Poland, Baltic states want Wagner Group mercenary fighters out of Belarus

Poland, Baltic states want Wagner Group mercenary fighters out of Belarus

WARSAW, Poland — Poland and other front-line NATO nations bordering Belarus called on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Monday to “immediately expel” thousands of Russian Wagner Group fighters from his country, amid mounting concern that the mercenaries are seeking to trigger border violence aimed at destabilizing NATO’s eastern flank.

Poland and the Baltic states are also prepared to quickly shutter their borders with Belarus if such violence occurs, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski told a press conference alongside his Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian counterparts in the Polish capital on Monday.

The comments followed weeks of rising tensions between the Russia-aligned Lukashenko government and NATO’s easternmost member nations, where fears have swirled for months that Russia’s war in Ukraine could spread eastward. The uncertainty has shot up dramatically since the still-unexplained death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and other top company officials in a private plane crash last week.

Mr. Prigozhin had relocated a large contingent of Wagner mercenaries to a site in Belarus as part of a deal to end his abortive uprising against Russian President Vladimir Putin in late June. With Mr. Prigozhin gone, it is unclear who will take command of the mercenary force, battle-hardened after it took a major role in the fighting in neighboring Ukraine.

Poland is deploying thousands of troops to its border with Belarus, calling it a deterrent move as tensions between the two neighbors ratchet up. Those tensions between Poland — a NATO and European Union country — and Belarus, which is Russia’s ally in its war on Ukraine, have been building for months.

“We demand from the authorities in Minsk that the Wagner Group immediately leave the territory of Belarus and that illegal migrants immediately leave the border area and are sent back to their home countries,” Mr. Kaminski told reporters in the Polish capital Monday. “If there is a critical incident, regardless of whether it is at the Polish or Lithuanian border, we will retaliate immediately.

“All border crossings that have been opened so far will be closed,” he added.

The thousands of Wagner Group fighters now based in Belarus are a rising security risk for the region, the ministers argued.

“Thousands, some of whom are criminals freed from Russian prisons in return for a promise to fight in Ukraine, are deeply demoralized and accused of crimes against humanity,” Mr. Kaminski said.

Before Mr. Prigozhin‘s death, which U.S. intelligence agencies assess was likely carried out on Mr. Putin‘s orders, Mr. Lukashenko has said he intended to embrace the mercenaries and involve them in Belarus’ own military.

In his first extensive remarks on Mr. Prigozhin and the fate of Wagner Group forces in Belarus, Mr. Lukashenko told reporters in Minsk Friday he was planning no immediate change in their status. He denied reports that some of the mercenaries were already packing to go, and said they could stay or leave based on the original agreement he had struck with Mr. Prigozhin.

“Wagner Group lived, Wagner Group lives, and Wagner Group will live in Belarus despite anyone’s wishes to the contrary,” the official Belta news service quoted the longtime president as saying on a visit Friday to Belarusian State University. “Prigozhin and I came up with a system of how [Wagner Group] will be accommodated in Belarus.”

“We help and support them,” he added. “This is why they are not fleeing anywhere. As many people as this unit and we need will live and work in Belarus. We will honor our promise. They know the terms.”

Russian media reported Monday that Mr. Putin had sent his personal condolences to the Prigozhin family, but it was not yet determined if the president would attend the funeral of his onetime confidant.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.