Sunday, 3 Mar 2024

NATO Neighbors Demand Belarus Expel Wagner Fighters

Government officials from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia demanded on Monday that Belarus expel the Russian mercenary group Wagner from its territory, amid heightened tensions related to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The four countries — which are all NATO members and, except for Estonia, share a border with Belarus — said in a statement that the presence of Wagner fighters posed a threat to their territorial integrity.

Poland and Lithuania already closed several border checkpoints in recent months, citing security concerns. Speaking at a news conference in Warsaw with his counterparts from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Poland’s interior minister, Mariusz Kaminski, said that the four countries would shutter all their border crossings with Belarus “if there is a critical incident.”

The officials’ comments came just a day after Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner, was confirmed dead, plunging the mercenary group into an uncertain future. The fighters relocated to Belarus after Mr. Prigozhin staged a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military leadership in June.

Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, offered exile to Mr. Prigozhin and his forces under a deal that ended the rebellion.

Earlier this month, leaders of Poland and Lithuania warned against “provocations” and “sabotage actions” by the Wagner forces. And Poland — where the nationalist governing party, Law and Justice, has tried to portray itself as tough on national security ahead of a general election in October — sent an additional 2,000 troops to reinforce its border with Belarus.

The death of Mr. Prigozhin has only increased the uncertainty over the future of Wagner, as Western officials say the Kremlin is considering ways to bring it under more direct control while retaining its fighting power.

In recent weeks, some of the Wagner troops stationed in Belarus — which numbered at least 4,000, according to Polish authorities — were reported to have left the country over low pay. But their whereabouts have been unclear, raising concerns among Western countries.

Border tensions with Belarus predate the Ukraine invasion, particularly on the issue of migrant crossings, which was mentioned in the joint statement. In 2021, Polish and European authorities accused Mr. Lukashenko of luring migrants from the Middle East and Africa with flights and visas and then pushing them into Poland in order to destabilize the country and gain diplomatic leverage. In response, Poland built an 18-foot razor-wire-topped wall along 115 miles of the border.

Constant Méheut has covered France from the Paris bureau of The Times since 2020. More about Constant Méheut

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