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NATO member “monitoring” Wagner activity as Russia eyes Suwałki Gap

NATO member Lithuania is “actively monitoring” the Wagner Group of mercenaries amassing in Belarus, a staunch Russia ally, as tensions simmer over the contentious Suwałki Gap.

“Lithuanian institutions are actively monitoring the processes related to the Wagner Group,” although they are considered an ill-equipped force, a spokesperson for Vilnius’ Defense Ministry told Newsweek on Wednesday, responding to a query about the security situation in the Suwałki Gap.

Concerns, namely among NATO’s Eastern European and Baltic states, over the fate of the Suwałki Gap—a strip of land along the Polish and Lithuanian border separating Belarus to the east from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to the west—have grown after Wagner Group mercenaries started to relocate to Belarus in July. Fighters from the paramilitary outfit headed to Belarus following the aborted armed rebellion of Wagner soldiers that rocked the Kremlin in late June.

Wagner Soldier Rostov
A member of Wagner group stands guard outside the headquarters of the Russian Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, on June 24, 2023. “Lithuanian institutions are actively monitoring the processes related to the Wagner Group,” the Defense Ministry told Newsweek.
Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

A Russian lawmaker told Moscow-controlled state television that Wagner forces could be in Belarus to seize the Suwałki Gap. This claim could not be independently verified by Newsweek, but if Wagner troops moved into Polish or Lithuanian territory, this would likely spark a NATO response under Article 5, which considers an attack on a member as an attack on all other member states.

On Sunday, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said Warsaw was creating a new military engineering battalion in a town close to the Suwałki Gap. Poland has previously said it was redeploying more than 1,000 soldiers over concerns around Wagner’s presence in Belarus.

In remarks from a conversation between Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin published on Sunday, Lukashenko said Wagner soldiers near the Polish border were “insisting on going westward” into Warsaw’s territory.

“After the coup, Russian armed forces seized the group’s weapons and heavy equipment,” a Lithuanian Defense Ministry spokesperson said in a statement to Newsweek. “Without heavy weapons and combat armored vehicles, this group can only carry out very limited tasks.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said in mid-July that Wagner had handed over more than 2,000 pieces of military equipment following the mutiny, as well as over 2,500 tons of ammunition and 20,000 small arms. This could not be independently verified.

“In our assessment, the numbers of the group’s members (both total and those in Belarus) published in the Russian and Belarusian media and social networks are inflated,” Lithuania’s Defense Ministry added.

Estimates on just how many Wagner fighters are now stationed in Belarus vary. The independent Belarusian Hajun Project, which monitors military activity in Belarus, said on Monday that at least 3,500 mercenaries had crossed into Belarus, whereas Ukraine’s Border Guard Service put the figure at 5,000 on Saturday.

“The inflated figures and the very fact that Wagner is stationed in Belarus are just attacks of the Russian-Belarusian regime’s information war,” Vilnius said. “There is currently no conventional military threat posed by this group to Lithuania—the Wagner Group in Belarus, as it is now, is not a full-fledged combat unit.”

Moscow and Minsk will likely “continue to exploit the group for the purposes of information warfare,” Lithuania’s Defense Ministry added.

Newsweek has reached out to the Russian and Belarusian foreign ministries for comment via email.

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