Wagner mercenaries entering Belarus as Minsk announces ‘road map’ for joint military drills

A fighter from Russian Wagner mercenary group conducts training for Belarusian soldiers on a range near the town of Osipovichi, Belarus July 14, 2023 in this still image taken from handout video.
Voen TV/Belarusian Defence Ministry | Via Reuters

A large convoy carrying fighters from the Wagner private army was spotted entering Belarus from Russia early Saturday, a monitoring group reported after the country’s Defense Ministry said it planned for the mercenaries and Minsk’s own armed forces to conduct joint military drills.

The independent monitoring group Belaruski Hajun, which tracks the movements of armed forces in Belarus, said that at least 60 trucks, buses and other large vehicles crossed into the Eastern European country accompanied by Belarusian police.

The group didn’t immediately provide photos or videos of the vehicles but said they had license plates from Russian-occupied areas of eastern Ukraine, where Wagner mercenaries fought alongside Russian troops until a short-lived mutiny last month.

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The convoy headed toward a military base outside Osipovichi, a town 230 kilometers (142 miles) north of the Ukrainian border, Belaruski Hajun said. Satellite images analyzed by The Associated Press this month showed rows of tent-like structures that appeared to have been built at the base between June 15 and June 30.

The authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, said at the time that Minsk could use Wagner’s experience and expertise, and that he had offered the fighters an “abandoned military unit” to set up camp. That same week, a leader of an anti-Lukashenko guerrilla group told the AP that construction of a site for the mercenaries was underway near Osipovichi.

Ukraine’s Center for National Resistance, an arm of the Ukrainian defense ministry that assists guerrilla groups in Russia-occupied territory, said later Saturday that about 240 Wagner fighters, 40 trucks and “a large amount of weapons” had arrived in the Osipovichi area. It cited unspecified members of Belarus’ underground anti-Lukashenko opposition as the source of the information, which couldn’t be independently verified.

Separately, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service said Saturday that the force also had observed “some groups” of Wagner fighters crossing from Russia into Belarus. The spokesperson, Andriy Demchenko, made the remarks in an interview with the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper.

The Belarusian Defense Ministry said in an online statement late Friday that it had developed a “road map” with Wagner’s management for joint training exercises drills by the nation’s military personnel and the private mercenaries.

Earlier Friday, the Defense Ministry said that Wagner fighters had begun training Belarusian soldiers. A television channel affiliated with the ministry showed footage of fighters in black masks instructing soldiers on how to shoot and provide first aid.

On June 23, the Wagner group’s founder and leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, ordered his fighters to leave their camps in Ukraine and head toward Moscow to demand the removal of Russia’s defense minister and General Staff chief. The mutiny rattled Russia and posed the biggest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin’s one-time benefactor, during his decades in power.

In the revolt that lasted less than 24 hours, Wagner fighters swept through the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and captured the military headquarters there, before driving to within about 200 kilometers (125 miles) of the Russian capital. Prigozhin had accused the senior Russian military leadership for months of bungling the war in Ukraine and starving his troops of ammunition.

Lukashenko then brokered a deal between Prigozhin and the Kremlin that shielded the Wagner leader and his men from prosecution, allowing Prigozhin to move to Belarus in exchange for ordering his mercenaries back to the camps.

Putin indicated on Friday that he intends to maintain Wagner as a single fighting force under its existing commander, while appearing to denigrate Prigozhin. His remarks, made in an interview with Russia’s Kommersant newspaper, seemed to reflect the Kremlin’s efforts to secure the loyalty of the mercenaries, who make up some of the most capable Russian forces in Ukraine.

Lukashenko previously allowed the Kremlin to use Belarusian territory to send troops and weapons into Ukraine. He has also welcomed a continued Russian armed presence in Belarus, including joint military camps and exercises, as well as the deployment of some of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons there.

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