NATO has been forced to take seriously the threat posed by Belarus after the country’s president invited Russian warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, alongside his battle-hardened Wagner Group mercenaries, to reside in military spaces near the capital.
Leaders of NATO countries bordering Belarus, including from Lithuania and Poland, have spoken this week about the “even greater danger of instability” posed by the “serial killer” members of the Wagner Group, while Germany has pledged to send thousands of its own troops to the alliance’s eastern flank in response.
There remains no confirmation of Prigozhin nor his mercenaries’ presence in Belarus but nonetheless, Alexander Lukashenko’s comments look to have got the attention of his neighbours, leading anaylsts have branded Belarus a ‘clear and present danger’.
Earlier this week, less than 48 hours after Prigozhin was last seen leaving the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, having called off his march on Moscow, Germany answered a longstanding call to permanently station some of its soldiers in Lithuania.
The Baltic state shares a 422-mile border with Belarus, roughly 15 per cent of which is demarcated with no physical barrier, only the banks of rivers and lakes, and it has been calling for additional military reinforcements from NATO for years.
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Two days after Lukashenko invited Prigozhin and his mercenaries to exile in Belarus, having allegedly brokered a deal on behalf of Putin to stop the insurgency, Germany heeded Lithuania’s calls.
“Germany is prepared to permanently station a robust brigade in Lithuania,” defence minister Boris Pistorius said on Monday (June 26), during a visit to the Lithuanian capital.
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His pledge amounts to around 4,000 troops, as well as “the corresponding materiel, vehicles and everything that goes with it”.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda welcomed the announcement and said his country wants to build up the needed infrastructure by 2026. Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuanian’s foreign minister, hailed the pledge as a “very strong announcement”.
Meanwhile, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg reported on Tuesday that the alliance had “already increased our military presence in the eastern parts”.
In the wake of Prigozhin’s purported arrival, he added: “We will make further decisions to further strengthen our collective defence with more high-readiness forces and more capabilities at the upcoming summit.”
The rapidity of their response owes itself to the genuine concern felt throughout the Baltics and further south in Ukraine about the arrival of Prigozhin and his men in Belarus.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Polish president Andrzej Duda described the possible presence of Wagner in Belarus as “really serious and very concerning”, and a problem that requires “a very, very tough answer”. Mr Nauseda, at the same conference, said: “If Wagner deploys its serial killers in Belarus, all neighbouring countries face even greater danger of instability.”
Senior Ukrainian officials have since spoken about the uncomfortable prospect of Russian veterans of the “special military operation” being stationed on their northern border, only 100 miles or so above the capital of Kyiv, though they do have northern brigades operating in that vicinity in case of an attack.
Exactly when Wagner troops could arrive in Belarus is unknown – satellite images on Thursday revealed a former military base southeast of Minsk is undergoing reconstruction, sparking rumours it could be the new home of the mercenary outfit – but irrespective of their plans, the preparations of Lukashenko’s neighbours has already begun.
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