July 31, 2023

IntelBrief: The Wagner Group Finds a New Home in Belarus

Belarus' Defense Ministry via AP, File

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Following its aborted mutiny, the Wagner Group has reportedly moved several thousand troops into Belarus, with as many as ten thousand to be relocated there in total.
  • News that Wagner is training Belarusian special forces near the Poland-Belarus border triggered Poland to send up to one thousand troops to secure its side of the border, while Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania have threatened to close their borders with Belarus.
  • An unverified claim on a Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel suggests Prigozhin and Wagner played a role in last week’s coup in Niger; Prigozhin allegedly attended last week’s Africa summit in Russia despite his reported exile in Belarus.
  • As the Russian government works to curb Prigozhin’s remaining influence both within the Wagner Group and among the Russian people, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he identified a potential new leader for the group in the days after the mutiny.

Thousands of Wagner personnel have arrived in Belarus, decamping at a base in the city of Tsel some 60 miles away from Minsk, while some have reportedly begun training Belarusian forces near the Polish border. The troop movement resulted from a deal that quelled the private military company’s (PMC) June mutiny against the Russian military. Last week, Polish defense officials said they would deploy up to one thousand troops to secure their country’s eastern border amid reports that Wagner troops have carried out training exercises with Belarusian soldiers just three miles away from the border. Poland joined Latvia and Lithuania to announce they were considering shutting down their borders with Belarus in case of any altercations with Wagner troops. The Polish interior minister said the border closures would undoubtedly result in Belarus's “complete isolation.”

As many as 3,650 Wagner troops and between 670-700 vehicles had arrived in Belarus as of July 24, according to the Belarusian Hajun project, a group that monitors military activity in Belarus, while a senior Wagner commander claimed that ten thousand Wagner troops in total had withdrawn from the war in Ukraine and left for Belarus. An assistant to the Belarussian defense minister said in early July that the camp could house five thousand troops, though the full capacity could be as high as fifteen thousand, according to an estimate by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. These numbers are particularly relevant in light of the Wagner commander’s suggestion that there could be as many as fifteen thousand additional physically able Wagner troops who served in Ukraine that have “gone on holiday.” It is unclear what has become of these troops and if they have opted to join the Russian military or perhaps demobilize altogether. Yet the commander’s numbers contradicted a Russian lawmaker’s claim that 33 thousand Wagner soldiers had elected to join the Russian military. Wherever Wagner’s troops are currently located, the Pentagon has assessed that Wagner forces are no longer substantially contributing to fighting in Ukraine, though the progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive had remained slow before its decisive main thrust began last week.

After appearing to greet Wagner troops at their new Belarusian base, the PMC’s leader – Yevgeny Prigozhin – reportedly attended Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg last week. During his speech in Belarus, Prigozhin suggested the group would refocus its operations on Africa, while an unverified claim on a Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel suggested Prigozhin and Wagner played a role in the recent coup in Niger. Prigozhin’s reported return to Russia called into question reports that he was exiled from the country as a condition of the deal that halted his incursion towards Moscow. Meanwhile, a UK parliamentary foreign affairs committee called for proscribing Wagner as a terrorist entity upon releasing a report that criticized the UK government for failing to put together “a coherent strategy” to counter the group, particularly Wagner’s proliferation in Africa and its exploitation of vulnerable countries. Although the report faults the government as a whole, its analysis largely focuses on the activities of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

In Russia, Putin and his government are seeking to temper Prigozhin’s influence both among his PMC and the Russian populace. During a meeting with Wagner commanders in the days following the mutiny, Putin reportedly proposed that a founding member of Wagner, Andrey Troshev, take over leadership of the organization. In what could be a bit of misdirection designed to delegitimize Prigozhin, Putin claims that Troshev has been the true commander of Wagner’s forces throughout the war in Ukraine. European Union sanctions documents say that Troshev also served as the chief of staff for the Wagner Group’s operations in Syria. Shortly after the mutiny was called off, Russian authorities carried out raids against Prigozhin’s home, Wagner’s St. Petersburg headquarters, and the offices of Prigozhin’s media operations. Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin reportedly visited Damascus on June 26 to request that no Wagner personnel be allowed to leave the country. According to Saudi media, Russian military police raided Wagner bases in the country around the same time, going so far as to arrest four Wagner commanders, though Wagner Telegram channels denied the arrests took place. Syrian intelligence may have also participated in these raids.

Since then, Prigozhin-linked media outlets – including Patriot Media, which encompasses the Internet Research Agency that Russia used to spread disinformation targeting the 2016 U.S. presidential election – have announced their closures. Online, Russia’s internet regulator/censorship bureau has blocked access to several Prigozhin-linked media outlets, while a group that monitors Prigozhin-linked internet trolls says thousands of Russian social media accounts have gone from praising the mercenary leader to churning out disparaging comments about him. A key Prigozhin ally and former top commander for Russian forces in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, has not been seen in public since the New York Times reported on anonymous U.S. government claims in late June that he had “advance knowledge” of the rebellion. Prigozhin had welcomed Surovikin’s appointment to lead the campaign in Ukraine and appeared to enjoy a much better relationship with him than other high-ranking Russian defense officials like defense minister Sergei Shoigu or first deputy defense minister Valery Gerasimov, whom Prigozhin often publicly criticized as inadequately supporting Wagner troops. Before disappearing from public, Surovikin appeared on a video last month calling on Wagner troops to cease their mutiny, though some speculated that his body language indicated he had been compelled to record the statement against his will.

The Russian state is also trying to get a grasp on Wagner’s deep and complex network of business subsidiaries, which handle everything from food catering and construction in Russia to extracting natural resources in Africa to developing oil and gas in Syria. Russian officials have sought to reassure to their African partners that Wagner’s services – from their combat and training roles to economic and political activities – will continue as usual. Some experts contend that any effort to absorb the group’s foreign operations will require Moscow to find a way to appease or remove existing commanders who have loyalties to Prigozhin, but the depth of this fealty remains unknown.