NATO Stresses Risk of Wagner Group’s Potential Relocation to Belarus

Ahead of an annual NATO summit scheduled for next month, the leaders of alliance members Estonia and Poland on Wednesday stressed the need for vigilance over the Wagner mercenary group’s potential relocation to Belarus.

Their comments came after Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the Russian mercenary leader, was reported to have arrived in Belarus on Tuesday, days after being offered exile as part of a deal in which he called off a weekend uprising against Russia’s military leadership.

President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus said on Tuesday that the members of the group who had participated in the rebellion had been offered an “abandoned” military base in his country, raising concerns among Belarus’s neighbors about the force establishing a presence on their doorsteps. The remaining Wagner members have been offered the option of signing contracts with the Russian military.

Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s prime minister and one of Ukraine’s staunchest backers, called Belarus a “co-aggressor” with Russia in its war with Ukraine.

“Belarus is unpredictable and dangerous, and this has not changed,” she said, speaking during a joint news conference in Brussels with NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg. “We are ready for any developments.”

Also on Wednesday, the presidents of Poland and Lithuania made a surprise visit to Kyiv in a show of support for Ukraine’s bid to join NATO.

At a news conference after their meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Polish leader called the possible transfer of the Wagner group to Belarus a threat to NATO’s eastern-flank allies. At the same time, Mr. Zelensky said that he believed that the Wagner forces that remained in the occupied territories of Ukraine did not pose a threat and that the situation was “under control.”

President Andrzej Duda of Poland said that the Wagner group’s presence in Belarus could “be a potential danger” for his country and for Lithuania, which share borders with Belarus.

Both Ms. Kallas and Mr. Duda urged NATO to remain vigilant to the possible presence of Wagner fighters in Belarus. NATO is expected to approve in detail plans to bolster its eastern flank at the alliance’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11.

Ms. Kallas, at the news conference in Brussels, said that Estonia, which donates more than 40 percent of its military budget to Ukraine, would increase its financial support to Ukraine’s military to 3 percent of its G.D.P.

And Mr. Stoltenberg said that the Wagner rebellion demonstrated “that President Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine is a big strategic mistake.” But he warned NATO allies not to underestimate Moscow’s capabilities.

“We must continue to support Ukraine, and we must keep our defenses strong to send a clear message to Moscow and Minsk that NATO protects every inch of allied territory,” he said, referring to the governments of Russia and Belarus. He said that it was too early to tell what Wagner’s possible relocation could mean for the region.

In late May, NATO, which provides collective defense to the Baltics, concluded an ambitious military exercise in Estonia, called Spring Storm, involving some 14,000 troops from at least 11 countries. NATO’s reach in the Baltics was greatly enhanced by Finland’s entry into the military alliance in March. Gaining access to that country’s military, as well as Finnish airspace, ports and sea lanes, also improved NATO’s ability to deter Moscow’s aggression.

Ms. Kallas made additional comments after the news conference in Brussels, saying that it was “increasingly clear now that Ukraine is winning this war,” and that it was time to increase pressure on Russia and send a strong message of alliance unity and perseverance to Moscow.

She also urged the European Union to use seized Russian financial assets to help fund Ukraine’s reconstruction, while admitting that some member states were opposed to setting the legal precedent of doing so.

The war in Ukraine will end, she said, “when Russia realizes it has made a mistake and cannot win this war.” But its aggression, she said, must not be rewarded with any territorial gains, or it will try again, as it did after annexing Crimea in 2014 and getting a weak Western response.

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