Wagner Group finds a refuge in Belarus amid growing tension between that country and the countries on its western border. It seems that the Belarussian authorities are trying to use the group as a "threat asset," while the real number of Wagner Group personnel stationed in the country, who have reportedly trained Belarussian forces, seems to be decreasing and reports of a Belarussian private military company appear in the media.
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Wagner Group In Belarus
When Wagner Group rebelled against the Russian authorities on June 23-24, 2023, the crisis was resolved after the intervention of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. It was reported that under his mediation, Wagner Group "will go to Belarus." Early reports said that three field camps would be constructed in Belarus to host Wagner Group. Telegram channels reported at that time that about 7,000 Wagner personnel were deployed to Belarus. On July 3, the Wagner Telegram channel, close to Wagner Group, posted photos of a field camp near the city of Osipovichi in Belarus, which was supposed to accommodate Wagner personnel. According to satellite images published by a Belarussian Telegram channel, the camp is located in the territory of the Belarus Military Unit 61732. President Lukashenko made several contradicting statements concerning the future of Wagner Group in Belarus, causing a public outcry, including a statement about Wagner Group going "on a tour to Rzeszów" that was later said to be a joke. He also said that Wagner personnel would be "passing on their experience" to Belarus colleagues. Indeed, Telegram channels close to Wagner paraded the joint exercises of the company's personnel and Belarussian forces.
A Telegram post includes photos apparently of a Wagner field camp located in Osipovichi, including utility tents and tents to house personnel. Text on the post says that the camp can accomodate 7,000 to 9,000 people.
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After the reported death of the Wagner Group's leadership, including its head Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a plane crash on August 23 in Tver Oblast of Russia, the future of the group became even more uncertain. On August 24 it was reported that the field camp in Osipovichi was being dismantled. However, the next day Lukashenko said that Wagner group would remain in Belarus: "Wagner lived, Wagner lives, Wagner is to live forever in Belarus, no matter how much some people may not want it. We have built a system with Prigozhin on how Wagner will be located here. And these images from space, that we are dismantling something... We do not need so many [tents]. There is still a core [of Wagner] here, [...] within a few days everyone will be here, up to 10,000 people. [...] We are helping and supporting them, so they are not running anywhere. As long as we and this unit need them, they will live and work with us."
It should be noted that the vague number of "up to 10,000 people" is even more than the reported capacity for the camp as it was planned before any tents were dismantled. Reports say that according to satellite images, the Wagner camp in Osipovichi could, as of August 25, house about 3,000 men, assuming that each tent could house 20. In addition, Belarus "Nasha Niva" media, which the Belarussian authorities consider extremist, reported that the Wagner camp is being guarded by Belarus Special Operations Forces (SSO) and other special units.
EU member-states neighboring Belarus have expressed many concerns about the deployment of the Wagner Group. In response, Lukashenko accused these states of "facilitating hysteria," while State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus Alexander Wolfovich said that Wagner Group does not pose any danger to the neighboring states. This resembles the Belarus authority's stance on the issue of migrants entering the EU from Belarus. In his August 1 statement, Lukashenko said that Belarus protects the EU from the Wagner Group.
A post by the official "BELTA" Telegram channel quoting Belarussian President Lukashenko. The text reads: "Let them pray that we are holding [Wagner Group] and providing for them somehow. If not for us they would have infiltrated [the EU] and struck Rzeszow and Warsaw (...) So, they should not blame me, but thank me."
When commenting on the issue of migrants entering the EU via Belarus, Lukashenko stated: "You [the West] imposed sanctions against me, and you expect me to protect them from migrants? Well, then catch them there yourselves. Merkel invited them there at one time. (...) But we will not fight for Europe and tear our clothes [i.e., go the extra mile] due to the policies that [the EU] are pursuing." It could be argued that Lukashenko uses both topics to pressure the EU into cooperation through the threat of creating conflicts.
Wagner Group also commented on the dismantling of the field camp near Osipovichi. According to the posts, Wagner Group personnel continue to train the Belarus Armed Forces and undergo training themselves to prepare for missions in Africa. Wagner Group confirmed the partial deconstruction of the field camp, noting that this is not evidence of the group's return to Russia but rather is associated with the need to relocate troops ahead of the coming winter. In addition, the group noted a desire to hide from Western satellites as a reason for relocation.
On September 3, a Telegram channel, which is associated with the Wagner Group, posted a photo of an event at which the Commander of Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus Major General Nikolai Karpenkov congratulated and thanked Wagner Group instructors for their work in transferring their knowledge of combat gained through experience to their Belarus colleagues.
Commander Nikolai Karpenkov stands front and center in a dress military uniform.
It seems that a certain number of Wagner Group personnel will indeed stay in Belarus. The exact number will probably be kept secret or maybe even exaggerated, benefitting from Wagner Group's gruesome reputation. In addition, there have been reports that Belarus plans to create its own private military company. The Belarus "GardService" has increased its number of personnel by more than 1,000 men. The local opposition media reported that Wagner Group had at least trained the "GardService" personnel in clearing buildings, urban assault, and engineering.