A fighter from the Russian Wagner mercenary group conducts training for Belarusian soldiers at a firing range near the town of Osipovichi, Belarus, on July 14, 2023 in this still image taken from video.
Voen TV/Belarus Ministry of Defense | via Reuters
A large convoy carrying fighters from Wagner’s private army was seen entering Belarus from Russia early Saturday, a monitoring group reported after the country’s Defense Ministry said it planned for the mercenaries and Minsk’s own armed forces to carry out joint military exercises.
The independent monitoring group Belaruski Hajun, which tracks the movements of the armed forces in Belarus, said at least 60 trucks, buses and other large vehicles crossed into the Eastern European country accompanied by Belarusian police.
The group did not immediately provide photos or video of the vehicles, but said they had license plates from Russian-occupied areas in eastern Ukraine, where Wagner’s mercenaries fought alongside Russian troops until a short-lived riot last month. past.
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The convoy headed toward a military base on the outskirts of Osipovichi, a city 230 kilometers (142 miles) north of the Ukrainian border, Belaruski Hajun said. Satellite images analyzed by The Associated Press this month showed rows of tent-like structures that appeared to have been built on the base between June 15 and June 30.
Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko said at the time that Minsk could use Wagner’s experience and knowledge, and that he had offered the fighters an “abandoned military unit” to set up camp. That same week, a leader of an anti-Lukashenko guerrilla group told the AP that a site for the mercenaries was being built near Osipovichi.
The Center for National Resistance of Ukraine, an arm of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry that helps guerilla groups in Russian-occupied territory, said later on Saturday that some 240 Wagner fighters, 40 trucks and “a large number of weapons” they had reached the Osipovichi area. It cited unspecified members of Belarus’s underground anti-Lukashenko opposition as the source of the information, which could not be independently verified.
Separately, a spokesman for Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service said on Saturday that the force had also observed “some groups” of Wagner fighters crossing from Russia into Belarus. The spokesman, Andriy Demchenko, made the remarks in an interview with the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper.
The Belarusian Defense Ministry said in an online statement late Friday that it had developed a “road map” with Wagner’s management for joint training exercises by the nation’s military personnel and private mercenaries.
Earlier on Friday, the Defense Ministry said Wagner’s fighters had started training Belarusian soldiers. A television channel affiliated with the ministry showed footage of fighters in black masks instructing soldiers on how to shoot and provide first aid.
On June 23, the founder and leader of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, ordered his fighters to leave their camps in Ukraine and head to Moscow to demand the removal of Russia’s defense minister and chief of staff. The riot rocked Russia and posed the biggest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin’s longtime benefactor, during his decades in power.
In the revolt that lasted less than 24 hours, Wagner’s fighters swept through the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and captured the military headquarters there, before reaching about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Russian capital. Prigozhin had accused Russia’s top military commanders for months of ruining the war in Ukraine and depriving his troops of ammunition.
Lukashenko then brokered a deal between Prigozhin and the Kremlin that shielded the Wagner leader and his men from prosecution, allowing Prigozhin to move to Belarus in exchange for ordering his mercenaries back to the camps.
Putin indicated on Friday that he intends to keep Wagner as a single fighting force under his current commander, while appearing to denigrate Prigozhin. His remarks, made in an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant, appear to reflect the Kremlin’s efforts to ensure the loyalty of the mercenaries, who make up some of the most capable Russian forces in Ukraine.
Lukashenko previously allowed the Kremlin to use Belarusian territory to send troops and weapons to Ukraine. He has also welcomed the continued Russian armed presence in Belarus, including joint military camps and exercises, as well as the deployment of some of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons there.