The headquarters of Wagner Group on June 27, 2023 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The White House released recently declassified intelligence on Tuesday confirming that the Russian mercenary organization Wagner group has been preparing to provide an air defense capability “to either Hezbollah or Iran,” according to National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.
Wagner was preparing to provide the capability at the direction of the Russian government, Kirby said.
The newly downgraded intelligence did not specify where the missile system would be coming from. But CNN previously reported that the Wagner Group had been tasked with carrying out the delivery of a surface-to-air SA-22 missile system from Syria to the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to provide Hezbollah with the Russian-made missile defense system, known as a Pantsir, two people familiar with the intelligence told CNN last month.
“We will closely monitor for whether Wagner provides military equipment to Hezbollah or Iran,” Kirby said. “We are prepared to use our counterterrorism sanctions authorities against Russian individuals or entities making these destabilizing transfers.”
Russia’s role in directing the transfer of an air defense system to Hezbollah reflects Moscow’s ongoing arms relationship with Iran and its proxies, which has only strengthened since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The US is also concerned that Iran is preparing to provide Russia with ballistic missiles, which Iran showcased to Russian Defense Minister Shoigu during the latter’s visit to Tehran in September, Kirby said on Tuesday.
Wagner and Hezbollah fighters have also both operated in Syria for years, where they have been working alongside Russian and Syrian armed forces to bolster the Assad regime against the Syrian opposition. Hezbollah began to pull its fighters out in recent years, but the group is also backed by Iran, which is a close Assad ally. A source familiar with western intelligence told CNN previously that there has been evidence of increasing collaboration between Hezbollah and Wagner in Syria.
The possibility that Hezbollah could soon have a new air defense system comes amid concerns that the militants are considering opening a new front in Israel’s war on Hamas, on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. The US has repeatedly warned Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups to stay out of the conflict and has positioned aircraft carriers and troops in the region to try to deter against a potential escalation.
Still, Iran-backed militia groups have launched over 60 attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria since October 17, prompting the US to respond with strikes on the militants.
The US intelligence community has assessed that Iran has been calibrating its response to Israel’s military intervention in Gaza to avoid direct conflict with Israel or the US, while still exacting costs on its adversaries via its proxy groups, CNN has reported.
But Iran does not maintain perfect control of its umbrella of these proxy groups, officials say—in particular over Hezbollah. Hezbollah is an ally of Hamas, the group that attacked Israel on October 7, and has long positioned itself as fighting against Israel.
Hezbollah and Israel have engaged in cross-border strikes on each other in northern Israel and southern Lebanon over the last month, but US officials believe Hezbollah is for now not planning on entering the war in force.