What are the Russian mercenaries up to in Belarus?
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 Jarosław Kaczyński 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?
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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 Suwałki 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.