Wagner Mercenaries Train Belarus Troops, Putin's Grip Slipping
Russian President Vladimir Putin has historically sought dominance over Belarus, aiming to pull the neighboring state into Moscow's orbit, and the Belarusian leader has at times been characterized as Putin's puppet.
But in the wake of the Wagner Group's armed rebellion and subsequent exile, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko appears to have found an opportunity to exploit the weakened mercenary organization and reduce his country's reliance on Russia by having the ruthless fighters train his military — something in which Moscow's forces have previously been heavily involved.
Lukashenko played an important role in bringing an end to the short-lived mutiny in late June, brokering negotiations between the Kremlin and the Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. As part of the deal, Prigozhin was seemingly cast into exile in Belarus, where his mercenaries were given the chance to join him as they embarked on an uncertain future.
Eager to take advantage of the situation, Belarus offered to host Wagner fighters at an abandoned military camp in the country's central Asipovichy district so they could provide training to the country's armed forces, and in mid-July, Minsk announced that Wagner had begun training Belarusian territorial defense units.
Several weeks later, this partnership seems to have expanded.
Wagner fighters are now training Belarusian troops in exercises typically conducted in partnership with Russian soldiers, according to an analysis published on Monday by the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, DC, that has followed these developments closely.
Wagner mercenaries recently began conducting "company-level training" elements of multiple mechanized brigades, which covered dismounted infantry maneuvering, drone evasion, and combined arms assault that featured the integration of tanks and artillery support, the analysis said.
"The Wagner Group's new role in Belarusian company-level training is notable," the analysis said. "The Belarusian military typically conducts such exercises with Russian trainers and relies on Russian planners for any multi-brigade exercises, which ISW has not yet observed Wagner Group participating in."
George Barros, an ISW analyst, told Insider that "Wagner's failed rebellion posed a very good opportunity for Lukashenko to potentially open up options to allow the Belarusian military to wean itself, perhaps over the span of a long time, off the structural dependency" of the Russian military.
ISW also noted recent cooperation between the mercenaries and a Belarusian airborne brigade that typically trains with Russia, adding that this new dynamic suggests Wagner "may seek to supplant legacy Russian-Belarusian unit relationships."
These shifts break from the norms Moscow has sought to create. Over the past decade, "the Kremlin's been wildly successful with their integration campaign," Barros said, especially in the military. Minsk's military is relatively small, and it lacks the "connective tissues," Barros added, because Russian forces have "conducted a successful sort of corporate takeover of the higher-function planning and command and control functions of the Belarusian military."
For years Belarus has relied on Russia's economic and security support, especially as the country went through a period of domestic turmoil as a result of pro-democracy protests. In turn, Belarus has supported Russia in its invasion of Ukraine and even agreed to let Moscow store tactical nuclear weapons there. With Moscow's backing, Lukashenko has led Belarus since the mid-1990s, holding on to power despite opposition and amid questionable elections. Given that Putin has been a key ally, Lukashenko has long been considered to be under the Russian leader's thumb.
But the aftermath of the Wagner rebellion has exposed some irregularities in the countries' relationship. Lukashenko bragged about saving Moscow from the mutiny, which experts described as a "humiliating" moment for Putin. But more than that, he appears to be exploiting the situation.
"Perhaps Lukashenko saw the aftermath of the rebellion and realized it failed," Barros said. "Prigozhin needs a lifeline, and Lukashenko has a problem that is known to everybody in that my military is systematically and structurally dependent on the Russians. They have a common adversary in Moscow now, and they can actually mutually benefit from each other."
By taking advantage of Wagner's presence and increasing military ties, Lukashenko seems to be weakening the gravitational pull that Russia exerts over Belarus. And the move has been in the works for weeks.
On July 17, Lukashenko signed a law creating a people's militia, likely a group of volunteers who'd train under Wagner. Shortly after that, Wagner troops began training internal troops, the Belarusian deputy commander of the internal troops confirmed on July 25.
Prigozhin said in a video from the Belarus camp in late July that Wagner forces would remain in Belarus "for some time" and prepare to eventually head to Africa, where the mercenary organization already has a footprint in several countries and has been accused of widespread human-rights abuses and a laundry list of atrocities.
Lukashenko, meanwhile, has praised the Wagner fighters and welcomed the military training with open arms. According to the state-run news site Belta, Lukashenko said Tuesday that the mercenaries would "help us totally for free and pass on their experience."
"I need to train my own military personnel because an army that doesn't fight is half an army," Lukashenko said, according to an English translation of his remarks. "You also understand it perfectly well. I don't want to fight. I don't want our guys to die. This is why they need to be trained."
He added: "They will give advice and say something. They are very satisfied with our warriors. They say that they are very well-trained people and, most importantly, they want to learn."
Lukashenko may also be signaling his intent to use Wagner in the creation of some sort of a Belarusian "contract army," which, according to Barros and a Tuesday update from the ISW, the Belarusian doesn't have.
But while this may be of great interest to decision-makers in Belarus, these developments likely aren't a priority for Moscow.
"They're prioritizing defeating the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south," Barros told Insider, adding that Russian forces are focused on "reconstituting their forces, preparing for the next subsequent fighting season over the winter, and potentially regrouping for another offensive."
It's unclear exactly how many Wagner fighters are operating in Belarus, but their presence has rattled some in the West, including the neighboring countries Poland and Lithuania. Officials in the two NATO countries expressed concerns after Poland said that over 100 Wagner mercenaries had moved into position near its border with Belarus and that two Belarusian military helicopters had violated its airspace, which Minsk denied.
A White House National Security Council spokesperson, John Kirby, downplayed the concern, saying there's no indication the mercenaries are an immediate threat to NATO.
"We're not aware of any specific threat posed by Wagner to Poland or to any of our NATO allies, and we're watching that, obviously, closely," Kirby told reporters on Tuesday, adding that the US is still committed to "defending every inch of NATO territory."