NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the Western military alliance is ready to defend itself against any threat posed by the move of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force to Belarus amid fears the relocation of the private army could create instability for NATO’s Eastern European members.
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was reported to have arrived in Belarus on Tuesday under a deal negotiated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which narrowly prevented the mercenaries from marching on Moscow on Saturday after the private army mutinied against Russia’s military leaders.
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“If Wagner deploys its serial killers in Belarus, all neighbouring countries face even bigger danger of instability,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said after a meeting in The Hague with NATO’s Stoltenberg and government leaders from six other NATO allies.
Polish President Andrzej Duda said he hoped the threat posed by Wagner mercenaries to NATO would be on the agenda at a summit of all 31 members in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11-12.
“This is really serious and very concerning, and we have to make very strong decisions. It requires a very, very tough answer of NATO,” Duda said.
NATO’s Stoltenberg said it was too early to say what the Wagner presence in Belarus could mean for NATO allies, but that the military alliance would protect “every ally, every inch of NATO territory” against threats from either “Moscow or Minsk”.
“We have already increased our military presence in the eastern part of the alliance and we will make further decisions to further strengthen our collective defence with more high-readiness forces and more capabilities at the upcoming summit,” Stoltenberg said.
Prigozhin has not been seen since Saturday, when he waved to well-wishers from a vehicle in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, which his fighters briefly occupied.
On Tuesday morning, a private jet believed to belong to Prigozhin flew from Rostov to an airbase southwest of the Belarusian capital of Minsk, according to data from FlightRadar24.
Putin attempts to assert authority
Amid the fallout from Prigozhin’s mutiny against Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supporters have insisted his rule has not been weakened by the revolt and that Russian officials have been trying to put the crisis behind them, with the FSB intelligence service dropping all criminal charges against Wagner fighters.
Putin has also attempted to shore up his authority by thanking regular Russian troops for what he described as averting a civil war and has portrayed events over the weekend as a sort of victory for the Russian army.
“You de facto stopped civil war,” Putin told troops from Russia’s defence ministry, National Guard, FSB security service and interior ministry who gathered in a Kremlin courtyard on Tuesday.
“You proved your loyalty to the people of Russia and the military oath,” Putin said, before holding a minute of silence for the airmen shot down and killed by Wagner forces on Saturday.
In a separate meeting with defence officials, Putin said for the first time that the Wagner Group was wholly funded by the Russian federal budget, despite operating as an independent mercenary force. He added that since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow has paid the group 86.262 billion rubles (about $1bn) in salaries.
Moscow has said that preparations were under way for Wagner fighters still in Ukraine, who number about 25,000 according to Prigozhin, to hand over their heavy weapons to Russia’s military.
Lukashenko and Wagner
Talking to his military officials on Tuesday, Belarus’s Lukashenko said he had urged Putin not to kill the rebellious mercenary boss Prigozhin.
“I said to Putin: we could waste him, no problem. If not on the first try, then on the second. I told him: don’t do this,” Lukashenko said, according to state media.
Lukashenko also said that his military can learn much from the Wagner mercenaries.
“They were at the very front of the attacking troops. They will tell us what’s important now,” Lukashenko said, according to the Belarusian news agency Belta.
Wagner fighters could report on which weapons worked well in Ukraine and how attack and defence could be conducted successfully, Lukashenko was reported to have said.
“This is very valuable. We have to get this from the Wagner fighters,” Lukashenko said, adding that the mercenary troops were still in their bases in the Russian-occupied Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine.
“But if they would like – and I understand that they are looking at a number of locations – then we will accommodate them,” he said.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, DC-based think tank, said on Monday that Russian-language opposition media had reported that Belarus was in the process of constructing several military camps to house the Wagner fighters. The think tank added that a base, which would accommodate up to 8,000 fighters, was in the process of being constructed in the country’s Mogilev region, located approximately 200km (124 miles) east of Minsk.
The ISW also said that Belarus is unlikely to be a truly safe place for Wagner fighters if Putin decides to renege on his deal to not prosecute them for mutiny.
“Belarus will not offer Prigozhin or Wagner fighters a true haven if the Kremlin pressures Belarus,” the ISW said.
“Putin may be presenting Belarus as a haven for Wagner fighters as a trap. The Kremlin will likely regard the Wagner Group personnel who follow Prigozhin to Belarus as traitors whether or not it takes immediate action against them,” it said.
Putin is also attempting to destroy Prigozhin’s reputation among his fighters and within Russian society, the ISW said on Wednesday.
NEW: #Putin is trying to present #WagnerGroup financier Yevgeny #Prigozhin as corrupt and a liar to destroy his reputation among #Wagner personnel and within Russian society. The ongoing Putin-#Lukashenko-Prigozhin powerplay is not yet over.🧵https://t.co/4A8bWmWlVl pic.twitter.com/NUDNdWoLNf
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) June 28, 2023
The Russian leader has “likely decided that he cannot directly eliminate Prigozhin without making him a martyr at this time”, the institute said.
“The Kremlin will likely continue to attack Prigozhin’s character to break Prigozhin’s popular support, discourage Wagner personnel from following him to Belarus, and destroy his financial power.”