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The Wagner Group gathers on Nato’s border

A guard mans the border wall dividing Poland from Belarus. Credit: Getty

August 2, 2023 - 10:00am

The relocation of Wagner forces to Belarus following their short-lived mutiny in Russia at the end of June has spooked neighbouring countries such as Poland and the Baltic states. No wonder: Wagner mercenaries have fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the Ukraine war, and as the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party JarosƂaw KaczyƄski put it, they’re hardly in Belarus “for fun”. 

Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Monday that the group’s future activities will be carried out “for the greatness of Russia”. But how might Wagner’s presence so close to Nato’s most hawkish member states fit into the Kremlin’s plans, given the group’s deeply ambivalent relationship with authorities in Moscow?  

The common thread running through speculations about Wagner’s role in Belarus is the utility of the group’s operational status in a grey area outside the remit of the Russian military. This, it is feared, could allow more brazen acts of destabilisation in a location seen as Nato’s Achilles heel. 

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has warned about the proximity of Wagner forces to the SuwaƂki Gap, a short stretch of land running along the Polish-Lithuanian border between Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. The threat posed by Wagner to the Gap has also been talked up by the head of the defence committee of the Russian Duma.

Meanwhile, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed on Tuesday that Poland “should say thank you” to him for sheltering Wagner fighters as “without us, they would have seeped through and smashed up” Polish cities. But any notions of an attack on the Gap are overly dramatic, especially as Wagner lost much of its heavy equipment to the Russian military following its mutiny. Still, analysts suggest the group could stage small incursions and false flag operations at this critical location, to test Nato’s mettle and sow doubts about the alliance’s true commitment to its Article 5 security guarantee.  

Using Wagner forces to probe Nato territory could be a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to needle the alliance while maintaining plausible deniability. Perversely, Wagner’s recent mutiny could help in this context, by creating genuine doubt about Putin’s control over the group.

Even if such fears prove overblown, Wagner’s presence in Belarus has other uses, too. Its wings have been clipped following the rebellion, but the mercenary group still has invaluable experience fighting against a Nato-equipped army in Ukraine, and it is now passing on this experience to Belarusian soldiers.  

In another blurring of the lines between Wagner and the official Russian presence, Prigozhin’s organisation is leading training exercises for Belarusian troops which were previously the responsibility of the Russian army. As Wagner becomes a more important military partner for Minsk, there is further scope for nefarious activities aided and abetted by the Belarusian authorities. This fear has been heightened by recent exercises undertaken just a few kilometres from the Polish border, and by the violation of Polish airspace by Belarusian helicopters on Tuesday.

The Warsaw government claims shady cooperation between Wagner and Belarus could also involve funnelling illegal immigrants into Poland, and is already accusing mercenaries of helping migrants cross the heavily-policed border fence. The government has long argued that illegal immigration from Belarus to Poland — which it portrays as an existential threat — is being encouraged by the Kremlin and its allies. 

Linking the Russian threat to illegal immigration combines conservative Poles’ two greatest anxieties. Indeed, some are concerned that the Law and Justice party — which is practised in the art of stoking fear for electoral gain — will magnify and exploit this topic to win voters’ loyalty ahead of Polish general elections this autumn. 

Even so, Wagner mercenaries’ ability to wreak havoc is clear. By blurring the lines of Russia’s presence in Belarus and giving Putin a potential avenue to disclaim responsibility for more provocative actions, Wagner forces are already creating a serious security headache on Nato’s doorstep.


William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz

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Steve White
Steve White
11 months ago

“Even if such fears prove overblown, Wagner’s presence in Belarus has other uses, too. Its wings have been clipped following the rebellion, but the mercenary group still has invaluable experience fighting against a Nato-equipped army in Ukraine, and it is now passing on this experience to Belarusian soldiers. ”
I think this is one of the chief things going on. I think the Belarusian army was supposedly shabby. So, urban warfare experts like Wagner could really help them out, because if a Nato member sends military into Ukraine, it will most probably be Poland.) They apparently have about 300K fresh troops, which Ukraine currently needs more fighting men.
The problem is that no other Nato members really want to take their country to war with Russia, and apparently from polls even most Polish people don’t, it’s just the current leadership and media there are quite hawkish.
Anyway, I think the other reason Wagner is there is that is a perfect solution for Russia, as they are now by law forbidden to exist in Russia. So, keeping a valuable asset like Wagner in existence by putting it in an allied nation that borders your biggest Nato threat was probably seen as a win/win. Strategically that makes a lot of sense. 

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

It also keeps NATO guessing, not least the apparently bloodthirsty Polish army.. of course it also means Wagner is a stone’s throw away from Kyev and that, no doubt will keep the Zelenskyy mob from reducing defence numbers there.
A genius move – which I believe I predicted well before it happened.
In fact I believed the “insurrection” to have been a ruse! Smart cookies dem Ruskies! Mind, it doesn’t take much to outsmart Dopey Joe does it?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
11 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Donald Trump couldn’t manage it!

martin logan
martin logan
11 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Oh, yes. Putin arresting pro-war hawks is a sign of his strength.
As is the firng of several high ranking officers, and the disappearance of General Armagedoon.
As is now almost daily harassing attacks on downtown Moscow.
Yes, Russia is winning…
You DO know that the Arabs always said that during each of their wars with Israel?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
11 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Donald Trump couldn’t manage it!

martin logan
martin logan
11 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Oh, yes. Putin arresting pro-war hawks is a sign of his strength.
As is the firng of several high ranking officers, and the disappearance of General Armagedoon.
As is now almost daily harassing attacks on downtown Moscow.
Yes, Russia is winning…
You DO know that the Arabs always said that during each of their wars with Israel?

martin logan
martin logan
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

The likelihood of NATO joining the war is zero.
The likelihood of the Belarusian army joining the war, or more importantly, having any impact if it did, is zero.
The likelihood of Vagner even having the means to go across the border is zero.
This is just another of Putin’s “ingenious” gambits, like the various poisonings and the attack on Kyiv–that always backfire.
Putin will ever be remembered as “the Father of Ukraine.”

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

It also keeps NATO guessing, not least the apparently bloodthirsty Polish army.. of course it also means Wagner is a stone’s throw away from Kyev and that, no doubt will keep the Zelenskyy mob from reducing defence numbers there.
A genius move – which I believe I predicted well before it happened.
In fact I believed the “insurrection” to have been a ruse! Smart cookies dem Ruskies! Mind, it doesn’t take much to outsmart Dopey Joe does it?

martin logan
martin logan
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

The likelihood of NATO joining the war is zero.
The likelihood of the Belarusian army joining the war, or more importantly, having any impact if it did, is zero.
The likelihood of Vagner even having the means to go across the border is zero.
This is just another of Putin’s “ingenious” gambits, like the various poisonings and the attack on Kyiv–that always backfire.
Putin will ever be remembered as “the Father of Ukraine.”

Steve White
Steve White
11 months ago

“Even if such fears prove overblown, Wagner’s presence in Belarus has other uses, too. Its wings have been clipped following the rebellion, but the mercenary group still has invaluable experience fighting against a Nato-equipped army in Ukraine, and it is now passing on this experience to Belarusian soldiers. ”
I think this is one of the chief things going on. I think the Belarusian army was supposedly shabby. So, urban warfare experts like Wagner could really help them out, because if a Nato member sends military into Ukraine, it will most probably be Poland.) They apparently have about 300K fresh troops, which Ukraine currently needs more fighting men.
The problem is that no other Nato members really want to take their country to war with Russia, and apparently from polls even most Polish people don’t, it’s just the current leadership and media there are quite hawkish.
Anyway, I think the other reason Wagner is there is that is a perfect solution for Russia, as they are now by law forbidden to exist in Russia. So, keeping a valuable asset like Wagner in existence by putting it in an allied nation that borders your biggest Nato threat was probably seen as a win/win. Strategically that makes a lot of sense. 

polidori redux
polidori redux
11 months ago

“…Indeed, some are concerned that the Law and Justice party — which is practised in the art of stoking fear for electoral gain.”
Like all other political parties everywhere. It is called politics.
I wonder who these “some” are.

polidori redux
polidori redux
11 months ago

“…Indeed, some are concerned that the Law and Justice party — which is practised in the art of stoking fear for electoral gain.”
Like all other political parties everywhere. It is called politics.
I wonder who these “some” are.

martin logan
martin logan
11 months ago

Relax.
Vagner isn’t going to invade Poland, and the Poles aren’t going to go into action against Belarus or Russia.
This is another of Putin’s pathetic “information operations.” That it has real world significance is belied by the fact that neither Vagner nor the Belarusian army (!) are going to take on the second largest army in Europe. Very few Ukrainians were gung ho for war with Russia prior to 24 Feb 2022. That has changed pretty dramatically, and Putin knows the same thing would happen with Poland.
This certainly does exile Vagner from Russia. A clear plus. But except for that, its only real significance is to still give Putin a sense of agency in a war that is rapidly slipping out of his control.

martin logan
martin logan
11 months ago

Relax.
Vagner isn’t going to invade Poland, and the Poles aren’t going to go into action against Belarus or Russia.
This is another of Putin’s pathetic “information operations.” That it has real world significance is belied by the fact that neither Vagner nor the Belarusian army (!) are going to take on the second largest army in Europe. Very few Ukrainians were gung ho for war with Russia prior to 24 Feb 2022. That has changed pretty dramatically, and Putin knows the same thing would happen with Poland.
This certainly does exile Vagner from Russia. A clear plus. But except for that, its only real significance is to still give Putin a sense of agency in a war that is rapidly slipping out of his control.