As life in Russia returned to normal after an armed rebellion by a mercenary group, tensions were rising in and around its neighbor Belarus, where the exiled leader of the force and some of its fighters were settling in.
Moving to Belarus was part of the deal the Kremlin struck with Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private military company, to end last weekend’s rebellion that rattled Russia’s leadership.
Prigozhin and his fighters escaped prosecution and were offered refuge in Belarus by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who said his country could use their experience and expertise.
That doesn’t sit well with the Belarusian opposition and guerrilla activists, who called Wagner fighters “a threat to the Belarusian people and (the country’s) independence,” and promised action.
“We’re categorically against stationing Russian mercenaries in Belarus and are preparing a ‘warm’ welcome to Wagnerites in Belarus,” said Aliaksandr Azarau, leader of the BYPOL guerrilla group of former military members, speaking in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from outside the country.
Neighboring Baltic countries also expressed concerns about how this would affect regional security. In a joint statement Wednesday, parliament speakers in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania urged the European Union to label Wagner a terrorist organization.
“The emergence of the Wagner mercenary group in Belarus could make the security situation on the eastern borders of NATO and the EU even more precarious,” the statement read.
Lukashenko said those Wagner fighters who don’t want to come under the command of the Russian Defense Ministry -– one of the options offered to them by Russian President Vladimir Putin -– can stay in Belarus “for some time” at their own expense.
He said he had offered them “an abandoned military unit” to set up camp, and promised to “help with whatever we can.”
“We’re looking at it pragmatically -– if their commanders come to us and help us, (we get their) experience,” Lukashenko said.
He didn’t specify the facility’s location, but Azarau said construction of a site for Wagner mercenaries was underway in Osipovichi, a city 230 kilometers (142 miles) north of the border with Ukraine, with Belarusian soldiers involved.
Residents of the city of 30,000 told AP they were rattled by the developments.
“There’s military equipment in the streets and Belarusian servicemen — all residents are discussing the arrival of Wagnerites and, frankly speaking, we’re panicking and are not happy about being neighbors with them,” Inga, a 43-year-old doctor in Osipovichi, said by phone.
“I have teenage daughters. … How will we live next to thugs, pardoned murderers and rapists?” said the woman, who spoke on condition of that she not be fully identified out of safety concerns.
The Kremlin promised not to prosecute Prigozhin for the rebellion after reaching an agreement that he would halt the uprising and go to Belarus. That came even though Putin vowed to punish those behind what he called treason and a “stab in the back.”
Lukashenko has been Putin’s closest ally, allowing Russia to use Belarus to send troops and weapons into Ukraine,. He has welcomed a continued Russian military presence in the country and the deployment there of some of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons.
But he has stressed that Prigozhin’s fighters “will not be guarding any nuclear weapons.”
Prigozhin himself arrived in Belarus on Monday, Lukashenko said, but his exact whereabouts are unknown.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has played down concerns that Wagner would pose a threat from Belarus. He said the mercenaries probably wouldn’t go there in significant numbers and added that Ukraine’s military believes security along their border will remain “unchanged and controllable.”
According to an independent Belarusian military monitoring group, Belaruski Hajun, Prigozhin met with Lukashenko several times this week to discuss his force in Belarus.
Prigozhin’s private jet is based at the Machulishchy Air Base near Minsk. In February, Belarusian guerrillas attacked a Russian warplane parked there, infuriating Lukashenko.
Belaruski Hajun confirmed Lukashenko met with Prigozhin in a residence on the shore of the Zaslavskoye reservoir, “where nonpublic negotiations are taking place with the participation of the entire Lukashenko family,” said Anton Matolka, coordinator of the group. He did not elaborate but Lukashenko’s sons are known to take a role in some government activities.
Guerrillas from BYPOL told AP they will resist Wagner fighters being stationed in Belarus and “stage acts” of sabotage at sites where mercenaries are housed.
“We will actively resist this, using all possible means,” Azarau said.
NATO members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, who share a 1,250-kilometer (775-mile) border with Belarus, said they will enhance security along the frontier because of the Wagner forces.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhnaouskaya, who is in exile abroad, said having Wagner fighters in Belarus threatens the country’s sovereignty. She noted it is taking place in the run-up to the NATO summit in Vilnius next month.
“The presence of criminal Prigozhin in Belarus is an illustration of how our country turned into a refuge for tyrants and nuclear threats,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
Analysts believe that Lukahsenko is using the situation as leverage to get more loans and funding from the Kremlin in return for his role as a savior of Russia from the mutiny.
“Lukashenko is a very experienced player, and he will ask Putin to pay for a favor he did for the Kremlin with new loans and economic concessions,” Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich told AP.
“The Kremlin and Prigozhin … used Belarus as part of their deal, and painlessly exiled the troublemaker there,” Karbalevich said.
He believes that Lukashenko might use Prigozhin’s presence in Belarus to “tickle Putin’s nerves,” but a long-term alliance between them is unlikely.
“Prigozhin showed that he is hard to control, and Lukashenko doesn’t like risks and surprises,” Karbalevich said.
Lukashenko has been careful throughout the Ukraine war, so the moving and housing of Wagner fighters will be happening in small batches, “with lots of caution and under strict control from Belarusian security services,” Karbalevich said.