The Belarusian defense ministry said on Thursday that mercenaries from the Wagner group were training troops on the border with Poland, a statement that was likely to increase tensions in an area where fears of conflict are already high.
The fate of the Wagner group, which was one of the most combat-ready units fighting for Russia in Ukraine, and its pugnacious leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, has been shrouded in mystery since an aborted mutiny in Russia late last month. As part of a deal to end the uprising, Belarus’s president offered exile to Mr. Prigozhin and his forces, but their whereabouts have frequently been unclear.
Satellite images this week confirmed that a convoy of Wagner fighters had arrived at a rapidly assembled camp in the Belarusian town of Asipovichy. On Wednesday, at least three Wagner-affiliated channels on Telegram published a video of a man, whose silhouette and voice bear a striking resemblance to Mr. Prigozhin, welcoming hundreds of Wagner fighters at the camp.
According to the Belarusian statement on Thursday, the country’s special operations units have been jointly training with Wagner representatives for a week at a military range near the city of Brest. That is only three miles from Belarus’ border with NATO-member Poland, and about 20 miles north of the country’s border with Ukraine.
The ministry also posted pictures it said showed Wagner fighters training Belarusian servicemen to operate a drone and an armored vehicle. The main picture showed only seven fighters and the statement did not specify how many were there.
Poland’s defense ministry said that it was monitoring the eastern border and that its forces “are prepared for the development of various scenarios as the situation develops.”
President Andrzej Duda of Poland has warned that the Wagner group’s presence in Belarus could “be a potential danger” for his country and for Lithuania, which also shares a border with Belarus.
Ukrainian officials have tried to tamp down concerns about the Wagner forces in Belarus, while at the same time saying that the country’s forces are ready for any potential threat from its neighbor to the north.
In the aftermath of the Wagner revolt, President Vladimir V. Putin offered the mercenary fighters contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry, in an apparent attempt to sideline Mr. Prigozhin. Those who decided not to come under the ministry’s leadership have moved to Belarus and appear to continue to view Mr. Prigozhin as their leader.
In the dusk-lit video released on Wednesday, the figure believed to be Mr. Prigozhin announced that the Wagner fighters would remain in Belarus for some time to train its army, with the goal of making it the second-best army in the world.
He did not tone down his frequent criticism of the top Russian commanders, calling the situation on the front lines in Ukraine a “disgrace” that Wagner fighters “should not participate in.” He also left open the possibility that Wagner forces would return to combat in Ukraine.
“We need to wait for the moment when we can prove ourselves fully,” the man says on the video, his face obscured throughout. “Perhaps we will return to the special military operation, unless we are forced to shame ourselves and our experience,” he said, referring to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
On Thursday, a senior Wagner commander known by the call sign “Marx” and identified as Wagner’s chief of staff, said in a post on a Wagner-affiliated channel on Telegram that the group had lost 22,000 fighters in Ukraine, and an additional 40,000 had been wounded out of the 78,000 involved in the war. He said that up to 10,000 are relocating to Belarus. Those numbers could not be verified.
Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting.
#Belarus #Wagner #Fighters #Training #Troops #Polish #Border