With reports of Wagner columns marching through Belarus, concerns have been raised about where they are heading and the objectives of those who control them. The traditional Kremlin mouthpieces are also shouting, declaring that the mercenaries who tried to overthrow Putin may be moving towards the Ukrainian border as well as towards the Suwałki corridor. They could ‘take’ this strategic location in just a few hours, Jūratė Važgauskaitė is writing at the tv3.lt news portal.
However, the Kremlin’s mouthpieces are not talking about the talk and the reality. Propaganda specialists and defence and security experts believe that what we are currently seeing and hearing is yet another attempt by the Kremlin to throw its weight around, lie and alarm its neighbours.
Belarus, on whose territory the Wagner fighters appeared, is playing the role of a willing puppet. It is not yet clear where the Wagner mercenaries are heading or what their objectives are, but what is known is that they are under the watchful eyes of the Lithuanian and Polish intelligence services and Ukrainian troops.
Old Kremlin songs
Vytis Jurkonis, a political analyst and Belarus expert, thinks that Belarus is doing nothing more than selling its loyalty by allowing Wagner fighters in and letting them march freely at the highest possible price, of course.
“They have been and remain useful to the Kremlin regime. In this case, they are trying to bring the situation back on track, saying that the Belarusian regime is the negotiator and that Belarus is the place where certain agreements can take place. <…> Will Prigozhin’s troops in Belarus last? Is there something more there? We shall see. Knowing that the Wagner troops were previously active in Belarusian territory and what they are doing, it has to be said that there is not much for them to do there.
Well, apart from increasing the anxiety of their neighbours, creating messages of information attacks and being at the forefront of them. For the most part, the West is reacting to Wagner’s performance, but it is not entirely clear what is going to happen and how. The Kremlin is changing information about Wagner, saying it is private, then saying it is not private (or that it does not legally exist). This is confusing and worrying.
The Kremlin regime is not changing. What we are seeing now is a rococo, a repositioning of figures. The only thing is that as Wagner moves around Belarus, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Poles are watching. Such an obscure formation is a bit unpredictable, so yes, the focus on them has been increased,” said Jurkonis.
He added that Wagner is not only unpredictable but also an experienced soldier, even though he does not have heavy weapons at the moment.
“They have seen both hot and cold. <…> But they have nothing to do in Belarus except to use the Belarusian territory as a temporary place, maybe to gather new hit men <…> We need to see who has come to Belarus, although, of course, we should not underestimate them. In principle, however, this situation is not very new in the neighbourhood of the Kremlin and Belarus. We see this picture periodically in one way or another. It is all designed to increase our anxiety and distraction. This is not some sudden change in security,” Jurkonis said.
“Wagner heading towards the Suwałki Corridor?
Admittedly, the presence of Wagner troops in Belarus is being exploited to the maximum by the Kremlin. Russian Duma deputy Andrei Kartopolov said that the Wagner mercenaries are in Belarus to “go towards Suwałki because that region is important not only for NATO but also for us”.
According to Mr Jurkonis, something like this was to be expected, as the Kremlin likes to cause alarm and divert attention.
“I think that living in such a neighbourhood and with the Suwałki Corridor, we have learnt enough to separate the wheat from the chaff and to keep a balance between how much to increase our vigilance and how much to let it slip through our ears. If there were a serious military movement, our intelligence and even the representatives of Belarusian civil society, who broadcast news to Lithuanians and Poles, would notice and report”, said the political analyst, noting that the Kremlin’s tricks have been quite similar over the last ten years.
Propaganda researcher and political analyst Nerijus Maliukevičius said that the talk of Wagner in Belarus and his alleged possible march towards the Suwałki corridor is a traditional element of scaremongering, which the Kremlin uses in various formats.
“This is the kind of message that the Kremlin uses globally to threaten with nuclear weapons. They send this message to the West that this is what will happen if they continue to support Ukraine. Well, in our region, the traditional scare is the Suwałki Corridor. The same Russian figures, on the same programmes, some time ago, told us how they would occupy the Baltic Sea and Gotland. Well, there was a natural response to such intimidation, and now Finland is a member of NATO, and Sweden will soon join. So the region is reacting accordingly, strengthening its defence capabilities,” said Maliukevičius, who assured that the Kremlin’s strategy is not working.
He added that the escalation of the Wagner issue in Belarus is an attempt to divert attention from the fact that it was they, together with their commander Prigozhin, who humiliated Putin.
“The rebels who rebelled against Putin are the main topic of conversation in Russia. So they are trying to find other messages, to tell a different story, that supposedly there is some big plan going on here, that they are being diverted to pursue supposedly big goals,” the political analyst said.
What can Wagner do?
Looking at the news of the last few weeks and the possible deterioration of our security situation, political analyst Deividas Šlekys said that it cannot be said that our security situation has deteriorated after the mutiny of the Wagner troops and their possible relocation to Belarus.
“It has been bad for a long time. It is true that there is no direct threat of war. Russia does not have the capabilities. Well, what about Wagner? What could they do? They could come to do some patriotism. They are light infantry. The only thing they can do wrong is to enter Lithuanian or Polish territory and walk around for an hour. And then we are forced to ask, why have this army and this NATO if anybody can come and walk around here?
On the other hand, we cannot afford to have thousands of border guards and soldiers at the border every day, which would be a huge waste of resources. So, vigilance is needed, but hysteria is not. We are in a precarious situation in general, so Wagner’s possible settlement behind the border is just another flash in the pan”, political analyst D. Šlekys told tv3.lt a little earlier.
Retired colonel Vaidotas Malinionis, speaking about the security situation in Lithuania and what we can expect in the near future, said that Wagner’s rebellion in Russia is both dangerous and beneficial for us. The situation “with Wagner”, he says, can be turned to our advantage.
“We don’t know whether or not there will be any Wagner bases in Belarus. There is also talk that nuclear weapons will be deployed in Belarus, although there is no confirmation of this yet. But knowing these things, we can try to convince our allies that we need to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank further. These are some of our trump cards to play. It is possible that the German Defence Minister’s statement on the deployment of the brigade may also have been influenced to some extent by the situation with Wagner. So we need to make the most of this situation,” the retired colonel reflected earlier, stressing that it is important to do our homework so that no one can reprimand us.
Progress on our side must be clear and visible, not only to the public but also to NATO partners, he said.
“We need to show that this is a matter for all NATO countries, that there is a weakness in NATO and that all countries have an interest in its defence. It is important to spread the message that it is not us that needs to be defended, but that together we need to defend the whole Alliance. So that the allies feel interested, and not just think that here we need to be defended somehow,” Malinionis said.
He added that, yes, the Suwałki Corridor is indeed a special place, comparable only to the Fulda Corridor in Germany, which was considered to be the weakest NATO site during the Cold War.
“It is exactly the same here: a narrow area sandwiched between unfriendly countries, and that corridor is important for us because it can be critical if NATO forces have to be deployed. Everyone knows that its defensibility is important, both in NATO and here. As a country, we also need to take certain steps because, for example, the road infrastructure is not satisfactory. We need better mobility”, said the retired colonel.
According to Malinionis, the possible presence of Wagner fighters in a neighbouring country does not add to our security. They are, according to the retired colonel, hardened soldiers.
“They are dangerous because their chain of command is not clear, which may create certain conditions for Putin to disguise his direct intervention, may raise ambiguous questions, and may make NATO’s decisions more difficult to take. If, for example, we were to receive a provocation or an invasion, it would be difficult to explain who was doing it. So the hybrid element remains.
Putin can say, I am sorry, but I am not in control. We have to look at what their objectives are. Are they really deploying on Belarusian territory? Ukraine is also at risk, but so are we because it is an additional unfriendly force alongside us”, said the retired officer.