In the near future, we believe that the British government will proscribe the Wagner group as a terrorist organisation. This is a landmark case which directly attacks prominent members of Putin’s proxy war machine for their use of terror against Ukrainian civilians.
The first legal action, potentially many within the Payback4Ukraine programme, was commenced in November 2022 against Wagner Group on behalf of ordinary Ukrainians. This first action has the potential, once fully resourced, to represent thousands of Ukrainian evacuees in the UK and recover billions of dollars of reparations for Ukrainians from Wagner (and those that facilitate its terrorism in Ukraine).
We have an interview with the lawyer Jason McCue about what this case means for Ukraine and the whole world.
On the first of November, the English courts launched a campaign of ordinary Ukrainians against Prigozhin and his Wagner Group. Mr. McCue, would you please give a few words about the start of this campaign? With whom do you cooperate in Ukraine?
Jason McCue: So, the reason why this came about is because we've spent three decades working against terrorist organizations and rogue regimes around the world that have harmed victims all around the globe.
We've worked out how to bring mass litigation actions in the civil court against the bad guys, for the good guys, to take the bad guys assets and money off them to give to the good guys.
And when this war broke out, we reached out to your government, and we said, “Look, we know how to do this; there are experts all over the world who we know. We’ll all join together and will work for Ukraine to give the Ukrainian people an avenue to be able to pursue mass claims for compensation reparations against the Russian war machine that has caused harm to your country.”
We felt that the first action to get the program together — which is supported by the Ukrainian government — the first action should be against Wagner. And it should be against Wagner because what they have done is beyond civilization.
They've committed terrorism, war crimes, human rights breaches, crimes against humanity, etc., etc. And they've not just done it in Ukraine. They have done this in Mali, in CAR, in Sudan. And now they're at the gates of Europe, committing these acts in Ukraine. And we felt it was very symbolic for the Ukrainian victims to bring that first case against these people because of the nature of them. So we have started that process, and that will progress now into the courts in the near future.
The thing I want to point out to you and your listeners is that Bob McKay's in the UK is the first one. There are many other cases in this program which we’re working with your government to bring in America throughout Europe, Israel, Canada.
Add all these cases together that have been planned by different legal experts in different parts of the world — you end up with a recovery value for ordinary Ukrainian people of 200 billion dollars. Now, it seems to me that the goal of this program is worth fighting for. It's part of the Ukrainian fight for justice, right?
And what is the role of the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine in this process?
General Budanov and his team identified lawfare as a new battlefront in this war against the aggressive Russians; and that it was an important one. It’s a different one to the people, the guys who are on the front line and ladies who are fighting there for their homes. This is a different battle. This battle’s in courtrooms.
We, lawyers, are not as brave as those soldiers on the frontline for Ukraine. But it's still an important battlefield. Because if we pursue Ukrainian legal rights around the world and chase the Russian war machines’ assets with restraint, we deter them from doing more, we create problems for them. And, of course, the real bonus, we bring some future to help rebuild the lives of ordinary Ukrainians. So it's doing two things: it's lawfare for fighting the Russian war machine, and it's helping those who deserve compensation, proper compensation.
And so, I think your Defense Intelligence realized the power of this very early. And they help through explaining things to us, and to our team of lawyers around the world, who say, “We're not quite sure how this works, this particular massacre, or this particular weapon that killed people.” They explain it to us in language we can understand and put it into legal terms.
Also, they help us and point us towards the evidence we need for these different cases. And of course, that will now be supported, after we had meetings with Podolyak in the Presidential Office very recently — it's not long I’m back from Kyiv. Mr. Podolyak brought together the relevant departments of the government — which was the Ministry of Justice, the Prosecutor General's Office; and they are also to help us these cases and the Ukrainian victims with the evidence they need to supply into their cases.
If you're interested in other departments that are helping, one of the very important ones, which is very impressive in Ukraine, is the Minister of Digital Transformation. They have an app called Diia, which you know very well. I wish we had it in our country: We don't. But why is it important? It is critical to this litigation lawfare around the world, the Diia app, because these are ordinary people bringing cases.
The different lawyers around the world must reach out to the people to bring them into the action. What better than the Diia app? The Diia app is something that can be utilized for that very cleverly; it's an amazing piece of technology. And give people the choice if they want to join in an action to get compensation. If we didn't have that app, the cases would not be able to recover so much money against the Russians. Because literally, we wouldn't have the capacity and resources to contact each person, or the means to do it. The app is magical, so their support is very critical to the process.
The Wagner Group is infamous for their brutality for more than a decade. As well as the war against Ukraine, the Group has been involved in numerous conflicts across Africa and the Middle East. Mr. McCue, what is the reason why nobody has launched such a campaign against Prigozhin and his Group before?
The problem with these issues — and you see these things happen in the international community and in world history — are that both governments, and international organizations are always slow to react and to deal with them. Sometimes, they can't properly deal with them because their structures don't provide a solution. And so they become frustrated in the international organizations.
There's another reason why it's taken so long on Wagner Group: It was people like Bellingcat — I know the journalists who have been following them and a few law firms, that I know, who have been following them and monitoring them in Africa.
But the problem is, when these things happen in remote areas of Africa, sadly, the world doesn't react as it should. We're all people, and everyone who is civilized in this world — who wants to get on and live by the rule of law, and have friendly nations, and relationships around the world — we should all support them. And I think it's wrong that we didn't react when they were in Mali as much as we should have done.
There were little things done, there was the odd sanction here and there. But it's taken the sacrifice of Ukraine. It's taken what has been inflicted on your people.
And the fact that you are on the gates of Europe to make the international community realize that Wagner was a real problem and needed to be stopped now.
And thank you for the sacrifice your country's made. Because people, these monsters like Wagner, and the way Russia uses Wagner for its foreign policy and criminality, they must be stopped. The world does not need these people. So I thank you, but I am sorry that it has come to the suffering that you've had to face. But I think it's happening now.
We petitioned from as early after the February invasion, in March, we started writing to all the key governments, saying, “Designate! Designate these people now! They're going to be a bigger problem as the war carries on.” And we gave them legal reasoning of why they should designate them, evidence of why.
We were helped and supported by people like Bellingcat and lots of journalists, and investigators who provided this information to us. It was slower than I'd hoped, but we built up the people in Payback4Ukraine, we gave testimony to the British Parliament on this, we gave testimony to the Senate and Congress, to the European Parliament. And I think this sort of lobbying work is beginning to pay through.
I saluted Estonia and Latvia and Ukraine when you prescribed them as terrorists, the Wagner Group. And we're seeing the European Parliament get stronger now; the UK has now committed to designating them. And let's all hope and let's do all we can: Get everyone on their Twitter accounts, or whatever you call this social media stuff, asking Americans to designate Wagner because it's very important too.
Did anyone try to intimidate your team members, or did you feel any pressure from pro-Russian representatives while working with this lawsuit?
We've had no threats, and that's the way it should be. If you want to be civilized, and you want to deal with legal matters in the courts, then there is no room for intimidation and threats. This was said for pragmatic reasons. I may be the face of this, but an unwilling face of this. Believe me, I don't want to be putting my face on the internet talking to everyone, I really don't.
But on Facebook, over a thousand lawyers out there, a thousand investigators and journalists who are part of this program for Payback4Ukraine. So that practically makes it a silly thing for them to do, you know, and I think the teams involved in this have all done cases against Al-Qaeda, IS, the IRA.
You know, you realize it's there, and you take precautions, and you hope that the monsters are not so stupid.
Media say that Britain is poised to formally proscribe the Wagner Group as a terrorist organization to increase pressure on Russia. How close is Britain to this decision, and what is the current situation with this lawsuit now in the UK?
There are formalities that have to be done to make it happen and to implement it. And I understand the correct offices of the British government are doing that now, and I've no reason to disbelieve what I've been told, so, not long. The second question you asked me is what are the next steps in the law case?
Well, the next steps in the law case is that we send a detailed “pleading” we called it. This is the details of the case, but that must also have all, we must list — not to give to the other side — but it's the court obligation on us to have a list of all the Ukrainian claimants that want to be part of that case. So, before we can do that, we know we have a small number of brave Ukrainians who started this case, and we've kept them confidential and out of this.
But there is a potential of 180 000 evacuees in the UK who can come into this action. If we can get every one of these for the Diia app into the case — I'm sure this takes resource and time, and effort — if we can, the value of that case becomes over 5 billion sterling. This is a huge amount of money we can then set up against sanctioned and non-sanctioned assets of the war machine.
So what is our big thing now? It's what all these things do. When I’d brought cases for the hunger, for their genocide, I've done it in Darfur.
Do you know what it always comes down to when you have a mass program like this, which is so good, has such a good impact, and has such good results? Comes down to money. Because we have to raise resources. We have to raise resources because of all these actions around the world, we want them to be free for every Ukrainian. Absolutely free. No risk of cost orders. Nothing. So we've got to raise that money.
The lawyers and the investigators going in against the courtrooms around the world against the Russian war machine have got to be able to match the might of the Russian war machine. They'll come at us with lots of lawyers, they're not coming to us with bullets, or tanks, or guns. They're coming with lawyers who will act for them to protect their interest. And if they have 20 lawyers then, in all cases, in the program we need 20 lawyers who can stand there. So, you know, Ukrainians deserve this.
So what is the next stage? Hopefully, by the end of May, we're going to start a Payback4Ukraine crowdfunding. And we're hoping that outlets like your own, with huge followings and influence in Ukraine and around the world, send out the message to support this Ukraine, fight for Ukrainian justice, get reparations and conversation for ordinary Ukrainian people.
Your government realizes how important this is because they want to support your people. That's why they're supporting this program. All the lawyers in this work pro bono to date, but they need to be, and they've all agreed to go forward on low bono. So it's all about giving them the resources to be able to do what their job is. And that's what we've got to do.
Okay. I have another question. Recently, the Chief of the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine, Kyrylo Budanov, announced that the Kremlin probably plans to eliminate Yevgeny Prigozhin. If it does happen, will it affect the course of your work?
The answer to that is no, it won't. So, let me explain why. This program is against all aspects of the Russian war machine. That is not just the mercenaries, but it's those that fund, support, reach sanctions, provide money, facilitate money through their financial systems. There's a lot more defendants we can go after out there. And indeed, if I was bringing a case against Wagner, I would, once we have resources, we won't just bring it against Prigozhin and Wagner Group.
Perhaps it would include those who funded it, those who have paid for them, perhaps those who have helped them with arms, perhaps those who have helped them breach sanctions for out of Sudan when they smuggled, seemed to smuggle gold out, and those in the chain. There's plenty of defendants where we can get justice for Ukrainians.
You’ve said in the interview to “The Guardian” that “There is no doubt that Wagner has engaged in terrorism in Ukraine, and the case will show that Putin paid for these acts of terrorism.” So, my next question: What can we do to proscribe personally Vladimir Putin as a terrorist?
So, this comes back a bit to your question before, which was why has it taken so long to go against Wagner? The reason why, another reason is real politics. It's to do with international relations and diplomacy. It's all a big negotiation. So, if you are from some of the big countries around the world, you realize if you designate Russia — which is the natural step — look, if Wagner is designated, and Russia pays for Wagner’s services, that means under law that Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism. Correct?
It's logical. So if you can prove that, which we can, then it follows. However, these decisions on designation are not legal decisions. You wouldn't have this nonsense if it was a legal decision. What it is, is an executive decision. And people fear that moving straight to a designation on Russia or onto Putin on terrorism will leave no room for negotiation and real politics. I’m not saying I agree with it. I'm just saying this is how different countries around the world view it.
Would you like to take an opportunity to ask the leading lawyers around the world to get involved in similar actions in their countries?
I certainly would. Look, this campaign is based on friends, colleagues and experts that I've known around the world in this area who had been fighting for this for decades and decades doing these same things. They are all thinking of cases, and they've come up with them, but there are others out there that we don't know.
What about the person in Malaysia? A lawyer sat there who said, “I can bring that case, I know this asset.” We want them to get in touch with us so that we can give them, to facilitate the Ukrainian victims into the case, some resources to help pay for it, and the evidence they need for their case.
That is how I see payback for Ukraine. It is just in the middle of facilitating all these different cases for different Ukrainian victims. And so, yes, thank you for giving me the opportunity, please, and update us with ideas for cases.
What's, in my last question, what would you like to say or to wish to Ukrainians or personally our President Volodymyr Zelenskyy?
To the people, I'd like to say, trust Payback4Ukraine. This is tried and tested, professional experts, and they're there, and they want to help, and they can help, and they can deliver. So have faith, join this campaign and get what you deserve — real actual compensation, rather than reparations, through some international commission, which will be, again, vulnerable to real politics and negotiations, and people end up with only token reparations.
These cases are about getting real value damages: your car you lost, your father that was murdered. This is real, this will help rebuild your life. So trust all these lawyers, experts and academics that have been involved in this and say, do it, get involved.
To President Zelenskyy, I say, keep up the good work. Thank you for realizing that this is a great project for your people. But please, as everyone is asking of him, can you do more? Can you help us with this crowdfunding? His bit of magic can help deliver the resources for this project to help Ukrainian people be able to bring more Ukrainian people to bring more cases. And it's his magic we're looking for now.
Thank you very much for your time at this interview. We believe you will win. And thank you and your team for your great impact in supporting Ukrainians against the Russian aggression and Putin regime.
About Dr Jason McCue
Dr Jason McCue has had a career in international affairs (including conflict resolution, humanitarian, justice, development and state building matters), private diplomacy, and as an international lawyer (U.K. Law Society’s lawyer of the year 2010 for his work on human rights in Africa and UK)) in human rights, counter-terrorism/rogue regimes, victim global class action litigation, conflict resolution, and transitional justice.
His specialisation — in practice and academically — is state, private, hybrid and civil society lawfare (the use of law to gain strategic advantages). He has advised and acted on lawfare matters for numerous heads of state, governments, opposition groups, international bodies (UN and AU), NGOs, civil society (campaigns), and corporates. He is responsible for orchestrating and managing some of the largest victim led justice, human rights, international law, and environmental class actions around the world (including cases against IRA, Hamas, IS, Ghaddafi, Lukashenko and recently representing the victims of Rohingya genocide against Facebook).
Among other roles, he has acted as Presidential Envoy for Somaliland; as facilitator to the joint UN/AU Darfur Peace Process; as adviser on transitional justice to the Transitional Government of Libya; and as head of the Libya-UK Victims Reconciliation Group (supported by the U.K. FCO).
Dr Jason McCue recently founded Ukraine Justice Alliance (www.ukrainejusticealliance.com) to provide legal resource (focusing on lawfare, accountability and reparations) to the Ukrainian people, government, and civil society. Leading law firms, academics and law schools throughout the world have joined the UJA to date. Jason is leading the Ukrainian Government backed civil society lawfare programme.