With Wagner in Belarus, Baltic states call for NATO to increase security
PHOTO CAPTION: Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to base, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - Latvia and Lithuania called on Tuesday for NATO to strengthen its eastern borders in response to expectations that Russia's Wagner private will set up a new base in Belarus after its abortive mutiny at home.
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin arrived in Belarus on Tuesday under a deal negotiated by President Alexander Lukashenko that ended the mercenaries' mutiny in Russia on Saturday. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wagner's fighters would be offered the choice of relocating there.
"This move needs to be assessed from a different security point of view. We have seen the capabilities of those mercenaries," Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told reporters during a visit to Paris with Baltic counterparts.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the speed with which Wagner had advanced on Moscow - driving hundreds of kilometres in a one-day race towards the capital - showed that the defence of Baltic states should be firmed up.
"Our countries' borders are just hundreds of kilometres from that activity so it could take them 8-10 hours to suddenly appear somewhere in Belarus close to Lithuania," Landsbergis said. "It is creating a more volatile, unpredictable environment for our region."
"We need to take the defence of the Baltic region very seriously," he said.
The Baltic envoys' visit to France comes as Western powers gear up for a NATO summit next month in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Wagner's arrival in Belarus should be viewed "in light of the NATO summit and all discussions that we are having about defence, deterrence and the necessary decisions to strengthen the security of the eastern flank," said Latvia's Rinkevics.
Belarus borders NATO members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Germany said on Monday it was ready to station a 4,000-strong army brigade in Lithuania permanently. Landsbergis told his French counterpart that Paris could help with air defences.
"France can be a valuable partner in strengthening air defence capabilities of Baltic countries," he said. "We know about French technology and it could be used as part of our deterrence strategy so that no Wagner, no Russian military would ever think to cross Baltic states' borders."
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Peter Graff)