A group of Wagner mutineers is expected to relocate to Belarus under a deal brokered by Belarusian President Lukashenko between Russian President Putin and Wagner chief Prigozhin. The exact number of exiles remains uncertain, with estimates ranging from several hundred to 8,000. This move holds security implications for NATO and Ukraine, requiring close monitoring of the threat of a renewed attack on northern Ukraine from Belarus.
1.“PMC Wagner” chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and an unknown number of Wagner mutineers are set to relocate to Belarus, according to Belarussian president Lukashenko. Exile to Belarus was part of a deal brokered between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prigozhin brokered by Lukashenko to end Wagner’s mutiny against the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) on 24 June 2023. Prigozhin confirmed Lukashenko found a “framework” for Wagner to continue operating.
2. Up to 8,000 Wagner mutineers may follow Prigozhin to exile in Belarus, although the exact number is unknown. The Ukrainian State Border Service (SBS) assesses that up to 8,000 Wagnerites, the number of fighters participating in the mutiny as per British Intelligence, could move to Belarus. Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski also echoed the 8,000 estimate. However, a source within the Russian MOD revealed to Meduza that only “a thousand fighters” have chosen to move to Belarus, suggesting that not all mutineers are willing to make this transition.
Ukrainian Military Intelligence (HUR) believes that a large-scale deployment of Wagner forces to Belarus is not in the cards. Instead, HUR assesses Wagner plans to establish a “logistical hub” in Belarus from where the group will continue to run operations overseas, especially in Africa, administrative tasks, and recruitment.
HUR’s assessment implies that Wagner will continue to receive support from the First Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian military (GRU), and that Prigozhin’s group will continue to spearhead Russian foreign policy objectives. This is yet to be clarified, with unconfirmed information indicating an opposite trend. Nevertheless, it is possible that Wagner will only have a limited presence in Belarus, at least in the short-term. This presence could consist of a “skeleton crew” of high-ranking personnel relocating command & control operations from the Molkino annex.
As of now, significant Wagner deployments to Belarus have not been noted.
3. Russia is likely adopting a carrot-and-stick strategy (e.g. clemency and pressure) to convince as many Wagnerites as possible to remain in Russia and sign up with the MOD. Although the Putin regime needs to punish Prigozhin and make an example of the mutineers, the Russian MOD has little to no interest in depriving itself of the seasoned and capable fighting force that is Wagner. The loss of Wagner would exacerbate Russia’s manpower shortage for the war in Ukraine and weaken its activities overseas.
Note: the trigger for Prigozhin’s mutiny was new legislation mandating all private military contractors to sign contracts directly with the Russian MOD starting on 1 July 2023. The legislation effectively disbands all private military corporations (PMC) operating in Russia, which were illegal in the first place under Russian law.
4. A sizeable amount of Wagner fighters will likely sign contracts with the Russian MOD and be fully absorbed by the Russian Armed Forces. It is unclear if they will retain any institutional identity or be sprinkled across various units attached to the MOD. On the surface, Wagner continues to operate normally, running operations out of its Molkino annex. But in parallel, the Russian government is swiftly taking over all Wagner operations, including those overseas (e.g. CAR, Syria, Libya, Mali, etc.). Recruitments also appear to have been suspended, at least temporarily, starting with 1 July.
5. As the transition unfolds, there is a potential for a de facto division within the ranks of Wagner. This division could result in two groups: the die-hard mutineer faction led by Prigozhin, who relocated to Belarus, and the faction that remained under Russian state control and assimilated within the Russian MOD. This split may bring about contrasting dynamics and loyalties within Wagner, which warrant long-term observation.
ROLE IN BELARUS: MILITARY CONSULTING AND REGIME SECURITY
6. President Lukashenko envisions the exiled Wagnerites playing an advisory and consultative role for the Belarussian Armed Forces. In a meeting with Belarussian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin on 27 April, President Lukashenko said the BAM could leverage Wagner’s extensive combat experience in Ukraine to help improve training, tactics, and even procurement:
“Putin told me for the last time: counter-battery combat is impossible without it- Unmanned aerial vehicles. They’ve [Wagner fighters] been through it. They’ll tell you which weapons: which ones work well, which ones don’t. Both tactics, weapons, and how to attack. How to defend. This is priceless. This is what we need from the Wagnerites.”
President Lukashenko also said, “there is nothing to be afraid of them [Wagner forces],” which could imply some uneasiness among the BAL over Wagner’s arrival in-country.
Note: Capacity building is how Wagner’s “cut its teeth” globally. Many of the group’s ongoing contracts involve training foreign armed forces or militias on behalf of the Russian Federation.
7. Belarussian forces may fear possible confrontations with the Wagnerites, which are frequently clashing with local partner forces whenever they operate. Given the close collaboration between the BAL and the Russian military, any escalation of tensions between Wagner and regular units could impact Minsk. In addition, the BAL is likely concerned over potential budgetary and asset competition with Wagner.
8. President Lukashenko may seek to set up Wagner as his own “praetorian guard” to safeguard his regime without depending on Russia. Increased protection from popular uprisings may have been the opportunity Lukashenko saw when he offered Wagner a safe haven in Belarus. As a bonus, Wagner could increase Belarus’ deterrent posture against Poland and Lukashenko’s perceived threat from NATO.
Note: Lukashenko’s appeal to Putin for support in suppressing the 2020-2021 uprising brought Belarus under extensive Russian control- an outcome that Lukashenko has carefully tried to avoid for years.
9. Prigozhin has likely traveled twice to Belarus between 27 June and 1 July 2023 for talks with Lukashenko on Wagner’s upcoming relocation to Belarus. Prigozhin likely uses an Embraer Legacy 600 jet with registration number RA-02975.
His first trip was on 27 June 2023 at 07:37 local time- Prigozhin’s presence in Belarus was confirmed by Lukashenko. RA-02795 flew from Rostov-on-Don and likely landed at Machulishchy airfield. Around the same time, a BaE private jet with reg. no. RA-02878, outbound from St. Petersburg, also landed at Machulishchy airfield at 07:58 am.
Both jets left Belarus at 22:35, with St. Petersburg as their final destination. RA-02878 when straight to St. Petersburg, landing there at midnight. In contrast, RA-02795 made a brief layover in Moscow, from 23:47 (27 June) to 02:00 (28 June), before continuing to St. Petersburg, where it touched down at 02:49 local time.
Prigozhin’s second supposed trip to Belarus, aboard the same RA-02795, was on 1 July 2023 at 07:43 local time. The transponder signal was lost at 08:30 as RA-02795 dropped from 9,14 km to 8,15 km altitude in Belarussian airspace, indicating preparation for landing. This loss of signal may have been deliberate to prevent observers from seeing where the plane exactly lands, although technical reasons cannot be excluded.
RA-02795 returned to Russia at an unspecified date and time. On the morning of 3 July 2023, RA-02795 was already in Russia, flying from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
10. Reliable information has yet to emerge on the legal, financial, and practical aspects of Wagner’s relocation to Belarus. It is unclear if Wagner will operate in a legislative vacuum or if Minsk will establish a legal framework for PMC activity. Similarly, the question arises of who will bear the financial costs of Wagner’s presence in Belarus, although Lukashenko claimed the group will self-finance its stay. Lastly, Minsk needs to devise garrisoning options for the incoming Wagner forces.
11. Wagner is scouting campground locations in Belarus, according to President Lukashenko. In a statement on 27 June, Lukashenko also noted that he offered an abandoned military base where they could “put up tents.”
THE ASIPOVICHY CAMP
12. Satellite imagery analyzed by Radio Svaboda and the New York Times shows signs of construction at an abandoned military base near the village of Tsel, 20 km northwest of Asipovichy in the Mogilev region. Work appears to have started only on 27 June.
Around 300 tents have appeared at the Tsel campground. Such a build-up can accommodate between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters, according to rough estimates. However, some of the tents will likely serve logistical purposes.
The approximate location and the rapid construction of the site identified by Svaboda and NYT align with a previous report from the independent Russian media outlet Vertska published on 26 June. Quoting local sources, Vertska claims Belarussian authorities will establish a camp “near Asipovichy” to house 8,000 Wagnerites. Vertska’s sources said work was in “full swing” after being promptly ordered to begin construction.
The Belarussian MOD owns significant real estate in the Asipovichy area, making it a natural candidate site for a Wagner camp.
13. The construction activity may be linked to Wagner relocation operations but cannot be confirmed pending further evidence. However, the rapid progress may also imply explanations predating the Wagner mutiny. One such reason could be accommodating Russian conscripts undergoing training in Belarus- a theory put forward by Ukrainian military analyst Oleg Zhdanov interviewed by Radio Savobda.
The Hajun Belarussian Monitoring Project reported that field camps might appear in Hrodna, Minsk, and Vitsiebsk regions, although this information remains unconfirmed. Other camps could appear in western Belarus, according to Belarussian telegram chatter. Candidate locations include the Belarussian combined arms training grounds at Gozshky (Grodno oblast), Brest (Brest oblast), and Obuz-Lesnovsky near Baranovichi.
SECURITY IMPLICATIONS FOR NATO AND UKRAINE
14. Wagner’s relocation to Belarus will require Ukraine to pay increased attention to the “northern vector” in fear of a future offensive against Kyiv. The degree of concern regarding Wagner’s presence in Belarus will depend on the size and capabilities of the incoming Wagner fighting forces. Ukrainian Military Intelligence (HUR) is aware that the Wagner deployment to Belarus may also serve to distract Ukraine from the south.
15. The possibility of Wagner launching an attack on northern Ukraine cannot be assessed at this time. Further information on Wagner troop and equipment deployments to Belarus and Prigozhin’s intentions for the future of his enterprise is required to conduct a reliable risk assessment. However, if the current data is to be believed, the threat to Ukraine is relatively low.
One low-probability, high-impact (LP/HI) threatcast considered is that Prigozhin could order a unilateral assault on northern Ukraine to redeem himself in front of the Kremlin. Such a scenario would likely aim to distract Ukrainian forces from the counteroffensive and relieve pressure from the Russian defensive lines in Zaporizhzhia. Belarus will likely discourage this action out of fear of being drawn into the war.
16. Given that the mutineer Wagner force is a non-state entity disavowed and exiled by the Russian Federation, NATO states may enjoy more flexibility in responding to a potential Wagner attack on Ukraine. Such a course of action should be considered more, especially in light of the recent fallout between Prigozhin and his co-conspirators and the Putin regime. In addition, there is a strong precedent, the Battle of Kasham, that could provide a blueprint on how the West can crisis-manage a Wagner attack on a partner country.
Context: In 2018, the U.S. defeated a Wagner assault on the town of Kasham near the Conoco gas fields in eastern Syria. The Conoco oil fields were garrisoned by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the key U.S. ally in the counter-ISIS fight in Syria, and a small contingent of U.S. special operations forces (SOFs).
Wagner took heavy losses, with some estimating that between 14 and 80 Russian contractors died in U.S. air strikes that involved AC-130 gunships, MQ-9 Predator drones, F-15E fighter aircraft, and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. In a Senate hearing on 26 April 2018, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis testified that before opening fire on Wagner, the U.S. Central Command contacted Russian commanders via a Qatar-based deconfliction line and asked them to cease the attack. The Russians claimed the assault force was “not their people.
The first images pertaining to the Battle of Kasham only emerged 13 June 2023, over five years after the incident, on Wagner-linked Telegram channels. The publication of these images were part of the escalating tensions between Wagner and the MOD in June, and likely aimed at casting a bad light on the Russian government for abandoning its proxies when they came under American attack.
17. A Wagner deployment to Belarus will require further NATO defense assistance for Poland and the Baltic states. The Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian foreign ministers have already expressed concern about the threat to security in their region posed by the arrival of the Wagner mutineers to Belarus. In a previous address, they Latvia and Lithuania called for a reassessment of the regional security situation. On 2 July, Poland deployed around 500 police officers, including counter-terror units, to the border with Belarus in response the planned relocation of Wagner mutineers to the neighbouring country. NATO leaders will likely decide on new measures if the mutineers indeed arrive in Belarus, and depending on their order of battle and disposition.
18. Further European Union and U.S. sanctions against the Belarusian government would likely also follow, or preamble, any defense support package of eastern flank NATO members. The U.S. has already designated Wagner a transnational criminal organization on 26 January 2023, and a bipartsian group of lawmakers is pushing to label the group a Foreign Terrorist Organization. These designations, also mulled by some European states, have far reaching consequences for governments that host Wagner.
By Vlad Sutea
Matt Sutherland contributed to this report