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What are Wagner Group mercenaries still doing in Belarus?

Mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group have been training Belarusian soldiers, such as here on a range in Osipovichi District

Mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group have been training Belarusian soldiers, such as here on a range in Osipovichi District

Members of Russia's Wagner mercenary group who fled to Belarus after last June's failed coup have the support of Belarusian security forces and propagandists.

Television images of joint maneuvers frequently show the flags of Belarus and Belarusian law enforcement agencies alongside those of the Wagner Group. Belarus' Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs and incumbent Commander of Internal Troops Mikalai Karpiankou even wears insignia depicting Wagner imagery.

At the end of June 2023, the former head of the Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin led an armed mutiny against Russian military leadership. He was marching toward Moscow with part of his private army when Belarus' authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko interceded.

In exchange for criminal charges against him being dropped, Prigozhin halted his uprising and went into exile in Belarus. Three months later, he purportedly died in an airplane crash.

Today, no more than 1,000 Wagner mercenaries remain in Belarus. Most of them are still in a camp in the Osipovichi District of Mosilev Region, just southeast of the capital Minsk. That's according to Valery Sakhashchyk, effective defense minister of the United Transitional Cabinet, a government-in-exile under Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya, who now resides in Lithuania.

Sakhashchyk told DW that dozens of mercenaries "who were looking for safety and stability and are willing to accept lower incomes," are receiving Belarusian passports with new names and dates of birth, and are joining the country's internal troops [The Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus is a paramilitary police force — the ed.].

However, Sakhashchyk does not believe that Lukashenko "can offer anything special that would entice Wagner mercenaries." Military wages in Belarus are far lower than what they were accustomed to in Russia, he said.

From Belarus to Russia and Africa

That's why Sakhashchyk expects more Wagner mercenaries will leave the country: "Belarus has become a transit point for them. Many have signed contracts with various Russian authorities, and some have flown to Africa. There aren't enough mercenaries left in Belarus to influence events," the former commander said.

He believes that Lukashenko was trying to stylize himself as "the peacemaker who saved Russia" when he accommodated Wagner troops. But that didn't win him any points, the opposition politician explained.

Instead, he says that relations with President Vladimir Putin cooled, as the Russian ruler could not stand seeing others present themselves as stronger and cleverer than him.

"The arrival of Wagner mercenaries in Belarus caused massive social tension and drew considerable pushback, even from the armed forces," Sakhashchyk added.

With regard to the Belarusian internal troops actively supporting Wagner mercenaries, the cabinet representative noted that both shared the "Russian world" ideology. The historical term was originally based in a notion of a shared linguistic and ethnic identity, but has been twisted into a pillar of Kremlin ideology and was used as a pretense for Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

'A useful political instrument'

Ryhor Nizhnikau, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, pointed out that Minsk considers the Wagner mercenaries to be a "useful political instrument." Lukashenko's regime could use them to train Belarusian security forces, or as a "scare tactic" in elections, the expert explained.

He also believes that the Kremlin profits from having mercenaries in Belarus. Almost all Russian troops stationed there since 2021 have been pulled out and moved to the Ukrainian front. Nizhnikau says that Putin is counting on Wagner mercenaries as emergency combat units, should the need arise.

"It's important to Putin that he maintains at least some presence in Belarus. I believe he's paranoid of color revolutions, thinking the West could topple any pro-Russian government in the region," he explained.

Referring to last year's failed mutiny, he added that mercenaries had "learned their lesson," and that they knew they would face death if they resisted orders from the Kremlin.

The so-called color revolutions were a series of peaceful uprisings in a number of countries in the former Soviet Union. In recent times, the term has been tied to the conflict in Ukraine, which Russian officials see as a Western attempt at destabilization.

Lukashenko's power interests

Rosa Turarbekova, professor for political science at the Belarusian State University, agrees that Wagner mercenaries lingering in Belarus no longer believed "they could be part of a grand political scheme." The last time they had played a role in one, they barely survived, the expert said.

She also pointed out that Lukashenko was interested in the military expertise of the Wagner Group, as well as the fighters' "experience with terror."

She believes the Belarusian strongman was looking for "an army and police force with more experience," because he feared mass protests such as those that erupted after he fabricated an electoral landslide victory in 2020.

For Lukashenko's regime, Turarbekova said the Wagner group was a useful ideological contrast to the democratic opposition, which has declared Belarusian integration into the EU as one of its aims.

She says that Belarus still has "avowed proponents of the Russian world ideology," such as Deputy Minister Karpiankou, who "are thinking about the future after Lukashenko, and of course associate this future with Russia."

This article was translated from Russian.