Russia's Wagner Group is increasingly becoming a "rival power center" to the Russian military and agencies as it bolsters the Kremlin's initiatives worldwide, the White House said Thursday.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the influence of the private military company's owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been "expanding" as Wagner's independence from the Russian Defense Ministry "has only increased and elevated" during the now 10-month war against Ukraine.
Prigozhin's increased sway with the Kremlin comes as he continues to be "openly critical" of the Russian Defense Ministry and senior military brass, with Russian military officials becoming "subordinate to Wagner's command" at times in Ukraine, said Kirby.
"It's pretty apparent to us that Wagner is emerging as a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries," Kirby told reporters on a conference call.
Last month, North Korea completed what Kirby called an "initial arms delivery" directly to the Wagner Group, consisting of infantry rockets and missiles, which the Biden administration has assessed will not tip the military balance of power in Ukraine, though it is "concerned" with potential arms shipments.
"Just like the Russian government, Wagner has been forced to rely on pariah states to enable its campaign there in Ukraine," said Kirby. "We urge North Korea to cease these delivers deliveries to Wagner immediately. In addition, we're going to continue to help Ukraine defend itself against both Russian and Wagner forces."
The US' public assessment comes one day after it announced a $1.85 billion military aid package for Ukraine, which included a Patriot battery that had been long requested by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Zelenskyy departed his country Wednesday for the first time since the war with Russia began to consult with President Joe Biden and US lawmakers in Washington.
Speaking alongside Biden at the White House, the Ukrainian president said the Patriot system would "significantly" improve Ukraine's air defenses as the country faces relentless Russian strikes on its critical infrastructure, including cruise missile and drone attacks.