MOSCOW (AP) — Mercenaries from Russia’s military company Wagner on Thursday launched joint drills with the Belarusian military near the border with Poland following their relocation to Belarus after their short-lived rebellion, a move that prompted Warsaw to redeploy its troops.
The Belarusian Defense Ministry said that the weeklong maneuvers will be conducted at a firing range near the border city of Brest and will involve Belarusian special forces. The ministry added that Wagner’s combat experience will help modernize the Belarusian military.
A video released Wednesday appeared to show Wagner’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin for the first time since he led last month’s rebellion. In the video, Prigozhin was seen telling his troops they will spend some time in Belarus training its military to help “make the Belarusian army the second strongest army in the world” before deploying to Africa.
In addition to their involvement in Ukraine, Wagner mercenaries have been sent to Syria and several African countries since the private army was created in 2014.
In his revolt that began on June 23 and lasted less than 24 hours, Prigozhin’s mercenaries captured the military headquarters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don without firing a shot and then moved as close as 200 kilometers (125 miles) of Moscow. The mutiny faced little resistance and the mercenaries downed at least six military helicopters and a command post aircraft, killing at least 10 airmen.
Prigozhin had called it a “march of justice” to oust Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who demanded that Wagner forces sign contracts with the Defense Ministry. He ordered his troops back to their camps after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko brokered a deal to end the rebellion in exchange for an amnesty for Prigozhin and his fighters and a permission to relocate to Belarus.
The revolt posed the most serious threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 23-year rule, eroding his authority and exposing the government’s weakness.
Belaruski Hajun, a Belarusian activist group that monitors troops movements in Belarus, said that nine convoys with more than 2,000 Wagner mercenaries already have rolled into the country. A Wagner commander said in a statement posted on a messaging app channel linked to the company that about 10,000 Wagner troops are set to deploy to Belarus.
Satellite photos from Planet Labs PBC which were analyzed by The Associated Press showed a convoy of vehicles at the base near Tsel in the Asipovichy region of Belarus, about 90 kilometers (about 55 miles) southeast of Minsk, which the Belarusian authorities offered to Wagner.
Belarus’ opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to leave the country after challenging Lukashenko in a 2020 election that the opposition and the West denounced as fraudulent, said that Wagner’s deployment to Belarus will destabilize the country and threaten its neighbors.
“The arrival of Wagner will add to instability, and no one will feel safe with these war criminals roaming the country,” she said. “They are extremely dangerous and their unpredictability raises the threat for Belarusians and our neighbors.”
Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said Thursday that he has ordered to move some troops from the country’s west to Biala Podlaska, around 45 kilometers (28 miles) west from Brest, and in Kolno, further north.
“We must bear in mind that bringing a few thousand of Wagner’s forces into Belarus poses a threat to our country, hence my decision to move some military units from Poland’s west to Poland’s east,” Blaszczak said on state Radio 1. “Their task it is to train and to deter an aggressor, it is to show Russia that Poland’s border should not be crossed, that it would not pay off to attack Poland.”
Some of the strong rhetoric could be attributed to early campaigning before parliamentary elections expected in the fall, in which the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party is expected to lose its control of the parliament.
Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.