Credit of distrust: in response to the expansion of the Wagner PMC base in Belarus, neighbouring countries strengthen border protection
The scale of the Wagner PMC presence in Belarus has become the subject of speculation following rumours of the recall of mercenaries to Russia. However, their base near Osipovichi continues to expand. Although Lukashenka denied his statement about the desire of the Wagnerites to make “excursions” along the Suwalki corridor, Belarusian and Wagner troops began to conduct exercises in the vicinity. As expected, neighbouring countries responded by strengthening their military presence on the border. This appeared to surprise Minsk, which continues to assure the international community that it has no aggressive plans. However, the Belarusian regime made the same assertions in the run-up to the Russian invasion in February 2022, so distrust on the part of the West is logical and expected.
Despite rumours that Wagner PMC fighters would return to Russia due to a lack of funds, their base in the village of Tsel continued to expand. Fresh satellite images show an increase to 930 vehicles and 18 low-bed semi-trailers, but 2 semi-trailer trucks less and a complete absence of buses compared to images from July 17th. Up to 40 shipping containers and construction works are also evident, and the number of tents has not changed. Judging by the number of vehicles, it may be assumed that the base is fully equipped.
Russia plans to strengthen its forces on the western borders of the Union State in the near future, implying the deployment of additional contingents on Belarusian territory.
In the meantime, Wagner PMC instructors continue to expand combat readiness activities, joining a command and staff exercise with the 6th Separate Guards Mechanized Brigade (Grodno) at the Gozhsky training ground. The venue is in close proximity to the Lithuanian border and the so-called Suwalki corridor – a salient of Polish and Lithuanian territory between Belarus and the Kaliningrad region of the Russian Federation.
The exercise rehearses the management of units during combat operations, and will likely involve extensive use of drones, tanks, and motorized rifle units, in close cooperation with the units of other branches of the armed forces. The exercise simulates real combat conditions including tactical medical services and evacuation of the wounded.
Western intelligence sees these activities as a Russian demonstration of force against NATO using Belarusian troops. However, the Baltic countries and Poland are wary of provocative actions; Warsaw suggests the Wagnerites may be used for hybrid actions, armed border incursions, increased migration pressure, etc.
Poland announced “Operation Rengaw” as a response to hybrid attacks from Belarus in the event of deterioration in the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border. A task force has been deployed in the Podlaski Voivodeship to serve as a deterrent, and if necessary, immediately respond. Meanwhile, “Operation GRYF” of the Polish Border Guard aims to strengthen the border with up to 4000 troops, and an additional 6,000 in reserve.
Poland is prepared to close the railway crossings with Belarus, if necessary, and Warsaw and Vilnius have already agreed on the joint closure of road crossings. Latvia may also participate. Meanwhile, Lithuania may close the “Šumskas” and ” Tverečius” checkpoints from August 15th, motivated by the perception of an increasing threat due to the presence of Wagner PMC. The closure will allow the border and customs services to focus on the primary crossings for traffic from Belarus.
Latvia has introduced an enhanced border protection regime in Daugavpils and the three border districts of Ludza, Kraslava and Augšdaugava from August 11th to February 10, 2024th due to the disproportionately large and increasing number of attempted illegal border crossings.
Ukraine continues to mine the border with Belarus as a precaution against possible future offensive operations from Belarusian territory, which would likely take at least six weeks to organise.
Meanwhile, Minsk continues to issue assurances that Belarus has no aggressive intent towards neighbours. The Belarusian Ministry of Defence even sent a notification to all OSCE participating States about the largest military exercises in 2023, scheduled to be held in September, but accused Poland of ignoring Belarus’ proposal to “resume dialogue in the military sphere.”
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Situation in Belarus