April 24, 2024

Why are Wagner group mercenaries in Belarus – and would they try to invade Poland?

Thousands of seniors of the Wagner group have arrived in Belarus since the failure of its rebellion against Moscow led by founder Yevgeny Prigozhin – which led to NATO member Poland strengthening its eastern border from the “potential threat” of them.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko welcomed Wagner’s forces into the country after brokering a deal between the Kremlin and Mr Prigozhin – halting the march of mercenaries on Moscow some 125 miles from the capital. He and Russian President Vladimir Putin have spoken about the mercenaries on several occasions, including during two days of talks over the weekend and into Monday, the Kremlin said Tuesday. Mr. Putin has said that there is no attack from

Chief executive Wagner called for a “justice march” on the rebellion to overthrow the top military leaders. The mercenaries put up little resistance and downed at least six military helicopters and command post aircraft, killing several Russian troops.

The insurgency has been the most serious threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his 23-year rule, eroding his authority and exposing cracks in the military over the Kremlin’s 16-month invasion of Ukraine.

Here’s a look at where we are now:

How many Wagner fighters are there in Belarus and where are they?

Between 3,450 and 3,650 soldiers have traveled to a camp near Asipovichy, a town about 140 miles (230 kilometers) north of the Ukrainian border, according to Belaruski Hajun, an activist group that tracks troop movements within the country.

Satellite images show that about 700 vehicles and construction equipment have also arrived in the Wagner convoys to Belarus, Belaruski Hajun said.

Mr. Prigozhin registered a “real estate management company” in Belarus last week under the name Concord Management and Consulting in Belarus. Documents analyzed by independent Belarusian media outlets showed that the company’s registered address was in the same village as Wagner’s mercenary camp.

Why is Poland so concerned?

The biggest issue for Poland is that the Ministry of Defense of Belarus has made it clear in the last week or so that the mercenaries are providing training to Belarus including at training grounds close to the Polish border.

“The Wagner fighters who were actually in combat are providing valuable information and experience to our servicemen,” the Belarusian Defense Ministry said in a statement. One of the ranges is in Brest, about three miles (five kilometers) from the eastern border of Poland.

Warsaw said it was ready for “different scenarios as the situation develops” – after it began moving around 1,000 of its own troops towards the border earlier this month.

According to a claim in a post by Wagner’s senior commander, known by his nom de guerre “Marx”, republished by Wagner’s Telegram channel, up to 10,000 fighters have “gone or are going” to Belarus. Although the accuracy of that statement is difficult to verify.

Poland’s Defense Ministry said the country’s borders were secure. In response to Warsaw’s tightening of its border, the Kremlin tried to paint it as an “aggressive” move – despite Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine being the ultimate basis.

Belarusian interior minister Ivan Kubrakov met with Wagner’s commanders at a training center to draw up a “clear plan of action”, a statement said.

“Given the difficult situation near the borders of the Republic, it is extremely important to be ready to respond to possible challenges and threats,” said Mr. Kubrakov

He was said to have relied on the mercenaries’ “practical experience” after fighting for months in eastern Ukraine, particularly in bloody battles across the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

Would Wagner’s troops try to invade Poland?

It would be silly. As Poland is a member of NATO, Article 5 of the Alliance treaty could be applied if the border was crossed. It says that an attack on one member state is considered an attack on all members. Given Mr. Putin’s talk of military action against Belarus being tantamount to attacking Russia, the last thing Mr. Putin or NATO wants is for Wagner’s forces to enter Poland.

However, that hasn’t stopped Belarus’s leader, Mr Lukashenko, from stirring the pot

In a meeting with the Russian president on Sunday, Lukashenko said Wagner’s troops were “emphasizing [him] out” by asking for a “trip” to Poland. He said that Minsk was “controlling” the situation by keeping the group in the center of the country.

“They want to go back… go on a trip to Warsaw…” Lukashenko told Putin. “But of course, I am keeping it in the center of Belarus, as we agreed.”

It suits both Mr Putin and Mr Lukashenko to make Europe worry about its borders. It allows both men to continue talking tough on the international stage – and toy with voters at home.

The statements have been largely dismissed by experts, with the American Institute for the Study of War – which monitors the fighting in Ukraine – saying that Wagner’s troops there could not threaten Ukraine and Poland.

“There is no indication that the Wagner fighters in Belarus have the heavy weaponry to carry out a serious attack against Ukraine or Poland without significant reform,” the think tank said in a statement.

The deputy head of Ukraine’s Central Intelligence Directorate, Vadym Skibitsky, also said there was no “direct threat” from Russian mercenaries in Belarus, but Kyiv would be keeping a close eye on Wagner’s fighters.

“Our assessment is very simple: Today there is no direct threat [from Belarus], but we are ready. We are monitoring everything related to the so-called Wagner missile defense system,” he told journalists, according to the directorate’s Telegram channel.

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