Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko wants the Wagner Group Russian mercenary fighters remaining in his country to form the core of a professional “contract army” to help upgrade his military capabilities.
Mr. Lukashenko was a key figure in the negotiations that ended a June 23-24 rebellion following tensions between Russian military officials and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group. After Mr. Prigozhin called off a mutiny and March on Moscow to protest the Kremlin’s handling of the Ukraine war, Mr. Lukashenko offered to host the Wagner troops and their leader in Belarus.
Now it appears Mr. Lukashenko is calling in the favor.
“I want to leave those guys in the armed forces of our country. I’d like to more actively create a contract army,” he said Tuesday, according to the state-owned BelTA news agency.
Mr. Lukashenko said some of the Wagner Group contract fighters who sought refuge in Belarus have signed on with the regular Russian military, while others are working as mercenary fighters in Africa. Mr. Prigozhin’s own status remains unclear, though he was photographed on the sideline of a Russia-Africa summit hosted by President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg just last month.
The offer is likely to exacerbate tensions in the region, as NATO countries on the border with Belarus have anxiously watched the Wagner Group drama play out. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia all say they have been deploying more troops and equipment to their borders with Belarus in light of recent events.
Poland said this week it was rushing troops to its border amid claims that combat helicopters from Belarus had violated its airspace during military exercises over the weekend. Officials in Minsk denied the intrusion and claimed Poland was using the accusation as a pretext to justify a military build-up near the tense border.
Military officials said the intrusion happened Tuesday near the town of Bialowieza, about 150 miles northeast of Warsaw, during exercises that Minsk had previously announced.
The Belarusian Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters allegedly crossed the border at a very low altitude, making the incursion difficult to detect by radar. “The Polish radar systems did not record any violation of Polish airspace,” Poland’s defense ministry said, but added people living in the area recorded the intrusion and shared accounts on social media of what were clear examples of border violations.
Mr. Lukashenko’s government ridiculed Poland’s claims, saying Warsaw changed the narrative “apparently after consulting with their overseas masters,” in a clear reference to their NATO allies.
Belarus has a draft, but its troops serve only for 18 months and most leave the military afterward. Mr. Lukashenko noted that he was one of those conscripts years ago. However, the Wagner Group troops now in Belarus have extensive combat experience under their belt, he said.
“They are mainly officers. It is their profession to fight or defend the country,” Mr. Lukashenko said. “This is why we are looking attentively at this experience in order to protect us in the future. It’s our only goal.”
Fortifications are being built near a Wagner Group tent city in eastern Belarus. A network of trenches has been dug about 10 miles from the camp. Bulldozers and minibuses have been spotted near the construction site, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Last week, Belarusian defense officials said they plan to carry out military exercises with an artillery brigade that will involve instructors from Wagner. Drones also will be involved in the maneuvers, RFE/RL said.
Countries in the region that may have designs on Belarus will think twice once their Wagner Group contract army is operational, Mr. Lukashenko said.
“We don’t want a war and I think that everything will be normal,” he said. But, “if the enemy sees that we will respond in kind and they will incur irreparable losses, losses that will not be acceptable for them, they will never attack us.”