Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko reportedly remarked – suppposedly in a joking tone – during a recent meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg that Wagner mercenaries are eager to move into Poland.
While Lukashenko may not have been being totally serious about a possible mercenary excursion into Warsaw, the presence of Russian Wagner Group troops in neighbouring Belarus is problematic for a number of reasons.
The first issue is that it’s not clear how effectively Belarus will be able to control the Wagner Group. Lukashenko claimed: “The Wagner guys have started to stress us. They want to go west.”
While he is reported to have added, “I am keeping them in central Belarus, like we agreed,” it’s clear that having the mercenary troops in Belarus is cause for concern.
Research on mercenaries, paramilitaries, private security companies and the like has pointed to some of the negative repercussions of granting violent non-state actors too much power and autonomy in a conflict.
Lacking regulations, mercenaries can go rogue, as the Gurkha Security Guards, which were hired by the government of Sierra Leone did in 1994, or in the case of right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia.
As these groups feel immune from state retaliation, they are often willing to take on greater risks and commit human rights abuses with impunity, as in the two cases above.
Using these types of violent non-state actors not only makes it more difficult for states to monitor and control them, but these types of organisations often also lack professionalism and a willingness to adhere to international law. War becomes defined by a profit motive which can corrupt local warring groups.
Their use can also lead to the spread of cheap infantry weapons such as when Muammar Gaddafi’s mercenaries left Libya after his regime fell and took their weapons further across Africa, seriously adding to the instability there.
Wagner mercenaries appear to have become emboldened by their failed march towards Moscow, rather than deterred. This has sparked concern for neighbouring countries in the region, particularly Poland, which is moving troops eastwards to face any possible incursions.
While the Russian president went on national television vowing to “crush” the armed mutiny, it was not the Russian military that pushed Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner group out, but an amnesty deal that was struck with the help of Lukashenko to save face.
The Wagner Group was given the impression that Moscow was unable to stop it, and Russian forces were essentially paralysed. Wagner’s forces were also warmly greeted by many Russian citizens in Rostov-on-Don in Russia as they crossed on their march out of Ukraine towards Moscow in June.
Though Lukashenko has claimed that he has the Wagner Group under control, it is the Wagner fighters that have been training Belarusian special forces near the border with Poland, not the other way around.
Stirring the pot
What does Lukashenko have to gain from all this? Lukashenko’s recent quips appear mostly to be an attempt to maintain attention and position. The Belarus president has revelled in being at the centre of world events, after he brokered the Wagner Group deal.
Lukashenko claimed that Putin had complained to him that Prigozhin wasn’t responding to his calls. The Belarus leader boasted that he alone had been able to resolve the situation.
Lukashenko also appears to relish being Putin’s sounding board and enjoys having the Russian president’s ear. In return he has received a fresh security assurance: any Polish attack on Belarus would constitute an attack on Russia which would be responded to “with all the means at our disposal”.
For all this, Belarus remains firmly the junior partner in its alliance with Russia. In addition to allowing Belarus to serve as a base to launch attacks into Ukraine, some of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons have been stationed in Belarus, something that most Belarusians remain opposed to.
But Minsk has little choice at this point. Belarus only survives because Russia provides it with crude oil, gas and other goods. It pocketed US$1.7 billion (£1.32 billion) last year by selling on Russian crude oil to other countries.
While Lukashenko occasionally tried to lean towards the west, offering some occasional criticisms of Moscow and making promises to ease repression, the west has never been convinced of his bona fides. Attempts in 2014 and 2015 to hold talks in Minsk with Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France to alleviate tensions also failed.
But this loyalty has come at a price. Thousands of companies have left Belarus since the war started and Minsk has been slapped with sanctions. And the vast majority of people in Belarus do not want their country to get directly involved in the war against Ukraine.
By providing a safe haven for Wagner’s mercenaries, Lukashenko pushes the limits of Belarus’s involvement in the conflict while also lifting his perceived status with Putin.
Though it’s not clear what the Wagner group will do next, going into Poland and bringing Nato directly into the conflict by triggering Article 5 of the Nato treaty – under which an attack on one member state is considered an attack on all members – would be the last thing Putin needs.
An expansion of the war into another country would strain Russia even further at a time when its armed forces have already lost at least 15 generals in the conflict, and about 47,000 soldiers, according to recent modelling by independent Russian media outlets Meduza and Mediazona.
In any event, both Putin and Lukashenko are taking on huge risks with their dealings with mercenaries – something that will not only make their own countries more insecure but could also have dire consequences for regional security.