First Up-Close Look At New Wagner Camps In Belarus, Training Has Begun
After Wagner's aborted coup and relocation to Belarus come the first reports and images of military camps, including one in Asipovichi, a town south of Minsk. What does this mean for the still unstable situation in Russia? For the war in Ukraine? And the role of Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko?
Militants of the Wagner private military company, who led an insurrection against Moscow on June 24, have settled in camps in Belarus, according to the Russian-language Grey Zone telegram channel, which is associated with the mercenary company.
“Some of the Wagner units have already begun their training process,” the report specified. “For example, they are practicing tank maneuvers and maneuvers with heavy equipment at the firing range located a few kilometers to the south and are also practicing assault operations under artillery cover, including during the night.”
The report says three Wagner bases will be built in Belarus. One of them will be in Asipovichi, a town south of Minsk. Independent Russian media outlet Verstkareported that the camp is capable of accommodating 8,000 Wagner troops.
The first details of Wagner's new presence in Belarus comes 10 days after thousands of Wagner militants, including their leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, relocated from Russia to Belarus under a deal negotiated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that ended the mercenary group's mutiny. Prigozhin has gone for his longest spell in memory without public appearances or new online videos.
Lukashenko's open arms
Whatever role Prigozhin will play in Russia's future and his troops will play in the war in Ukraine will now be shaped by their presence in Belarus, a country of 9.3 million whose capital, Minsk, is situated almost equidistant between Moscow and Kyiv.
The fact that Prigozhin left for Belarus "is a matter of some concern," says former chief of the General Staff of the UK, Richard Dannatt.
Speaking with Sky News, Dannatt said that if Prigozhin "kept an effective fighting force around him, then he presents a threat again to the Ukrainian flank closest to Kyiv." He added that Russia could "quite possibly" use Wagner fighters for another attempt to capture Kyiv.
In an address to Russia on Monday, Putin said the Wagner mercenaries could leave for Belarus, or sign contracts with the regular Russian army. Putin, once again, did not mention Yevgeny Prigozhin by name in his speech.
Whether the Wagner group can launch an attack on Kyiv remains uncertain, particularly considering the losses the mercenaries suffered during the capture of Bakhmut. But the presence of Wagnerites in Belarus may lead to increased pressure on the Belarusian leadership to directly enter the Ukrainian conflict.
They’ll give us advice about tactics: how to attack, how to defend. This is priceless.
Speaking last week, Lukashenko said Belarus would benefit from the Wagner troops' presence to learn from their combat experience.“They've been through it,” Lukashenko said. “They'll tell us about the weapons that worked well, and which ones didn't. They’ll give us advice about tactics: how to attack, how to defend. This is priceless."
Satellite images of one of the reported Wagner camps in Belarus
PlanetLabs PBC/Radio Svaboda
A new Belarusian front?
Belarus, under the leadership of Lukashenko, has steadfastly supported Russia and Putin as their closest ally. Throughout the ongoing Ukrainian conflict, Belarus has served as a vital staging ground for Russian troops, with military operations and helicopter sorties launching from its territory during Russia's attempts to seize Kyiv in the early days of the war. Notably, however, the regular Belarusian army has not crossed the Ukrainian border.
Speculations about Belarusian involvement have circulated in recent months. During the Wagner rebellion, Lukashenko placed his troops on the highest combat readiness, Belarusian media outlet Belta reported.
This comes nearly a year after Minsk-based newspaper Vot Tak reported the Belarusian army would not have the strength or motivation to actively participate in the war.
Nonetheless, following Prigozhin's arrival in Belarus, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered top military commanders to strengthen Ukraine's northern military sector, though top Ukrainian General Serhiy Naev said "no direct threat of offensive actions" across the border was imminent.
Belarus, under the leadership of Lukashenko, has steadfastly supported Russia and Putin as their closest ally.
© Gavriil Grigorov/TASS via ZUMA Press)
More Minsk talks?
Lukashenko’s role in brokering the deal with Wagner further raises the question about whether this was a proactive attempt to defuse the situation, which Deutsche Welle implies could strengthen Lukashenko’s position, or if he was pressured to do so by his ally Putin, who might have been unwilling to negotiate personally after he denounced the Wagner insurrection as a “stab in the back."
Will Lukashenko brand himself as a mediator in the region?
Could his role in the negotiation with Wagner mean Lukashenko is taking the opportunity to brand himself as a mediator in the region?
On Sunday, a day after the Wagner march on Moscow, Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, wrote that he would not rule out the possibility that Lukashenko could participate in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.
For Ukrainians, of course, Minsk is an unhappy location when it comes to the prospect of negotiations. Ceasefire agreements reached in the Belarus capital in 2014-2015 sought to end the conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. The accords negotiated in Minsk ultimately fueled the aggressive Russian strategies that led to Moscow's all-out invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
Whether it's the path of war or peace, history may again pass through Belarus.
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