Shocked by the speed of the Wagner revolt, Russia’s neighbors want to beef up NATO’s eastern flank

German soldiers take part in the bilateral Lithuanian-German military exercise “Griffin Storm” at the General Silvestras Zukauskas Training Area in Pabrade, Lithuania on June 26, 2023.
Petras Malukas | Afp | Getty Images

The fallout of the Wagner Group’s short-lived armed rebellion has raised the alarm among Europe’s Baltic countries.

A weekend of chaos posed what many regard as the greatest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s authority in his more than two decades in power.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the notorious boss of the Wagner private mercenary group, launched an apparent insurrection on Saturday, sending an armored convoy toward the Russian capital.

The 24-hour revolt was abruptly called off, however, in a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Prigozhin agreed to de-escalate the situation and ordered his fighters advancing on Moscow to return to their bases.

Speaking alongside his counterparts from Latvia and Estonia on Tuesday, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the speed of the Wagner uprising underscored the strategic importance of strengthening NATO’s eastern flank.

“I think apart from showing the reality of the political instability in Russia, they showed also an additional factor of how fast can detachments within Russia mobilize and move within its territory,” Landsbergis said at a news conference in Paris.

“Our countries’ borders, all three of ours, are just hundreds of kilometers away from the activity, meaning that it would take for them eight to 10 hours to suddenly appear somewhere in Belarus, somewhere close to Lithuania, somewhere close to Estonian border … and that gives you an idea how we [view] this situation.”

Germany has offered to send around 4,000 troops to Lithuania on a permanent basis to bolster NATO’s eastern flank.
Petras Malukas | Afp | Getty Images

Landsbergis warned that Russia’s political crisis was “creating a more volatile and more unpredictable environment” in the Baltic region. “Therefore, our request has always been, we need to take the defense and also the deterrence of the Baltic region very seriously.”

Germany on Monday offered to send around 4,000 troops to Lithuania on a permanent basis to bolster NATO’s eastern flank, an announcement that has since been welcomed by lawmakers in Vilnius.

Ahead of a NATO summit to be held in the Lithuanian capital on July 11-12, Landsbergis said Germany’s offer to permanently station troops in the country does not mean other areas should be taken lightly.

Standing alongside French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, Landsbergis said the French government could be an “invaluable partner” in strengthening the air defense capabilities of the Baltic countries.

Sabotage activities from Belarus ‘cannot be excluded’

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who on Monday met with Lithuanian and German troops training together in Pabrade, Lithuania, reiterated that the military alliance stands ready “to defend every inch of Allied territory.”

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year had already fueled concerns about the regional security of the Baltic region. That’s because, despite being member states of both NATO and the European Union, the geographic location of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania makes them vulnerable.

Like Ukraine, they all share a border with Russia. Notably, Latvia and Lithuania also share a southern border with Belarus, an ally of Russia in the Kremlin’s war with Ukraine.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who on Monday met with Lithuanian and German troops training together in Pabrade, Lithuania, has reiterated that the military alliance stands ready “to defend every inch of Allied territory.”
Picture Alliance | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

A jet linked to Wagner’s Prigozhin, a former ally of Russia’s longtime president and a man known as “Putin’s chef,” was reported to have arrived in Belarus from Russia on Tuesday. It was not immediately clear whether the mercenary boss was on board, however.

Mario Bikarski and Federica Reccia, Russia and Ukraine analysts at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told CNBC that Prigozhin’s role in Belarus was unlikely to pose a direct threat to NATO members.

“However, given the use of hybrid warfare techniques by Prigozhin and the Wagner group in the past – including meddling in US presidential elections – the coordination of subversive and sabotage activities from the territory of Belarus cannot be excluded,” they said.

A spokesperson for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry was not immediately available to comment.

Regional security concerns

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics described the Wagner rebellion as an example of “one evil fighting another evil.”

“We need time to assess how this is going to impact the internal situation in Russia but also how this is going to impact regional security,” Rinkevics said Tuesday.

The minster added that Latvia’s government had listened “very carefully” to Putin’s defiant address on Monday evening, the Russian president’s first remarks since the Wagner Group’s attempted revolt.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with the country’s top security officials, including Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (3L), in Moscow on June 26, 2023. 
Gavriil Grigorov | AFP | Getty Images

Putin’s suggestion that Wagner fighters could move safely to Belarus was another regional security issue that must be taken seriously, Rinkevics said.

In a separate statement to CNBC, a spokesperson for Latvia’s Foreign Ministry said the government was closely following internal developments within Russia.

“The recent instability is an internal matter of Russia and the result of the policies and decisions of [Vladimir] Putin and his ruling elites. But it makes Russia increasingly unpredictable, and Latvia as a neighbouring country must stay vigilant,” the spokesperson said.

They added that confirmation of the presence of the Wagner Group in Belarus would constitute an additional argument to “significantly strengthen” sanctions against the Lukashenko regime and to reinforce the security of the EU and NATO member states bordering Belarus and Russia.

“The last days and week were really interesting,” Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna said Tuesday.

“Be honest as well, Putin is responsible for that because he started the aggression against Ukraine,” Tsahkna said, adding that the priority was to “stand together” and focus on supporting Kyiv.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry was not immediately available to comment when contacted by CNBC.