility.

“Our evidence is that ordinary Russian troops refused to plant those explosives and Wagner did it,” said McCue. He did not specify the facility.

Last July, Ukraine’s nuclear energy body, Energatom, said Russia was using Ukrainian power plants as ammunition warehouses.

“The Russian military dragged at least 14 units of heavy military equipment with ammunition, weapons and explosives to the engine room of the 1st power unit of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant,” said Energatom.

Oleksandr Starukh, head of the Zaporizhzhia military administration, said Russian forces were actively shelling civilian settlements on the opposite side of the Inhulets river reservoir from the Zaporizhzhia plant.

That prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to tell the UN General Assembly that Russia had brought “the notion of having a human shield to an entirely different and horrific level”.

But Russia’s tactic may have been to provoke return fire, generating anti-Ukrainian propaganda and potentially causing a nuclear disaster for which Ukraine could be blamed.

“We are ready to show how the Russian military guards [the plant] today, and how Ukraine, which receives weapons from the West, uses these weapons, including drones, to attack the nuclear plant, acting like a monkey with a grenade,” said Evgenyi Balitskyi, head of the Russian occupation administration of Zaporizhzhia.

Not an easy task

Pavlos Eleftheriadis, professor of public law at Oxford University and visiting professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, said while violations of international law, such as the invasion of another country, are easy to prove, criminal cases are harder.

“The standard of proof is high. You need witnesses. You’re asking an ordinary court to take a stance on an event outside its jurisdiction. We shouldn’t underestimate that,” said Eleftheriadis.

“The rules of civil and criminal courts are very exacting. It doesn’t matter if Prigozhin is a very bad person. You’ve got to prove the facts.”

“This is such a strong case,” McCue told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think I can lose.” He described his evidence to the House of Commons as “technically unchallengeable”.

The scale of evidence, plaintiffs and lawsuits also puts enormous financial pressure on legal offices, which are not accepting public money, only private donations. McCue said about $20m has already been spent, and the UCLSP may need to crowdfund to continue. But the payoff could also be enormous, financially and morally.

Achieving geopolitical goals

McCue’s flagship case seeks five billion pounds sterling ($6.1bn) in compensation for the victims, but McCue has said his claimants potentially include all 180,000 Ukrainian expatriates residing in the UK, so the value of the lawsuit could go up.

But compensation for the victims is not the only goal.

The UCLSP is trying to fill an accountability gap. The International Criminal Court this month indicted Russian President Vladimir Putin for the illegal abduction of Ukrainian children, making him a wanted man. But it still has not established an international tribunal to prosecute Russia for the crime of aggression.

However, civil society lawsuits – what McCue called “lawfare” – can proceed if individuals fund them.

“It’s strategically using law where international institutions or bodies or governments either fail to produce justice or there’s a gap in the system,” McCue said.

People visit 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, November 4, 2022.
PMC Wagner Centre is a project implemented by the businessman and founder of the Wagner private military group Yevgeny Prigozhin [File: Igor Russak/Reuters]

The strategic goal of convicting Wagner is to “frustrate and tie up and cause havoc for the Russian war machine”, said McCue.

“When I use the word Wagner I’m also talking about the companies and individuals and oligarchs, kleptocrats who are involved in its umbrella to achieve Putin’s foreign policy objectives whether they are geopolitical or economic.”

Wagner has no known assets in the UK.

The strategy is to transfer the judgement of a British court to where they lie, seizing bank accounts in Switzerland, mining operations in Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic, or gold-smuggling operations in Sudan – all suspected Wagner assets.

That would be designed to affect Putin’s ability to wage war.

“Putin’s in the business of hiring [Wagner] to carry out his foreign policy,” said McCue. “He uses them as a proxy because they can commit criminality, terrorism, to achieve his objectives, where he can then stand aside and say they’re not part of the Russian army.”

Once Wagner is stigmatised as a terrorist organisation, McCue hoped, it will also have trouble recruiting retired professional soldiers who have been “telling their wives how they’re fighting terrorism”.

It helps that, last November, the European Parliament designated the Wagner Group a “terrorist organisation” and the US Treasury did so in January, making seizure of its assets easier. The European Commission and US Congress are under pressure to follow.

“We now have to find new complex answers to complex questions,” said Oleksandra Matviichuk, director of the Ukraine Center for Civil Liberties, which won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

“That is why I support the idea to recognise the Wagner group as terrorist organisation,” she told Al Jazeera.

The CCL is more focused on pursuing an international tribunal and helps the Ukrainian public prosecutor and the Council of Europe to gather evidence against Russia, including Wagner.

“The methods they use to achieve the political and economic goals of the Russian state in different countries are terrorist methods. We document everything Russians committed in Ukraine, including members of the Wagner group, but the work we are doing is just a base for further investigations, so we are … glad to cooperate with any initiative that deliberately focuses on this issue,” said Matviichuk.

McCue said other cases are maturing in the US, Israel, Czech Republic, and France, as well as a second case in the UK, leading to “potentially millions of victims and potentially hundreds of billions of damages”.

The UCSLP campaign could score a further strategic victory by scaling up damages.

At the moment, some $300bn in Russian state assets are frozen inside the European Union. Seizing them is illegal under international law, but court convictions can bind them so that their proceeds go to plaintiffs.

Even if the European Union unfroze those assets after the Ukraine war ended, they would remain bound by the court convictions.

“We can easily evaluate that we have $200bn potential of claims in law fare cases that have already come out from our friends around the world,” said McCue. “If we get competent judgments we can attach them to sanctioned assets.”

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