Satellite images analyzed by The Associated Press on Saturday showed what appeared to be a newly built military-style camp in Belarus, with statements from a Belarusian guerrilla group and officials suggesting it may be used to house fighters from the Wagner mercenary group.
The images provided by Planet Labs PLC suggest that dozens of tents were erected within the past two weeks at a former military base outside Osipovichi, a town 230 kilometers (142 miles) north of the Ukrainian border. A satellite photo taken on Jun. 15 shows no sign of the rows of white and green structures that are clearly visible in a later image, dated Jun. 30.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and his fighters escaped prosecution and were offered refuge in Belarus last week after Minsk helped broker a deal to end what appeared to be an armed insurrection by the mercenary group. The abortive revolt saw Wagner troops who had fought alongside Russia forces in Ukraine capture a military headquarters in southern Russia and march hundreds of kilometers (miles) toward Moscow, seemingly unimpeded.
Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, said his country, a close and dependent ally of Moscow, could use Wagner’s experience and expertise, and announced that he had offered the fighters an “abandoned military unit” to set up camp.
Aliaksandr Azarau, leader of the anti-Lukashenko BYPOL guerrilla group of former military members, told The Associated Press by phone on Thursday that construction of a site for Wagner mercenaries was underway near Osipovichi.
Up to 8,000 fighters from Wagner’s private military force may be deployed in Belarus, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s border force told Ukrainian media Saturday. Speaking to the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper, Andriy Demchenko said Ukraine would strengthen its 1,084 kilometer (674 mile) border with Belarus in response.
Lukashenko previously allowed the Kremlin to use Belarusian territory to send troops and weapons into Ukraine. He has also welcomed a continued Russian armed presence in Belarus, including joint military camps and exercises, as well as the deployment of some of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons there.
Demchenko told Ukrainska Pravda on Saturday that as of this week, some 2,000 troops from regular Russian army units remained stationed in Belarus.
At a Friday evening gala marking the Belarusian Independence Day, Lukashenko said that the Belarusian armed forces could benefit from training by Wagner members, and asserted that the mercenaries were “not a threat” to Belarusians.
He also declared that he was “sure” Belarus would not have to use the nuclear weapons deployed to its territory, and would not get directly involved in Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
“The longer we live, the more we are convinced that (nuclear weapons) should be with us, in Belarus, in a safe place. And I am sure that we will never have to use them while we have them, and the enemy shall never set foot on our soil,” Lukashenko said.