Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Wagner in Belarus: Making sense of rearranged pieces

Wagner chief Prigozhin arrives in Belarus

Russia’s saviour Vladimir Putin has gone to length to describe the “Wagner coup” as a real one. 

Within hours of Wagner Group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin arriving in Belarus after aborting his march to Moscow while only 200km away, Putin was again addressing his citizens and hailing the “fallen pilots” for having saved the nation from the “mutineers.”

It ran cross to my analysis that it was a staged event since you don’t march for that long in the open without a reprisal; without a fallout in frontlines; without mutiny amongst fellow Russian officers; without food and other supplies; etc, etc. 

If pilots have died, it certainly wasn’t staged but who has seen the falling debris, dismembered bodies, wailing families, heart-wrenching funerals? Or Putin attending such funerals as is his wont?

An explanation has emerged that Wagner’s convoys carried a mobile Pantsir-1 air defense system: Helicopters and plane which came within its range met their dreaded fate. 

Now this itself would stretch credulity for why would Wagner have its own air-defense system when Russia, like others, have an integrated command structure and any force within can’t take its own call on such a critical piece of weaponry? 

Even if one presumes that Pantsir-1 anti-aircraft missile system was passed on between units in the thick of battle or Wagner might have acquired it during their operations in Syria, it still is a stretch since for many hours the internal security forces, the police and military, the border guards etc didn’t twitch an eyebrow. And then within hours a three-way deal was struck between Belarus, Russia and Wagner while the convoys were on move!

Be that as it may, Prigozhin and Wagner are in Belarus which is a Russian gambit West and NATO are terrified with. 

Belarus has had reasons to worry Poland, a NATO member, flanking its western wing as Ukraine is a threat to its underbelly in south. It shares a long 700-km border with Russia in east which can’t afford its lesser neighbour to fall into the “hands” of West. It’s close to Kiev, and was used as base by Russian troops to launch attacks on the Ukrainian capital in the beginning of their Special Military Operation (SMO). Not to say that to reach Kaliningrad, an isolated Russian territory on the Baltic Sea, Belarus is the shortest route for Russia. 

Besides the historical links, Belarus’ president Aleksandr Lukashenko is obligated to Putin on thwarting an opposition movement and its bid to topple him in 2020. Western sanctions pushed Belarus further into the arms of Russia who was generous with its money and energy resources. Belarus is lawfully bound to host Russian troops and weapons: And now Russia has stationed tactical nuclear weapons on its soil. 

So clearly Belarus is critical if the Russia-Ukraine conflict was to spin out of control. Wagner’s presence there now would force NATO and Ukrainian forces to rearrange their pieces on the geo-military chessboard. Wagner remains a formidable military presence, hardened like few armies are for its involvement for years in Libya, Syria, Central African Republic and Ukraine. Perched now within handshaking distance from Kiev, it’s a mortal threat to the Zelensky regime. Not to forget it secures Russia’s western borders; a call away if Russia in the guise of Belarus was to use them in West Asia or Africa. And yes it’s a security to any threat emanating on freshly supplied tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.

So Prighozin now has a deal with Belarus like it had with Russia: Already some 8,000 of Wagner soldiers are embedding themselves in the Belarusian setup and camps are said to being built for them in the Mogilev region, some 400-odd km from Kiev (see map below).

So make what you must on the “coup”; on the “mutineers” and “betrayers” like Prigozhin, things as they stand today—Wagner in Belarus without any criminal charges on their heads; Belarus beefed; Russian intelligence in the process of identifying Ukrainian sleeper cells within its fold; Putin stronger than ever—these events have largely been in Russia’s favour. 

Staged or real, the “coup” has worked with clockwork precision.

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