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What to make of the Wagner Group's threats against Poland

July 26, 2023

At a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed mercenaries of the Wagner Group were planning a westward "excursion." How serious are the risks to NATO member Poland?

Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin
Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin met in St. PetersburgImage: Alexander Demianchuk/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

At a July 23 meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in St. Petersburg, Russia, the latter said that the Wagner Group fighters currently in Belarusian exile had increased the pressure to go westwards. He quoted the mercenaries as saying: "Let's go on an excursion to Warsaw and Rzeszow."

Putin had already addressed the "Polish issue" on July 21 when he addressed a meeting of the Russian security council. He presented his take on the situation, claiming that NATO member Poland had plans to seize territory in the western regions of Ukraine and thus intervene directly in the conflict there. He said that Poland had similar plans for Belarus.

During his filmed meeting with Putin, Lukashenko pointed out what he described as the "movement of Polish troops to the borders of the Union State of Russiaand Belarus" on a map. He said that "one of the Polish brigades is now located 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Brest, another one is now deployed about 100 kilometers from Grodno. […] Poland opened a facility to repair Leopards on their territory. Rzeszow is becoming more active. The Americans are using its airfield to send equipment and so on."

Putin warns Poland against Belarus 'aggression'

'According to Kremlin script'

Belarusian political expert Valery Karbalevich thinks that the two presidents talked mainly about what to do with the Wagner mercenaries on Belarusian territory and that the threats against Poland were part of an elaborate mise-en-scene. According to Karbalevich, Lukashenko was trying to make clear that the Wagner fighters had said that they wanted to enter Polish territory, but he had stopped them.

"This was the most important scene to present to the public," Karbalevich said.

Ryhor Nizhnikau, senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute on International Affairs, had the impression that "everything had gone "according to a script" at the meeting. He assumed that Lukashenko had probably received a scolding after having "babbled too much" two days after Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner Group rebellion. Therefore, he had probably expressed himself "within a framework set up by the Kremlin."

Yevgeny Prigozhin
Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a rebellion against Putin in JuneImage: AP/picture alliance

Why target Poland?

Experts agree that Poland has now become a "collective enemy of Russia" because of its support for Ukraine. Poland, through which military equipment is being supplied, has also insisted on more sanctions against Russia and is a strong supporter of Ukrainian integration into the EU and NATO.

"Poland borders Belarus and Ukraine. If we talk about danger emanating from the Wagner mercenaries, it would be strange to connect it to the US, Germany or France. These are far away. As for Lithuania and Latvia, they are small countries, but Poland is a serious opponent," said Karbalevich.

The Belarusian expert added that Putin was trying to show the Russian public once again how "skillfully he has outdone everyone."

"Prigozhin's rebellion severely traumatized Putin," he explained. "He came across to the public as a weakling forced to negotiate a truce with a heavyweight. After that, it became important for him to use the same means against his opponents. The Wagner Group, which caused problems for Russia, was moved to Belarus to threaten Poland. Putin got rid of his problem 'cleverly' and used it against his enemy at the same time."

Above all, he and other experts believe that, by threatening Poland, Russia is trying to reduce support for Ukraine.

"Parliamentary elections are being held in Poland in the fall," said Nizhnikau. "Both Putin and Lukashenko are trying to influence them, including with threats, so that voters swing in the 'right' direction, namely toward those forces that are saying as part of their election campaign that Poland's role in the war is wrong, and it is necessary to move away in order to prevent a Third World War."

Only a PR stunt?

Karbalevich thinks that the meeting between Lukashenko and Putin was a PR stunt. "This is more of an information attack and blackmail," he said. "It is not so much a real threat because the Wagner mercenaries are still far from the Polish border. According to Western intelligence, there are only about 3,500 in Belarus — though there are plans to transfer up to 10,000 there. But that would still not be a dangerous number."

Karbalevich also said that he doubted Prigozhin, and his mercenaries would follow Putin's orders indiscriminately today. He said that the June rebellion had shown that the Wagner Group was an independent structure that only "gets involved in certain adventures if these are beneficial to it."

For Nizhnikau, the threat to attack Poland only works for the Wagner mercenaries if it is not implemented in real terms. "If Wagner mercenaries suddenly attacked Poland today, nothing much would remain of them."

A satellite picture of a former military base in Belarus
This is former military base in Belarus is where Wagner Group mercenaries are reportedly staying Image: Planet Labs PBC/AP Photo/picture alliance

However, he said, if the threat were to materialize, the consequences were unpredictable, as it would entail an attack on a NATO country. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that an armed attack on one or more NATO member shall be considered as an attack against them all, has only been used once in the history of the military alliance, after the 9/11 attacks on the US.

"If I were Lukashenko, I would be careful and not send any Wagner mercenaries to Poland because the Kremlin would immediately disavow them," Nizhnikau hypothesized. "Belarus would receive the answer. There could be a military intervention in Belarus. I do not believe that Lukashenko, reading from a piece of paper and cunningly suppressing a smile at Putin, seriously believes that this could happen. But if it were to happen, Lukashenko would be the first victim of this escapade."

Wagner mercenaries difficult to control

Poland, meanwhile, has since summoned the Russian ambassador and accused the Russian authorities of engaging in hostile propaganda.

"Poland has no intention of conquering Ukraine or Belarus," said Kamil Klysinski from the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) in the Polish capital, Warsaw.

He said that Warsaw was only preparing to defend itself and added that he was certain Wagner mercenaries would not attack checkpoints on the Polish-Belarusian border because they did not have the necessary heavy weapons and equipment to do so. He did concur that the presence of mercenaries posed a certain risk for Poland but said "first and foremost, these are risks for Lukashenko — and he knows this."

According to Klysinski, behind Lukashenko's threat that Wagner mercenaries want to make an "excursion" into Poland was a request that Putin actually do something about the fighters.

"I don't think that Lukashenko is happy about their presence in Belarus. Lukashenko wants to control everything, particularly in the area of security. But the experienced mercenaries are difficult to control." 

He pointed out that both Lukashenko and Putin knew that, and this was most certainly the main topic of their conversation. "It is very difficult, to say the least, to keep the Wagner mercenaries in place with their capabilities, their specific way of life. The biggest challenge is how Belarus will rid itself of the Wagner mercenaries."

This article was originally written in Russian.