Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has met with Vladimir Putin for the first time since he brokered the truce to end the recent mutiny by Wagner fighters which temporarily threatened Putin’s grip on power in Russia.
In front of the TV cameras in St Petersburg last Sunday Lukashenko claimed that the Wagner fighters “are asking to go to the West”, referring to an alleged desire by the mercenaries to march on Rzeszow, a Polish city less than 100 kilometres from the border with Ukraine, and then on to Warsaw.
Following the aborted the mutiny many Wagner fighters are now in Belarus where they have been moved near to the border with Poland and are conducting joint exercises with the Belarusian army. All of this appears to be indicative of a ratcheting up of tensions between Belarus and its western neighbour and has led to Poland moving tanks and roughly a thousand troops up to the border with Belarus in response.
At the same time Russia has accused Poland of making aggressive moves eastwards, saying that “Poland’s leaders likely seek to set up a coalition under the NATO umbrella and directly join the conflict in Ukraine” amongst other outlandish claims.
While many Poles may still be unhappy with the national borders imposed on it by Russia after the Second World War, when Poland was incorporated into the Soviet bloc, there does not appear to be any serious case being promoted by them for Poland trying to “retake” some of its former territories in Ukraine, like its former territories around Lviv.
However, and according to US intelligence reports, Russia has also deployed nuclear weapons to its Belarusian puppet ally. This has been described by US authorities as a Russian attempt to escalate and to prompt additional tensions and cause a growth in the instability in the region.
Coincidentally, in the UK, the British government has been sharply criticised by the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) for under-estimating the dangerous growth of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group. In a scathing report, the cross-party committee of MPs accused the government of what it called “a dismal lack of understanding” of Wagner’s activities.
The committee, which has just published its 82-page report, asserts that for ten years the British government has “under-played and under-estimated the Wagner Network’s activities, as well as the security implications for Europe”. The Wagner group was instrumental in enabling Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
They have since been one of Russia’s most effective fighting forces in Ukraine, and the report calls the UK government’s approach to Wagner “remarkably complacent”.
It then goes on to say “Sanctions are not enough. The UK needs to proscribe the Wagner group for what it is: a terrorist organisation.”
So, against this background, what are the chances that the Wagner fighters will attack Poland? Is this just more sabre-rattling by Putin and his chums in his continuing attempts to bully the west and prevent it from interfering further in Ukraine?
I think the short answer here is “yes”, and for two main reasons. The first is that there are perhaps ,500 – 3,000 Wagner fighters in Belarus. It would be a bold move indeed to take on the might of the Polish military, which consists of 325,000 active duty personnel and boasts some 475 aircraft, 650 tanks, and 46 warships. It would be a one-sided conflict, assuming of course that neither Belarus or Russia became directly involved.
But second, and more important, is that Poland is a member of NATO. The cornerstone of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO’s founding document, is Article 5, which in layman-speak is usually presented as “an attack against one member state is to be regarded as an attack on all”.
If we accept that the Wagner Group is a Russian state asset, which I think is a fairly safe assumption, then the Wagner fighters entering Poland could and probably would be interpreted as an attack on NATO by Russia and the full might of the Alliance would be invoked to defend one of its members.
In such a scenario there would be only one winner and it wouldn’t be Russia and the Wagner Group. Putin may be many things but he isn’t completely stupid, and the last thing he seeks is a full-on confrontation with NATO, because that would bring a rapid end to his Presidency and indeed to the state of Russia as we know it. He does not want to go there.
I think, therefore, that the bluff and bluster from Lukashenko about Wagner fighters marching on Warsaw is just that. They wouldn’t dare.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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