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Wagner troops could 'cut off' Baltic states from NATO, warns expert

A man pulls down the fence during clashes with Polish border guards at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.
A man pulls down the fence during clashes with Polish border guards at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. Copyright Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA
Copyright Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA
By Joshua Askew
Published on Updated
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Some NATO states "are naturally worried that... Wagner could cause trouble," he told Euronews. "It's a watch this space moment."

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An expert has told Euronews that Russia's Wagner mercenary group could stage an attack to sever the Baltic states from NATO, though he questioned if such a "suicidal" step would be taken. 

Dr Stephen Hall, lecturer of Russian politics at the University of Bath, suggested the assault may involve a small incursion, akin to a provocative false flag operation, to disguise direct Russian involvement.  

But he was sceptical this was feasible, owing to the immense geopolitical risks and Wagner's military strength. 

"Russia's primary objective has always been to show NATO is just a paper tiger," Hall told Euronews. "By cutting off the Baltics they could highlight the alliance won't come to the aid of its members". 

"This would be a major cataclysm for NATO," he continued, adding if the US-led military alliance did not come to the Baltics' aid in the event of an attack - as it is obligated to do - NATO would be "completely destroyed". 

On Saturday, Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki claimed some Wagner mercenaries had started moving to the Suwalki Gap, a sparsely populated land corridor sandwiched between NATO members Lithuania and Poland to the north and south, and Belarus and Russia's Kaliningrad enclave to the east and west. 

Euronews
The Suwałki Gap.Euronews

He called the move "undoubtedly a step in the direction of a further hybrid attack on Polish territory", alleging mercenaries will "probably dress up as Belarusian border guards and help irregular migrants enter Polish territory" and destabilise the situation.

The Suwalki Gap is immensely strategic since if Russia and Belarus were able to capture the 65km stretch the Baltics - comprising Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - would be isolated, jeopardising NATO's ability to defend the area. 

Hall suggested this choke point was especially vulnerable to a potential assault by Russia's guns for hire, though said such a move was likely not workable. 

"Wagner are relatively well equipped, they're trained, and have the capacity in terms of not just the arms side of things, but also the propaganda," Hall told Euronews. 

But he continued: "Even if Wagner were to punch a hole through the Polish defences and take the Suwalki Gap, then that is a declaration of war."

"Its number of troops is insufficient, in my mind, to hold that territory." 

For Hall, this military reality meant Wagner was likely to stick to hybrid tactics to "try and sow discord and weaken the enemy", such as information warfare, cyber attacks and attempts a destabilisation. 

It is unknown exactly how many Wagner mercenaries are currently in Belarus, though it is estimated to be in the thousands. Polish PM Morawiecki said more than 100 had moved close to their border.  

This is a minuscule amount compared to the 150,000 troops Russia invaded Ukraine with back in February 2022, according to Ukraine's defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov. 

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While an attack by Wagner was "possible", Hall said whether it was "plausible was another matter".  

One thing changing the strategic makeup of the area was Finland's entry into NATO, with Sweden set to join in the near future. This means the Baltics now has a defence bulwark to the northeast and is not as easily "cut off" as before, explained Hall. 

Another factor was, due to the Ukraine war, he believed NATO would not allow the Baltics to be "hung out to dry", suggesting the US could send its armed forces to their aid. 

Wagner mercenaries flocked to Belarus, following their abortive mutiny against Moscow in June. Their presence on the EU's borders has caused concern among Western policymakers, as the group is now training the Belarussian army.   

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Owing to the fact that "Russia's war in Ukraine is not going well", Hall doubted whether Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko "would suddenly decide to allow Wagner to attack Poland".

"It would be suicide." 

Under Article 5 of NATO's treaty, if any member state is attacked it is considered an attack on the entire alliance. In response, all NATO members are obligated to come to their aid, including with military force. 

Hall questioned whether Wagner would help irregular migrants cross into Poland as a form of hybrid warfare, due to Warsaw's beefed-up border security. 

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Instead, he believed Poland and nearby allied states were amplifying the threat posed by Wagner to get extra support from the EU and NATO. 

"Warsaw and Vilnius are naturally worried that Russia, Belarus or Wagner could cause trouble. At the moment, I think it's a watch this space," Hall told Euronews. "Belarus has a history of trying to destabilise its neighbours and clearly so does Russia. 

"Everything is always possible."

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