After the uprising of the forces of the Wagner Group in Russia, the US and Europe turned their attention to the increasingly unpredictable Belarus – a key Russian ally that Western officials fear could give of exiled mercenary troops and a new home and will serve as a playground. for Russia’s nuclear weapons.
But so far, US and European officials have not seen clear signs that either scenario is unfolding. While officials are closely monitoring an apparent military camp that has sprung up outside Minsk after the uprising in southern Russia, Wagner’s troops do not appear to have moved into the country en masse.
“It may happen that the Wagner PMC has decided not to move here,” Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Thursday. Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is not even in Belarus, Lukashenko told CNN – he is in Russia, Lukashenko admitted.
And while Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month that facilities in Belarus needed to store tactical nuclear weapons would be ready by July 7, Western officials saw no signs of that, even. Belarus still does not appear to have the proper infrastructure to house the weapons, officials said, and it will likely be months, if not longer, before it is even technically feasible.
Available satellite imagery also shows no signs of the kind of preparation and security that would be standard at a Russian nuclear facility. Russia has the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world, with 4,477 deployed and reserve nuclear warheads, including about 1,900 tactical nuclear weapons, according to the Federation of American Scientists. It is unclear how much Russia is likely planning to send to Belarus.
“We are here in this fog of Russian mirrors. What actions will Putin take? We do not know,” said Max Bergmann, the director of Russian and European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Putin does not need tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus to use the weapons,” Bergmann added. “But it is about the US that tactical nuclear weapons can be co-located in Belarus with Wagner fighters. That said, it seems that there is a long way before we get there.”
US officials have questions about how Russia will protect its potential arsenal in Belarus from rogue actors. The concerns did not cause a five-alarm fire within the US government, however, officials feel confident that when it comes to command and control, Putin’s interest is to prevent the fighters of Wagner and Lukashenko from having any access to Russia’s nuclear arsenal. .
The 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense has controlled Russia’s nuclear arsenal since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Experts say it would be surprising if another body were assigned control of any tactical nuclear warheads in Belarus. A senior official from the Directorate traveled to Belarus in the spring.
However, Lukashenko’s close relationship with Putin, and the unexpected role he played in stopping Wagner’s uprising, have made intelligence analysts wary about what will happen next and an important topic of discussion among NATO allies ahead of next week’s leaders’ summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. . And some US officials are also worried that Putin will make an announcement related to Russia’s presence in Belarus during the summit.
But even without any major announcement from Russia next week, the alliance is already in contention about Wagner that could expand to Belarus: Poland is asking for more funding from the European Union to strengthen security on the border amid fears that Wagner will reconstitute neighboring Belarus. Latvia’s prime minister said Wagner may try to enter Europe from a new perch in Belarus. And the president of Lithuania described the Wagner fighters as “serial killers” who could “come out of Belarus at any time. And nobody knows when they will attack us.”
The presidents of the countries wrote a letter to the secretary general of NATO and the heads of the NATO alliance on Friday, warning them about the threat “caused by the aggressive actions of Russia and the changing situation in Belarus.”
“Cooperation between Russia and Belarus undermines the security of the region and the entire Euro-Atlantic area,” they wrote, according to the Lithuanian President’s Communication Group.
“The Russians transferring even a part of its nuclear arsenal to Belarus is something new, we don’t know what the purpose is, so the Poles should be worried,” said Angela Stent, the director of Russian studies at Georgetown University. “This is part of the nuclear brinkmanship that Putin has been involved in since the beginning of the war.”
US and European officials saw no signs that Wagner’s troops had withdrawn to Belarus in large numbers, and it did not even appear that Prigozhin was in the country himself. Lukashenko told CNN on Thursday that Prigozhin is currently in St.
Officials are watching closely for signs that a military garrison about 50 miles southeast of Minsk has been revived, possibly for use by Wagner’s forces. The government of Belarus on Friday gave foreign media, including CNN, a tour of the garrison, which can be used to house Wagner fighters when they go to the country.
The work at the field camp appears to have preceded the uprising, officials said. And Belarusian Major General Leonid Kasinsky told CNN on Friday that “there is absolutely no connection between this camp and Wagner.” He added that “yesterday the President said that if Yevgeny Prigozhin makes a decision with his commanders to go to Belarus to build, then this camp among other places can be offered to them.”
With Prigozhin now cut off from much, if not all, of his funding from the Kremlin, however, it is not clear that he will be able to sustain a large Wagner contingent within Belarus – or that Lukashenko will allow him to do so. as, knowing that he can pose. threat to his rule.
The Belarusian leader said that if Wagner were to move to Belarus, they would have to sign a contract with the Belarusian government – something that Prigozhin had refused in the Russian Ministry of Defense before carrying out his attempted coup. in Russia last month.
“If they decide to settle in Belarus, we will make a contract with them,” Lukashenko said on Thursday. “It will explain everything. The framework in which this unit operates is determined at the level of a law or a presidential decree.