MOSCOW (AP) — Mercenaries from the Russian military company Wagner on Thursday launched joint exercises with the Belarusian army near the border with Poland after moving to Belarus following their short-lived uprising, a move that prompted Warsaw to redeploy its troops.
The Belarusian defense ministry said the week-long maneuvers will be conducted at a firing range near the border town 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 leading last month’s uprising. In the video, Prigozhin was seen telling his troops that they will spend some time in Belarus training his army to “make the Belarusian army the second strongest army in the world” before deploying it 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 established in 2014.
During 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, then advanced as far as 200 kilometers (125 mi) from Moscow. The mutiny met little resistance and the mercenaries shot down 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 Chief of General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, who demanded that Wagner troops sign contracts with the Defense Ministry. He ordered his troops back to their camps after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko made a deal to end the uprising in exchange for Prigozhin and his fighters being amnestied and allowed to move to Belarus.
The uprising 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 tracks troop movements in Belarus, said nine convoys carrying more than 2,000 Wagner mercenaries have already rolled into the country. A Wagner commander said in a statement on a messaging app channel linked to the company that about 10,000 Wagner troops will be deployed to Belarus.
Satellite photos from Planet Labs PBC, which were analyzed by The Associated Press, showed a convoy of vehicles at the base at Tsel in the Asipovichy region of Belarus, about 90 kilometers (about 55 miles) southeast of Minsk, that Belarusian authorities presented to Wagner.
Belarus’s opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to leave the country after challenging Lukashenko in a 2020 election labeled fraudulent by the opposition and the West, said Wagner’s deployment to Belarus will destabilize the country and threaten its neighbors.
“Wagner’s arrival will increase instability and no one will feel safe with these war criminals roaming the country,” she said. “They are extremely dangerous and their unpredictability increases the threat to Belarusians and our neighbors.”
Poland’s defense minister Mariusz Blaszczak said on Thursday he has ordered troops to be moved from the west of the country to Biala Podlaska, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of Brest, and in Kolno, further north.
“We must bear in mind that bringing a few thousand troops from Wagner to Belarus is a threat to our country, hence my decision to move some military units from western Poland to eastern Poland,” Blaszczak said on state radio 1. “It is their job to train and deter an aggressor, to show Russia that the Polish border should not be crossed, that it does not pay to attack Poland.”
Some of the strong rhetoric could be attributed to early campaigning for parliamentary elections expected in the autumn, in which the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party is expected to lose control of parliament.
Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland contributed to this report.