On Thursday 20 July 2023, the Belarusian Ministry of Defence announced that mercenaries from the Russian private militia Wagner would be training soldiers from the Belarusian special forces near Poland

Wagner mercenaries and the Belarusian army hold joint exercises on the Polish border

Miembros del Grupo Wagner - AFP/ROMAN ROMOKHOV
AFP/ROMAN ROMOKHOV  - Miembros del Grupo Wagner

Three weeks after Wagner's failed rebellion in Russia, which led to the exile of the group's boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and some of its fighters in Belarus, the paramilitary group is to work as an “instructor” for the Belarusian territorial defence forces

The press service of the Belarusian Ministry of Defence confirmed on Thursday 20 July that the private military company Wagner will be taking part in training Belarusian servicemen through joint exercises near Osipovichi, on the Polish border. The message states that “the servicemen will master the skills of battlefield movement, combat and tactical shooting, and acquire knowledge of engineering training and field medicine. Fighters from the Wagner group acted as instructors in a number of military disciplines”.  

A video of the exercises has been posted on YouTube, in which the Belarusian Ministry claims that it is “a very useful experience for our army”, which has “not taken part in combat since the end of the war in Afghanistan” (in 1979). Wagner's leader also spoke out on Wednesday in a video posted on Telegram, in which Yevgeny Prigozhin can be seen welcoming his fighters to Belarus and stating that they will no longer be fighting on the Ukrainian front

Against this backdrop of border instability, Poland had already announced earlier in the month that it was sending 500 law enforcement officers to its border with Belarus to deal with the flow of migrants and a potential threat from Russian mercenaries. Indeed, according to Euronews, Minsk has already been accused of arming its border with EU member states by deliberately bringing thousands of foreign migrants, mainly from the Middle East, across the border in retaliation for EU sanctions against Minsk for fraudulent elections and the violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations that followed.  

At the same time, other countries bordering Belarus, such as Lithuania and Latvia, called for greater solidarity from the bloc and NATO in the face of the presence of the Wagner mercenary group and the risk of “infiltration” into their countries. On his arrival at the EU leaders' summit in Brussels, Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš had told reporters: “this potentially represents a threat. The threat would probably not be a frontal military threat, but the threat of an attempt to infiltrate Europe for unknown purposes. So that means we have to increase our border awareness and make sure we can control that”. The Lithuanian President, Gitanas Nausėda, is also “extremely concerned about the developments in Belarus”. He said NATO should prepare to “take bold decisions on strengthening [its] eastern flank”.

The increasingly frequent use of paramilitary groups is a cause for concern. Wagner's fighters have played a major role on several fronts, including in Ukraine, but above all in Syria and the Sahel. The group helped regular Russian forces to annex Crimea in 2014 and Bashar al-Assad's Syrian forces in 2015. It has also been increasingly present in the Central African Republic and Mali since the coup.  

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Wagner has lost 22,000 men and 40,000 have been wounded. A total of 78,000 fighters are thought to have taken part in the offensive, including 49,000 prisoners. Around 10,000 of them will be arriving in Belarus in the next few days, according to a publication shared on Telegram by a senior commander of the group.

The use of private military companies has always been an asset for Moscow, as they have enabled it to achieve political and strategic effects without having to commit national forces. They are attractive to Moscow because of their ability to deny the facts, the absence of state responsibility for their actions, their ease of use compared to Russian forces and their lower cost - known as plausible deniability. Nevertheless, the aborted mutiny by Wagner's men is still seen as an unprecedented challenge to the power of Russian President Vladimir Putin.