Belarus Remains a Persistent Vector of Russia’s Hybrid Campaign Against the West

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 131

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (Source: i24 News)

Since mid-July 2023, as a result of the agreement reached after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny, Russia has begun to relocate Wagner Group mercenaries to Belarusian territory, raising well-reasoned concerns in the neighboring states. On August 1, Poland faced yet another provocation in which two Belarusian helicopters violated its airspace (Notes From Poland, August 2). In this, it seems that Belarus is becoming a permanent vector of Russian interference against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members on the alliance’s eastern flank.

The Kremlin’s military pressure via Belarus on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe dates as far back as 2009, when, as part of the joint Belarusian-Russian Zapad exercises, a simulated nuclear attack on Warsaw was carried out, presumably to discourage the Polish authorities from housing a US missile defense shield on its soil. These joint activities gained a new quality in 2021 when the countries seemingly initiated an artificial migration crisis on the EU-Belarusian border (see EDM November 11, 2021). Since then, the weaponization of migration has been a constant element of hybrid pressure.

Most recently, this hybrid interference has been supplemented by the appearance of the Wagner mercenaries in Belarus. Currently, the number of Wagnerites in Belarus does not exceed 5,000, and they are being relocated without heavy weaponry (Ukrainska Pravda, July 28). However, this fact only somewhat minimizes the threat, because, if needed, they can be equipped with Belarusian weaponry as well as Russian equipment already relocated to Belarus. At present, Wagner forces are engaged in training activities, though their presence may serve multiple purposes. Certainly, their deployment just north of Kyiv ties down a part of the Ukrainian forces, which must be prepared to repel possible raids. In this, the extensive marshlands of the Pripyat dike make light infantry the only possible means of offensive action along a large part of the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.

The Wagnerites are also likely to become a useful tool in Russia’s hybrid campaign against NATO’s eastern frontier. While this threat should not be underestimated, it is also important to be aware of its true nature so the capabilities of these mercenaries are not overestimated. Seemingly, the Wagner Group’s presence in Belarus is part of a psychological operation (psy-ops) designed to influence European societies and decision-makers. It aims to sustain public anxieties by creating a feeling of insecurity, which in turn intends to minimize support for anti-Russian policies, lower confidence in those in power and introduce new levels of polarization. On August 14, the Polish Internal Security Agency detained two Russians who were reportedly engaged in Wagner-related psy-ops on behalf of Russia’s special services (, August 14).

Overall, Moscow has created a narrative according to which Wagner units are described as outlaws disloyal to the Kremlin, which enables the Russian authorities to deny any responsibility for their actions. In this context, the statement by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, that “any attacks by the Wagner Group will be seen as an attack by the Russian government” (, July 31) has become an important counter-narrative and a key element of allied strategic communications. Moreover, the United States security umbrella over NATO’s eastern members is an essential part of building their resilience. On August 3, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda declared similar sentiments (, August 3).

As early as July 23, during his visit to St. Petersburg, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka suggested, in a scripted manner, that members of the Wagner Group were asking for permission to “go on an excursion to Warsaw and Rzeszow” in Poland (, July 23). A few days later, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that a group of “around 100 mercenaries had been deployed in Grodno near the so-called Suwałki Gap” ( July 29). This statement was immediately incorporated into the domestic political struggle as a part of the ongoing pre-election campaign in Poland, which has negatively affected the state’s resilience by creating yet another line of social polarization. (See, July 30;, August 3.) The threat is perceived the same way in Latvia and Lithuania, but the debate there is ongoing in a more moderate way (, August 3).

While the Wagner mercenaries do not pose a conventional threat to the security of the eastern flank, it is likely that they would carry out hybrid activities below the threshold of war, including sabotage activities, incidents involving live fire along the border, initiating border crossings with crowds of illegal migrants, as well as training migrants for combat. In the early stages of countering such threats, clear strategic communication is essential, which the General Command of the Polish Armed Forces has already begun to do at a basic level by reporting on sniper patrols and soldiers equipped with Man-Portable Air Defense Systems near the border with Belarus (, July 28). Nausėda and Morawiecki, who met in Suwałki on August 3 to discuss security issues, even threatened to “cut off Belarus” completely and close the land borders (, August 3). It seems, however, that such a strong response is a last resort. Effective deterrence, ultimately, requires presenting clear red lines and threatening consequences in the event that they are indeed crossed. It also requires ironclad determination to follow through on those threats.

Earlier, on August 1, the hybrid campaign against Poland was elevated to a new dimension. Two Belarusian Mi8 and Mi24 armed helicopters performed a low-level flight into Polish airspace for a few minutes and ventured about 3 kilometers inward flying over the town of Białowieża. The helicopters were operating near the border in connection with exercises that Minsk had already notified Warsaw about. Despite numerous photos taken and disseminated by civilians, the Polish Ministry of Defense did not confirm the incident until late in the evening. The opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that border guards and soldiers were fully aware of the fact that Belarusian helicopters had validated Poland’s airspace (, August 4). Thus, early denials about the penetration of Polish airspace have given rise to criticism of the misguided communication strategy of the authorities in Warsaw (, August 3).

The incident provoked sharp diplomatic reactions from both sides. Marcin Wojciechowski, the Polish charge d’affaires to Belarus, was summoned by the Belarusian Foreign Ministry and informed that “the violation of Polish airspace … was not confirmed by the results of a comprehensive check conducted by the Belarusian side” (, August 2). Minsk, instead, accused Warsaw of its own provocations. Nevertheless, information unveiled by the Belarusian Hajun project suggests that the Belarusian authorities were well aware of the entry into foreign airspace (, August 2). On August 8, Belarus launched additional drills near the Suwałki Gap, which only intensified the pressure on NATO’s eastern flank (, August 8). The Polish Ministry of Defense reacted by deploying a few thousand troops along the border with Belarus (, August 12).

In the coming months, the hybrid campaign of Belarus and Russia is likely to intensify and take on new qualities. Its effective repulsion will require advance preparation of a spectrum of potential responses, which must be agreed on within NATO. In truth, deterrence by denial may need to be replaced by deterrence by punishment, as was suggested in November 2021 (see EDM November 11, 2021). Such an approach may be the most effective in deterring Minsk and Moscow’s hybrid strategy. In truth, however, the arguments of those who advocate a hawkish policy are just as valid as those who call for a proportionate response to provocations.