Russian president reacts angrily after Polish defence minister sends troops to guard eastern border
By Andrew Roth
Poland’s defence minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, centre, with the US ambassador, Mark Brezinski, left, and Maj Gen Adam Joks, observe joint US-Polish training exercises on Friday Photograph: Marcin Bielecki/EPA
Vladimir Putin has said Russia will use “all means at its disposal” to defend Belarus after Poland and other EU countries voiced concerns about the deployment of Russian paramilitaries near their borders.
Putin delivered a series of aggressive remarks during a meeting of his security council, where he claimed without evidence that Poland was seeking to invade Belarus, a Russian ally, and that their elites were “dreaming of Belarusian lands”. Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group have begun holding training sessions for Belarusian troops at the Bretsky training centre in western Belarus, about six miles (10km) from a border crossing with Poland.
Poles near the border say they have heard gunshots and helicopters, Reuters reported this week.
Wagner fighters began arriving in Belarus in large numbers last week after their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, struck a deal with the Kremlin to end a short-lived mutiny in which he sent his heavily armed fighters on a “march of justice” toward Moscow.
On Friday, Poland’s security committee said it would move troops toward the east in response to the Wagner group’s new presence in neighbouring Belarus. The independent Belarusian Hajun project estimated that about 2,500 Wagner mercenaries had arrived in the country, many from bases in Ukraine.
“Training or joint exercises of the Belarusian army and the Wagner group is undoubtedly a provocation,” Zbigniew Hoffmanna security official, told the Polish state news agency PAP, according to a Reuters translation.
“The committee analysed possible threats, such as the dislocation of Wagner group units. Therefore, the minister of national defence, chairman of the committee, Mariusz Błaszczak, decided to move our military formations from the west to the east of Poland.”
Poland earlier this month said it would send up to 1,000 troops to defend the eastern borders of the country.
In Moscow, Putin launched an angry invective in response, claiming without evidence that Poland was seeking to annex territories in Belarus.
“Unleashing aggression against Belarus would mean aggression against the Russian Federation,” Putin said, according to the Kremlin. “And we will respond to it using all means at our disposal.”
He similarly said without evidence that Poland would seek to annex territories in Ukraine.
“The western territories of present-day Poland are a gift from Stalin to the Poles, have our friends in Warsaw forgotten about this?” Putin said. “We will remind you.” Russia has used similar threats of pre-emptive strikes to justify military action in the past, including its invasion of Ukraine. But there are no signs of a direct clash between Poland and Belarus or Poland and Russia at present.
The arrival of the Wagner mercenaries in Belarus appears to be a temporary measure as the Kremlin tries to manage the fallout from last month’s brief mutiny. William Burns, the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, said at the Aspen Security Forum that Putin was still buying time while he decided what to do with Prigozhin and his mercenary army.
“What we are seeing is a very complicated dance,” Burns said. But Putin could ultimately decide to take revenge on Prigozhin and kill him, he added.
“In my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback, so I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution,” he said.
“If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my food taster.”
Russia has reportedly detained a number of military officers suspected of having advance knowledge of the mutiny, including Sergei Surovikin, the head of Russia’s aerospace forces and an ally of Prigozhin’s. On Friday, investigators also arrested Igor Girkin, a former battlefield commander of irregular Russian proxy forces in Ukraine. He had condemned Putin for his mismanagement of the war in Ukraine.
Video surfaced earlier this week of Prigozhin welcoming Russian mercenaries to Belarus, saying they would stay there “for some time” to train before focusing their efforts on Africa, where they have been contracted by a number of governments to fight in local conflicts or protect valuable assets.
He again accused Russia’s military of mismanaging the invasion of Ukraine and said his troops could return to the front in the future.
“What is happening at the front now is a disgrace in which we do not need to participate,” he said. “[We will] wait for the moment when we can prove ourselves in full.”
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