Wagner Group in Belarus spells trouble, Eastern Europe’s NATO allies warn

Click to play video: 'Russia rebellion: Could Putin’s response be the window Ukraine needs to mount counteroffensive?'
Russia rebellion: Could Putin’s response be the window Ukraine needs to mount counteroffensive?
WATCH: Global’s Jackson Proskow reports on how Russia’s current turmoil, following a short-lived rebellion from the Wagner mercenaries, might be the window Ukraine needs as it mounts its ongoing counteroffensive – Jun 27, 2023

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is reassuring allies that the alliance will defend “every inch of NATO territory” as Eastern European member countries are raising concerns about the presence of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group in Belarus.

Their comments follow this past weekend’s brief mutiny — a rare challenge to the regime.

Just a day after Stoltenberg called the rebellion by the mercenary group a “demonstration of weakness” in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, he was trying to allay fears by some countries, including Poland and Lithuania.

“We have sent a clear message to Moscow and Minsk that NATO is there to protect every ally,” he said during a press conference Tuesday. “We have already increased our military presence in the eastern part of the alliance and we will make further decisions to further strengthen our collective defence with more high-readiness forces and more capabilities at the upcoming summit.”

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However, despite the reassurance, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda cautioned that the potential deployment of Wagner’s troops in Belarus risked “greater danger of instability” for bordering countries.

“If Wagner deploys its serial killers in Belarus, all neighbouring countries face even greater danger of instability,” he said. “Under such circumstances, deterrence and forward defence is a top priority.”

Germany said Monday that it was ready to station a 4,000-strong army brigade in Lithuania permanently.

Click to play video: 'Russian chaos overshadows Trudeau’s visit to Iceland'
Russian chaos overshadows Trudeau’s visit to Iceland

Polish President Andrzej Duda also expressed concern over Wagner’s presence, warning NATO must work to strengthen its eastern flank. The country recently tightened security at its border with Belarus in response to word that Wagner chief Yegeny Prigozhin would soon reside there.

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“In my opinion, this is really a serious and very concerning problem, and we have discussed it, and we have to make some decisions, very strong decisions. It, in my opinion, requires a very, very, very tough answer (from) NATO,” Duda said.

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed on Tuesday that Prigozhin, as well as other exiled members of the group, were able to reside in Belarus and offered them an abandoned military base to erect their tents.

He had offered refuge to the group after he brokered the deal which helped stop the mutiny that took place over the weekend after a feud erupted between Prigozhin and Russia’s top military brass amid the war in Ukraine. Fighters from the group left the Ukraine front to seize a Russian city and marched seemingly unopposed on the capital, before turning around after less than 24 hours on Saturday.

Preparations are underway for Wagner to hand over its heavy weapons to the Russian military, Prigozhin has said, ahead of a July 1 deadline for his troops to sign contracts to serve under the Russian military’s command.

Russian authorities also announced Tuesday they had closed a criminal investigation into the uprising and are pressing no charges against Prigozhin or his followers after the negotiated deal.

Putin said on Monday that organizers of the mutiny had “lured” other soldiers who participated, but he had allowed it to go on as long as it did to avoid bloodshed. He also confirmed the downing of some Russian planes, paying tribute to the pilots who had died, but did not specify how many had been killed.

Click to play video: 'Wagner mutiny: What really happened and what’s next for Putin’s future?'
Wagner mutiny: What really happened and what’s next for Putin’s future?

The comments by the two presidents and Stoltenberg came during a meeting for a small group of leaders ahead of a meeting of the full NATO alliance set for July 11-12.

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Stoltenberg said that it was too early to make “final conclusions on the long-term consequences” of Wagner for NATO, and that the alliance was closely monitoring developments.

He said that the mutiny in Russia was “internal Russian matters,” but showed the impact that Russia’s war in Ukraine has had.

“Putin’s illegal war against Ukraine has deepened divisions and created new tensions in Russia,” he said. “At the same time, we must not underestimate Russia, so it’s even more important that we continue to provide Ukraine with our support.”

Click to play video: 'Wagner mutiny: World leaders react to “challenging” situation in Russia after short-lived revolt'
Wagner mutiny: World leaders react to “challenging” situation in Russia after short-lived revolt

The mutiny has left governments both friendly and hostile to Russia to look for answers about what could happen next, with U.S. President Joe Biden telling reporters that allies agreed they’d give Putin “no excuse” to blame the weekend’s events on the West.

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“We made it clear that we were not involved. We had nothing to do with it. This is part of a struggle within the Russian system,” he said.

Duda has said he is hopeful the threat posed by Wagner forces would be on the agenda for the July meeting of NATO.

with files from Global News’ Aaron D’Andrea, The Associated Press and Reuters

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